The Princeton Planning Board approved plans last week to convert a house on Vandeventer Avenue into a student center run by an independent evangelical group that ministers to students at Ivy League schools.
The Christian Union received approvals to convert the historic Beatty House into offices and gathering spaces for students. The maximum occupancy for the building is 37 people. The property only has three parking spaces. The Christian Union plans to have nine or 10 employees working at the building, but representatives said most of the employees would live within walking distance and would not need parking. Students would walk from the campus to attend meetings at the house.
Planning board members Jenny Crumiller, Tim Quinn and Cecelia Birge voted to reject the plan. A request to for a four-foot-wide sign on the front lawn of the property was unanimously rejected by the planning board. The group will need to apply for a zoning variance for sign approvals, officials said.
At issue during the three-hour hearing was whether the use by the group is a permitted conditional uses for the property. Permitted conditional uses included educational institutions and nonprofits exclusively serving the interest of an educational institution.
The mission of the Christian Union, according to the group’s website, is to change the culture “by discipling, mentoring and training future leaders at the most strategic universities in America, and by building networks of engaged Christian leaders in cities.”
Representatives for the Christian Union told the board the group primarily serves undergraduates at Princeton University and works with about 400 students. The independent nonprofit works with a student group called Faith in Action.
The current owner of the Beatty property pays about $38,000 a year in property taxes to the municipality, school district and county. Some residents from the neighborhood objected to the property being taken off the tax rolls because the new owner is a nonprofit. Asked by one board member if the Christian Union would consider making a payment in lieu of taxes to the town, a representative for the Christian Union said the group was not willing to answer that last week.
Some planning board members questioned whether the site has enough parking in spite of representatives for the group saying most employees would walk and not drive.
More than two dozen residents from the neighborhood attended the meeting to voice their opposition to the plans and the four-foot sign on the property.
While one resident supported the plan, arguing the street has always been a neighborhood in transition, other residents said the street has been transitioning back to residential use in recent years. With the exception of the funeral home on Vandenventer Avenue, the few businesses operating out of homes do not bring cars or foot traffic, residents said.
Resident John McGoldrick, who lives next to the Beatty house, said that while many people want Princeton to continue to be a residential town, the economy and other pressures are pushing downtown residential neighborhoods in the other direction.
“Harrison Street to Vandeventer, and the strip of commercial properties on Nassau down to Wiggins and Hamilton is one big residential quadrant, but it is at risk,” McGoldrick said. “The cutting edge is right here. We don’t need to look far to see what happens when we let neighborhoods change this way. Look at North Tulane Street. It was almost completely residential and now it is significantly commercial or used for other non-residential purposes.”
McGoldrick said the town needs to retain and enhance its character. “This is an intensely non-residential use…of such character that it will not be in harmony with the neighborhood,” he said, also questioning whether the group meets the definition of a nonprofit organization exclusively serving the interests of Princeton University. Several planning board members said they though the group meets the definition because the Christian Union serves students at the university.
The closing for the property is slated for early July. The Beatty House has been on the market since 2010.