June 8, 2022

Community Inputs Into Redevelopment of TRW Property Must Be Public, Transparent

To the Editor:

In the recent Town Topics article about the redevelopment of the Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) properties on the Tennent-Roberts-Whiteley (TRW) campus [“Neighbors of Seminary Raise Concerns About Demolition of Buildings, June 1, page 1], the presumptive purchaser and developer of the property, Jamie Herring, spoke about listening to the community before presenting his redevelopment plans for the property, which is currently designated as an Area in Need of Redevelopment (ANR) under state law.  New Jersey law requires that that an ANR-designated property be redeveloped with community input.

From the beginning, the Princeton Coalition for Responsible Development (PCRD) has advocated for a transparent and inclusive process regarding the redevelopment of these important and historic properties, a process that incorporates meaningful input from all stakeholders.  So, too, does the Princeton Council, which wrote in October 2021, “any redevelopment of the [PTS property] must be the result of a collaborative effort between the Contract Purchaser, [PCRD], the neighborhood, and [PTS] as appropriate.”

Thus, PCRD applauds any proposal to bring various parties together to engage in these critical discussions.

We are, however, concerned about the process Mr. Herring has outlined.  Under the ANR statutory framework, it is the town, not the property owner or the developer, that has responsibility for establishing and approving a redevelopment plan that is in the public interest and thus appropriate for the ANR-designated properties.  Therefore, it is the town, not Mr. Herring, that should run the process for soliciting community input, a process that should be public, transparent, objective, and meaningful.

There is precedent for this role to be played by the town regarding the TRW properties. In 2018, the municipality retained LRK, Inc. to run a process, led by Jim Constantine, to solicit community input on the redevelopment of TRW. While there were some flaws with that 2018 process, flaws that should be addressed this time around, it still serves as a useful precedent and template for how the process should be conducted at present to ensure collaborative decision-making.

PCRD and neighbors who will be most affected by the redevelopment have reached out to Mr. Herring repeatedly, but he has not responded.  We do not question his right to hold focus group sessions, but privately-arranged, non-transparent, anonymous focus groups have a “fox guarding the henhouse” feel.  Mr. Herring will be paying the firm conducting the focus groups, and they may tell him what he wants to hear. In addition, if Mr. Herring hears something that he finds inconsistent with his plans, he will be under no obligation to convey that to the public or to Princeton Council, who are the real decision-makers in this process. We are not disparaging Mr. Herring, simply outlining the significant shortcomings of his proposal.

When the Municipality of Princeton created the ANR for the TRW campus, it assumed the responsibility for determining the right redevelopment plan for the property.  As a corollary, it is the municipality, not Mr. Herring or PTS, that should be driving the process, conducting the small group and larger community meetings to solicit the inputs that will ultimately result in the redevelopment plan.

Brad Middlekauff
Hibben Road