Local officials voted unanimously on Monday night to have the municipality’s planning board study whether Princeton Theological Seminary’s Tennent campus should be declared an area in need of redevelopment.
The resolution approved by the Princeton Council covers properties owned by the seminary that are located on Stockton Street, Library Place, Edgehill Street, and Hibben Road.
Mayor Liz Lempert said when seminary representatives approached officials expressing a desire to add more housing to the Tennent campus, municipal planner Jim Constantine suggested declaring the area a zone in need of redevelopment as a tool to have more input in the process. The seminary also could make a financial contribution to affordable housing in the municipality as part of the plan, Lempert said. Because of the affordable housing issue, she recused herself from the discussion because her husband works for Princeton University. The university’s properties are part of the municipality’s proposed affordable housing plan.
Constantine said when the seminary’s former library, located in the Mercer Hill Historic District, was replaced, the process took years. He said there are advantages to creating a redevelopment plan for the area instead of following a more traditional process. “It empowers smart growth planning tools, and there is the ability to have greater control of the zoning and more proactive public participation,” he said.
During public comment, resident Elizabeth Brown expressed concerns about historic homes that would be in the zone, including Adams House and a few Steadman homes. She said the municipal historic preservation officer was unaware of the plans and asked whether officials should be rushing to vote on a proposal.
Brown said In the past, the seminary was not a good steward of its properties in the Mercer Hill Historic District. Under the previous seminary administration, historic homes were neglected and then were in need of major repairs. “It’s not the fault of President Barnes, but it still makes me concerned about the fate of those houses,” Brown said, adding that the seminary is a wonderful institution and that the current president inherited financial problems. She said the public should have a chance to weigh in, and plans should not be rushed. Another resident also called for transparency.
The lawyer for the municipality said the planning board would hold a public hearing before making a decision on declaring the seminary property a redevelopment zone.
Shane Berg, the executive vice president at Princeton Theological Seminary, said the seminary does not plan to demolish the Adams House or the Steadman homes. “The seminary would never dream to do anything but preserve them,” he said, adding that the reason they are in the plan is to give the town a guarantee that the historic homes “won’t be altered any way.”
He also said the field the seminary owns on Hibben Road would be preserved as open space for 40 to 50 years. “It could open up to Marquand Park,” he said.
“We live in this neighborhood and the president lives in the neighborhood,” Berg said. “Springdale (the seminary president’s house) is an example of what the seminary is capable of. We care about the charm of the neighborhood. It’s a national treasure. Like our neighbors, we respect our neighborhood. The redevelopment process allows for robust engagement.”
Berg said the seminary has begun to post materials about the long-term vision for the campus online. Groups of neighbors will be invited to review the seminary’s master plan over the summer and meet with planners, architects and engineers, he said.
In January of 2017, the seminary’s board of trustees voted to endorse a proposal to study the possibility of creating a comprehensive campus master plan that would consolidate the seminary on one campus in Princeton.
The key items in that proposal:
- Build apartments for married and single students on the main campus in Princeton
- Renovate Hodge Hall and Brown Hall to include private bathrooms
- Replace or renovate the Mackay Center to create a true campus center
- Renovate Alexander Hall as an “intellectual commons,” including office space for
the entire faculty and some administrative departments
- Monetize the land and apartments the seminary owns behind MarketFair in West Windsor, while retaining the Tennent-Roberts campus in Princeton, in order to finance other campus improvements and reduce the endowment draw
- Reduce the size of the student body by 30 to 40 percent for a period of 8-10 years
“This proposal will also have implications for the size of our workforce. We believe that
downsizing would be accomplished over the next several years through normal attrition and
by reconfiguring jobs to support the mission more faithfully. In other words, extensive
layoffs are not part of this plan,” Princeton Theological Seminary President Craig Barnes wrote in a letter to the seminary community in February of 2017.
“In the coming months, we will be studying the feasibility of this proposal. Implementing this proposal would have implications for every aspect of our operation, and the board has asked the administration to assess these implications from every angle. It is also important to remember that implementing this proposal would take many years. Any potential long-term lease of CRW (West Windsor properties), for example, is not likely to affect current students,” Barnes wrote. “While the scale of the proposed changes may seem surprising, we have come to realize that only such bold solutions will enable us to ensure the seminary’s future financial stability while at the same time enhance our mission in the present.”