An open letter to officials regarding the redevelopment of Princeton Theological Seminary’s Tennent-Roberts campus

To the Princeton Mayor and Council, Princeton Planning Board and the Ad Hoc Committee:

The undersigned residents of Hibben Road and Mercer Street request denial of the request by Princeton Theological Seminary to redevelop the Tennent-Roberts campus into 105 two-bedroom apartments for student
housing.

The redevelopment process is usually driven by a municipality in order to achieve a public purpose that cannot be met by zoning. We find this process peculiar in that the study did not start with the exercise of what the town would want to promote on the site in terms of use and scale, but rather the process was initiated in response to a strategic decision by Princeton Theological Seminary to relocate their students to Princeton. In essence, this process has tried to legitimize “spot zoning”, so much so that the study area did not even include the largest vacant parcel, the library surface
lot, in the neighborhood planning.

The proposed development is simply too large for the site. Currently we are advised that the planned 105 two-bedroom apartments and 60 parking spaces would represent a +30% overage versus current approved zoning for an educational establishment on that site. This plan also includes a substantial variance versus the zoned parking level potentially overloading other areas of Princeton. This project is outside any previous redevelopment applications based on the area being declared a redevelopment zone, which is a first for Princeton. While this theoretically allows for greater flexibility for the community, as submitted it clearly contradicts the guidelines in the Princeton Master Plan, which stresses compliance with existing zoning:

“A balance should be struck between an institution’s need for new facilities and its impact upon a neighborhood and the entire Princeton Community. Zoning regulations should take into account the impact from the scale, bulk and mass of educational or institutional buildings and insure that these buildings do not overwhelm neighborhoods. Consideration needs to be given to applying zoning standards or developing transitional zones that provide for a smooth and orderly transition between the institutional campus and other uses in the community. When there is expansion proposed into established neighborhoods it may be approved if it is done in a manner that benefits both the community and the institution and in
compliance with the existing zoning.”

The proposed development is out of character with the residential neighborhood and at odds with the Princeton Master Plan. The development, if built, lacks the context of the existing period buildings that are set back from the road and have a scale that fits the site. This site is
adjacent to the Mercer Hill Historic District. The proposed development would overwhelm the current residential neighborhood in terms of size, scale, and density. The “form-based code” recently approved by unanimous vote of Council seeks to preserve neighborhood character, maintain large trees, and put restrictions on the height of buildings. While this regulates development of individual homes, it would be completely contradictory to the spirit of these regulations for the proposed redevelopment by Princeton Theological Seminary to be approved given it breaks all of these conditions.

While there has been the opportunity for the residents to provide input as part of this process, it only has been in response to a proposed Princeton Theological Seminary plan that was well outside zoning guidelines from the beginning. While Princeton Theological Seminary has made concessions from its original proposal, the current proposal remains well outside the guidelines. We are told that Princeton Theological Seminary needs are such that it cannot accept a smaller development on this site. This is not an existential issue for Princeton Theological Seminary. They are a substantial land and home owner in Princeton and West Windsor, and if they choose, they have many other options available to them. The residents of Hibben and Mercer are simply requesting that existing guidelines are respected. Suggestions as to what may happen to the Tennent-Roberts site if this development does not proceed are at best speculative and do not provide a basis for a zoning exemption.

This is the first time this type of redevelopment zone has been considered in Princeton. It sets an unfortunate precedent if the only outcome is that the applicant gets a zoning variance with no discernable public benefit. We understand that Princeton Theological Seminary has also offered to make an unconditional payment of $250,000 towards the affordable housing settlement. We are sure this will have no bearing on the Council’s and Planning Board’s decisions, but from an optics perspective, it creates the wrong impression among many residents.

Sincerely,

Michael and Susan Head, Hibben Road
Jim and Jo Butler, Hibben Road
Doug Palmer and Christiania Foglio, Mercer Street

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