Princeton Theological Seminary in need of redevelopment? Yes, and it could be win-win

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An “Area in Need of Redevelopment.” The phrase brings to mind derelict factories, shuttered stores and abandoned homes, or empty harbors dotted with rotting piers.

But the Princeton Theological Seminary?

“Isn’t that something you do down by the railroad yards?” That’s what seminary executive vice president Shane Berg recalls thinking when he approached Princeton officials in 2017 about the school’s plan to simultaneously downsize and renovate its campus, and they suggested granting the site that official designation.

Berg was alerting the municipality to the fact that “we were going to sell our campus in West Windsor, get all our students onto one campus [in Princeton], and we’re going to get a lot smaller.” This, he says, comes after a realistic look at declining seminary enrollments nationwide.

Proponents of the New Jersey statutes governing what is officially known as “Non-Condemnation Area in Need of Redevelopment” say these provide a welcome alternative to the cumbersome process of granting multitudinous zoning variances. And such an area may also include noncontiguous parcels — crucially important here for a particular seminary property at Stockton Street and Hibben Road.

And, they say, the process itself provides win-win opportunities for communication and cooperation between the seminary as developer, the municipality and the overall community. This could boost efforts to address issues (notably traffic flow and safety, and the appearance of the town’s “gateways”) affecting Princeton at large.

The seminary’s plan to downsize and consolidate its West Windsor facilities to its main campus has triggered a re-examination of how it relates to its residential neighbors on Hibben, Edgehill, and Library Place.

The seminary’s proposal has been discussed at public meetings of a Princeton municipal ad hoc committee and at charrette sessions (at which interested parties, including the public, discuss plans, ask questions, offer feedback, and resolve issues). While a number of residents are now satisfied, there is still skepticism and even opposition from other quarters.

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The Princeton Theological Seminary was founded in 1812 to school ministers for the Presbyterian Church. Its historic campus is today bounded by Mercer and Alexander streets and College Road. In 1843 it made a major advance across Mercer Street to construct the book and manuscript repository that gave Library Place its name. (The abundantly growing collection necessitated a larger replacement in 1956, followed by the even more expansive “New Library,” which opened in 2013.)

Berg says that the famed post-World War II baby boom significantly increased America’s worship populations. “Protestant churches were expanding,” he says. “They needed ministers.” But it proved to be a demographic bubble that lasted about 40 years. “As the Baby Boomers retire, and there are all kinds of changes on the religious landscape, it makes more sense for us to be smaller and better.”

These demographics are well known to other religious institutions, not just the Protestant churches. A notable local example involves St. Joseph’s Seminary near Kingston. Starting in 1914 it instructed young men in the Catholic priesthood. But declining admission led to the school’s 1992 closing and, starting in 2009, the new use of the 87-acre campus by various private schools and foundations.

The official designation of “area in need of redevelopment” allows the municipality to hire a planner to evaluate and facilitate the process. Last September Jim Constantine, a principal with the firm of Looney Ricks Kiss, produced a major preliminary report on the seminary’s plans.

“The area designation was not an endorsement of any plan the Seminary was developing,” Constantine emphasizes, adding that the Princeton municipal council believes “that community input was crucial in this case. This is a collaborative process to some degree.”

The community connection has continued with open meetings of an ad hoc committee on the seminary project, at which Constantine has been appearing along with seminary executive vice president Berg, and representatives of Philadelphia architectural design firm EwingCole. The committee, until recently chaired by Planning Board vice chair Gail Ullman, is now helmed by councilman David E. Cohen.

Cohen believes that the redevelopment designation gives the municipality more control over the outcome in terms of design quality and addressing community priorities. The Seminary gets to “front-load” the approval process, developing its concept with community input from the start, rather than returning to the drawing board repeatedly during the formal municipal review.

“It is a very intensive process,” says Cohen, “but I consider that an investment which will pay dividends for all parties for decades into the future.”

Constantine says that although Princeton is filled with educational institutions of almost every size and type, public and private, the challenges of the proposed redevelopment of the Theological Seminary are unique and major.

Why? Because no other school buildings in the town are so close to private residences.

The main buildings of Princeton University and the Westminster Choir College sit on fairly expansive campuses that often have significant setbacks from houses. So do the private secondary schools, most of which are located in the countryside of the former township. Similarly, the Institute for Advanced Study is surrounded by expansive lawns and woodlands. Even the Princeton public and charter schools have buffers of lawns, parking lots, and playing fields or playgrounds.

“Here we have the close proximity of a school and neighborhoods,” Constantine says. “How do you transition from one to the other? The visual and spatial relationships here need carefully crafted solutions.”

This is perhaps most evident at the seminary property bounded by Stockton, Hibben, and Edgehill.

Just prior to the baby boom, in 1943, the seminary fortuitously acquired the site of the old Tennent School, then occupied by the Hun School, which was relocating to the former Russell estate on Edgerstoune Road. Now known as Tennent-Roberts — after the names of its two dormitory buildings — it has a U-shaped layout completed by the Whiteley gymnasium with a rectangular green in the middle.

Just as fortuitously, in the 1960s the seminary was able to acquire a nearby West Windsor site off Nassau Park Boulevard, on which it eventually built 200 apartments to accommodate married students, especially those with children.

Several years ago the seminary put the Tennent-Roberts site — by then in sore need of maintenance salvation — up for sale. A developer made a full-price offer for the property. But it was taken off the market when the seminary made its current plans to instead sell its West Windsor location and consolidate into Princeton. So the units at a rebuilt Tennent-Roberts are crucial to the development plan.

An initial version of the plan seemed to formalize foot traffic between Tennent-Roberts and the library — straight across nearby Edgehill Street. This did not spark joy in Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz, an Edgehill resident since 1992. Neither did the apparent size of the proposed new Tennent-Roberts dorms. (Note: The writer previously knows Wilentz through their mutual interest in folk music.)

Wilentz starkly recalls a public meeting last year at which renderings for the new Tennant-Roberts were shown: “It was the first time we actually saw the scale of it. And an audible gasp went up.”

Despite assurances that the buildings merely appeared bigger in the images than they would really be, Wilentz says flatly that the proposed figure of 120 units “is an awful lot of units.” This number was subsequently reduced to 105.

A map shows path from the main campus to the library and then over to the Tennent-Roberts site. This path proved problematic. Says Wilentz, “The way it was drawn was in big red gashes, and one of those gashes went right across Edgehill Street. It looked like we were in the way! They talked about ‘the campus experience’ and I said, ‘But we’re not the campus.’”

What happens when cars leave Mercer to access Stockton is a problem, even a danger, that the project may address.

This raised the issue of whether the side streets would be de facto absorbed into the campus — “campusization,” as Wilentz puts it. “And the issue of scale was part of all that.”

Seminary vice president Berg reached out personally to Wilentz and other Hibben-Edgehill residents. He admits that the initial plan “emphasized the campus experience for students [and] campus circulation. But it wasn’t sensitive enough to our pledge that we would be good citizens of the neighborhood.”

Says Wilentz: “They came around and were very frank about mistakes that had been made in the past. And I was very glad they made the effort.”

But Mike Head, a Hibben Road resident, is unconvinced. “Fundamentally, this development is too big for the piece of land they’re putting it on,” he says. “It will impact the character and also the infrastructure of the neighborhood.”

Whiteley will almost certainly be replaced by a new gym/fitness center at another site to be determined. In its place will rise a dormitory to complement Tennent-Roberts and make up the total 105 new units. But the appearance of Whiteley’s replacement will have major significance if it can improve the architecture and landscaping of “gateways” into Princeton.

Currently incoming northbound traffic on Stockton Street/Route 206 is greeted by the tawny and rather tawdry back of Whiteley Gym. Similarly, the eastbound entry along Mercer Street is the beloved but non-descript playing field grass at the Hibben’s lower corner, with its high chain link fence (necessary to retain errant soccer balls and Frisbees but visually jarring). The seminary says it is committed to retaining this open space, but has yet to decide on specific plans.

What happens when cars leave Mercer to access Stockton is a problem, even a danger, that the project may address.

Hibben and Edgehill are well-known cut-throughs for drivers eager to avoid turning onto Library Place and encountering backups from the traffic light at Stockton (a phenomenon, Wilentz says, exacerbated by Waze, the popular traffic-detecting GPS phone app). The danger of added traffic on these narrow byways is compounded by the speeding of impatient drivers. Project planners are considering several options, including strategically placed roundabouts and other traffic-calming street features.

But Bettina Slade, who resides at the corner of Library and Stockton, wonders if actively funneling traffic away from Hibben and Edgehill and onto Library Place will have the unintended consequence of putting students crossing to the library at greater risk.

Slade is also among residents who, during public meetings, have questioned a part of the plan that would supplement scarce parking near the seminary with additional spaces along Stockton Street near Library. Slade and others have raised the issue of trucks on Stockton speeding up to make the Library Place light. “I’ve seen eight accidents myself there,” she says. “It’s going to be very dangerous for anyone parking a car.”

Across from the library is the Erdman Center, which hosts conferences (and has hosted public information meetings about the project). Its earliest wing, built as a dormitory during the 1950s enrollment boom, today provides rooms for seminary visitors. But their small size (160 square feet with twin beds), “Jack and Jill” bathrooms shared by rooms, and post-war cinderblock construction have slated Erdman for serious rebuilding.

All this also has potential impacts not only on Hibben-Edgehill and Stockton-Library, but also the Mercer Hill Historic District.

Carolyn Robertson, a Mercer Hill resident for more than 25 years, is past president of the Mercer Hill Historic District Association and a former member of the Princeton Historic Preservation Review Committee. During a recent walk through the neighborhood, she pointed out that the district contains the Einstein house on Mercer and Morven on Stockton (both National Historic Landmarks), the Barracks on Edgehill Street (one of Princeton’s oldest houses), as well as numerous homes created by famed Princeton architect-builder Charles Steadman.

“This is important because part of the seminary’s current and future plans are within or adjacent to the historic district,” Robertson says. “My concern is that because the area was given a special redevelopment zoning, historic preservation issues were not given a chance and not properly or completely examined.”

Ad hoc committee chair Cohen replies that although historic preservation standards could be relaxed under a redevelopment process, “in this case, we have not opted to do that. All properties that are part of the Redevelopment Zone that fall within the Mercer Hill historic district have been protected, with the expectation that under the agreement they will have an even higher preservation standard applied than required within the district.”

And what’s the time frame for this ambitious project, not to mention its cost to the seminary?

The final costs are expected to be very high. And, Constantine projects, the time frame will be a long one. For example, with Tennent-Roberts a priority the proposed upgrades to the Erdman Center may be as far as 10 years away.

Ultimately the Princeton Council will approve or deny the seminary development plan after receiving the ad hoc committee’s recommendations. The committee’s next meeting is currently scheduled for Friday, May 31, at 10 a.m.

Despite the many uncertainties and unresolved issues, Berg looks forward optimistically to a process “that allows known partners to talk to each other. And we’re going to build beautiful — and sustainable — buildings that are worthy of Princeton.”

Edgehill Street homeowner Sean Wilentz says that he and other residents “know how special it is” to live in this part of town: “But saying that — and I mean this profoundly — we don’t think we deserve special treatment. We just want it done right.”