May 10, 2023

Community Roundtable on Seminary Site Attracts More Than Just the Neighborhood

By Anne Levin

At a Community Roundtable held by the municipality to discuss the redevelopment of a tract that formerly included Princeton Theological Seminary housing and administrative offices, it became clear that the future of the five-acre site is of concern not only to residents of the surrounding neighborhood, but to those living in other areas of Princeton as well.

Some 80 people attended the gathering about the former Tennent-Roberts-Whiteley campus at Witherspoon Hall on Saturday morning, May 6. Several spoke in favor of affordable housing on the site, with many who live near the property requesting that the architecture of the neighborhood, which includes many historic buildings, be respected in the process.

Referred to as the “contract purchaser,” Princeton-based developer Jamie Herring was present at the meeting, but did not speak.

Princeton Council President Mia Sacks opened the gathering, saying the governing body is committed to bringing aredevelopment plan forward by the end of this year. “We’re aware of the tremendous toll this has taken on immediate neighbors who live adjacent to the site and don’t know what is going to happen,” she said. “We’re going to try to be very clear about what everyone’s roles and rights are, and the time frame.”

This was the second Community Roundtable held by the town about redevelopment of the site. The Princeton Coalition for Responsible Development (PCRD), made up mostly of neighbors of the property, also held a meeting this month. Members of the PCRD have met with Herring and are hoping to hear specifics from him soon about his development plans. Herring has said in the past that he was considering construction of apartments or condominiums, a portion of which would be affordable housing.

“A lot of progress has been made,” Sacks said of those meetings. Maximizing green spaces, minimizing traffic circulation, sensitivity to the historic status of the neighborhood, insuring whatever is built reflects its history, and restoring the site as a gateway into Princeton are among the priorities.

Sacks referred to “the D-word” — density, as “a possible parting of the ways.” The density of what is built on the property is the biggest challenge. “Density is the thing that fuels all those nice things we want to see on the site,” she said.

Redevelopment planner Jim Kyle and attorney Steve Mlenak spoke about projects that have been built or are about to be built, with densities that ranged from about 20 units to 86 units per acre. Neither was specific about how much density is being targeted for the site.

Among those speaking was Hazlet Avenue resident Felicia Spitz, who chairs the Princeton Housing Authority. She urged her neighbors who might oppose housing on the site to be compassionate.

“Affordable housing is not just for workers,” she said. “It’s not just the person who served you in a restaurant. It’s a lot of people who have college degrees and families. So, as you think about this, think about the people who you’re keeping out. We need all of those people to keep Princeton the wonderful, vibrant town it is.”

Linda Oppenheim, who lives on South Harrison Street, said she wants more affordable housing “in every area of Princeton where it makes sense. I read that over a half million people in this country are unhoused. Princeton has a lovely reputation as being a liberal and progressive community. This is the moment. This is the time when we live up to our reputation.”

Jane McClenahan, who lives on the corner of Edgehill Street and Mercer Street and is a member of the PCRD, said no one in the organization opposes affordable housing. Living near the Seminary and Princeton University’s graduate school, “we feel we are living in the midst of affordable housing,” she said. “We have been characterized as old and affluent, but our neighborhood is quite diverse, and we welcome that.”

Architect Anne Weber, who lives on Stockton Street, said the issue is scale. “I think the issue of density relates to scale,” she said. “I know we can create density with an appropriate scale for the community on this site, but it is not easy.” A “big box stuck down on that site” would be easier, but “is not something anybody would be happy with, except the residents who would look out rather than looking in from the outside,” she said.

Longtime Shady Brook Lane resident Andrew Gomory reflected on the amount of change he has witnessed in the more than four decades he has lived in Princeton. “But the one thing we haven’t done is build housing,” he said. “When teachers, police, and others who work in this town can also live in this town, the town is going to be enriched.”

Sacks said the next step is for the municipality to begin meeting on a regular basis with Herring, “to understand what he has in mind.”