May 22, 2024

Planning Board Postpones Special Jugtown Meeting

By Anne Levin

Now that the May 23 special meeting of the Princeton Planning Board devoted to the proposal for a 15-unit apartment building in the Jugtown Historic District has been postponed, residents who oppose the plan and the developer in favor of it will have to wait until a future meeting is scheduled before a final decision on the project is reached.

The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) spent two nights last week, May 13 and 14, listening to testimony from both sides of the issue, ultimately recommending that the Planning Board turn down the proposal as presented. The developer, 344 Nassau LLC, has proposed to build an attachment to the rear of the 18th-century Joseph Hornor House at 344 Nassau Street, which was recently recognized by Preservation New Jersey as one of the 10 most endangered historic buildings in New Jersey. The project would include three units that are designated as affordable.

The Hornor House is one of four buildings at that intersection with Harrison Street that are considered to be historically significant. The issue of significance was the focus of many objections to the proposal. Author and historian Clifford Zink, a Jugtown resident and one of several people to deliver prepared remarks, said that the proposal goes against the town’s historic preservation ordinance because of its height, width, the size of the windows. The size and mass of the four-story addition “is the opposite of a backdrop, which is what is called for” in the ordinance, he said.

Historian Mark Alan Hewitt said the house is unique, with important features both inside and out. “This historic house is not just any historic house,” he said. “It is one of the oldest houses in Princeton, and it is an old house in Princeton with really significant integrity.”

The developer’s application to demolish part of the rear of the 1985 addition to the house, in order to connect the old part to the new, was rejected by the HPC. The new section would be more than 44 feet tall; the Hornor House is 29 feet tall. While project architect Marina Rubina described architectural features that would relate to those of the existing house, others suggested the new building would tower over the old, and the large, new windows would be out of character. Rubina said that because of the addition, 68 percent of the house is not historic.

Speaking in favor of the proposal, architectural historian Robert Wise defended the design and said it works well at its location. “It will impact the historic district. There is no doubt about it,” he said. “But I think it is appropriate, even though it is larger [than the historic house].”

Planner David Kinsey disagreed, saying the addition would not be compatible with the Hornor House and other buildings in the Jugtown Historic District. Among the many concerns shared by residents of the district during the public comment portion of the second meeting were increased traffic at an already dangerous intersection, the mass of the proposed building, and the impact on the neighborhood.

“The best way to reduce the perceived mass of the building is to reduce it and not shoehorn an elephant into a bathtub,” said James Bash. “The applicant should look to the 1985 addition to respect it and do it right.”

Some of the testimony was emotional. Resident Caryl Kuser said the term “view shed,” which had been introduced earlier by Hewitt, was particularly meaningful to her. “I didn’t know there was a term for it,” she said. “But when I drive from Kingston and approach that corner from even a half mile away, I feel a change in my breathing. That is what these historic buildings do. What I would love is to not have that gut-wrenching feeling of that house not being free-standing anymore. Because that’s what gives [me] a deep breath when we approach that corner.”

Others urged the developer to find another site for the project, suggesting the lots behind the Bank of America or Whole Earth Center as more appropriate possibilities.

Before voting, HPC members offered their views. David Schure said the proposal was a “great idea, wrong place.” He added that the impact on the district would be “a very high price to pay for three affordable units.”

Elric Endersby, who had presented a detailed account of the Hornor House’s historical significance during the first meeting, said the proposed project would harm the existing architectural details of the building. “This is an effort which was made at a time which was very elemental, and not of them seems to be reflected in what you’ve come up with as an addition,” he said, referring to the development team.