March 27, 2024

New Construction in Town Historic Districts Should Comply with Preservation Standards

To the Editor:

Princeton has a unique sense of place, and amidst the current wave of new housing and commercial development, let’s ensure that new buildings in historic districts meet the goal in the 2014 Historic Preservation Ordinance to “preserve, enhance, and safeguard the heritage of Princeton by preserving the resources in the community that reflect elements of its historic significance.”

The HP Ordinance specifies maintaining and developing “harmonious settings within historic sites and historic preservation districts,” and managing change in them by “encouraging sensitive alteration and/or new construction.” An addition to a historic structure must be “visually compatible with the structures and places within the district to which it is visually related, and act as a backdrop to and not visually intrude upon such structures and places.” Height, size, mass, roof shape, windows, etc., “shall be visually compatible with structures and places within the district to which they are visually related.”

The application currently at the Historic Preservation Commission for a four-story, 15-unit addition, including three affordable units, on the ca. 1760 Joseph Hornor House at 344 Nassau Street does not meet the preservation criteria in its scale and design. The 1986 Jugtown Historic District Nomination describes the Hornor House as “the single most pivotal and important building at the Jugtown Crossroads.” Construction of the addition as proposed would ignore historic preservation guidelines, impair the significance of the building and the Jugtown Historic District, and set a negative precedent for new construction in Princeton historic districts.

The Historic Preservation Commission should reject the design as proposed and recommend a resubmission that complies fully with Historic Preservation Ordinance standards by reducing the addition in scale to three stories with a maximum of 35 feet high, and designing it with visually compatible façades. A three-story addition could still have 15 units with three affordable. The third floor units would not have bedrooms on the fourth floor as in the current four-story plan, and being smaller they would be more affordable. For safety at the crowded intersection, the addition should also be appropriately set back from North Harrison Street.   

The addition as currently proposed results from the Affordable Housing Overlay Ordinance, passed in 2020 during the pandemic, that did not take into consideration the Jugtown Historic District and the Historic Preservation Ordinance. Neighbors and residents did not receive notice of the overlay, and therefore could not raise the preservation issues, but are working to have the overlay adjusted in the upcoming 2025 round of affordable housing to recognize the Jugtown Historic District and comply with preservation standards.   

The Historic Preservation Commission will hear the current proposal for 344 Nassau Street at its in-person meeting on April 15 at 4 p.m. at Town Hall. If you believe that new construction in Princeton historic districts should comply with existing preservation standards, attend the meeting and make your voice heard. Now is the time to get new construction right in our historic districts to preserve Princeton’s unique heritage. 

Clifford W. Zink
Aiken Avenue