An open letter regarding the status report on the Princeton Theological Seminary redevelopment process

Dear Editor:

We take issue with a number of unsubstantiated and inaccurate statements that Princeton Councilman David Cohen has made regarding the Princeton Theological Seminary redevelopment process.

“Recently, a few neighbors came forward to express their dissatisfaction with the current design. They contend that the concept plan grants excessive benefits to the property owner without any compensatory benefits to the town and the neighborhood. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The reality is that almost all neighbors have opposed the scale of the development being out of context with the residential neighborhood and the massive disparity with what would be allowed under current zoning guidelines.

There is no discernible benefit to Princeton or the neighborhood from this development.

Mr. Cohen states “At the start of this process, the municipality identified numerous policies and principles from our master plan that formed the basis for goals and objectives which were displayed and discussed at numerous meetings. Community input helped identify many elements incorporated into the concept plan including “complete streets”, safety enhancements to the public circulation system in the neighborhood, for automobiles and pedestrians, a reduction in the proposed density, shifting parking away from public view, and careful composition of the massing of the new structures further away from adjacent residences than permitted under existing zoning to minimize the perceived scale of the project within the neighborhood.”

This development is completely at odds with the principles outlined 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.”

Mr. Cohen does not explain why they are considering a proposal that violates, in a very substantial way, this statement in the master plan, without serious consideration or requests to see plans that comply with existing zoning.

“Further benefits to public storm water management and our affordable housing plan are expected if the project moves into the next stage of a redevelopment plan. And integrally linked to the proposed use sought by the seminary is the smart growth benefit to the community of a significant reduction in commuter traffic congestion from students who currently live in West Windsor, with a commensurate reduction in carbon emissions. None of these benefits are a given under existing zoning. Reasonable people can disagree over whether the balance of benefits going to the property owner versus the community is correct, but it is clear that the community is getting significant benefits from the project.”

The contribution to storm water management is as much a function of mitigating the impact of 180-plus people and reducing the impact of a greater level of covered surface area at the top of a hill that already has storm water management issues. There is almost no incremental benefit to the current residents of the area. The suggestion that there would be a “smart growth” reduction in traffic and the commensurate benefits is rejected completely. This was covered in the most recent meeting on May 31. While it is possible to accept that the traffic levels on Alexander Road may be reduced during the week, there is a substantial concern that the level of local traffic will increase significantly. If built as proposed, there will be 180-plus individuals living at the top of Hibben Road. The benefits of reduced short-term commuter traffic benefits are more than outweighed by relocating 35 families and 41 children to Princeton from West Windsor. In our experience, this will have a significant impact on daily and specifically weekend levels of traffic. The council needs to clearly spell out the community benefit because the suggestion that this is clear is not obvious.

“I would also like to put to rest rumors that have been floating lately that the seminary is making financial contributions to the town to ‘buy an approval’. It is true that they have made a $100,000 escrow payment, as any developer would be required to do (whether in a redevelopment process or a conventional land use application), to cover the costs to the town of overseeing the process. It is also true that the redevelopment statute permits the municipality to require financial contributions in connection with a redevelopment plan, an important tool that many municipalities use to benefit the public interest.”

The issue in question is that the town has not been clear on the importance and size of financial contributions related to the approval of this project. It is of substantial concern that the current taxpayers of this area are being over-ridden in terms of their concerns for a short term, one-time contribution to help the fiscal status of Princeton. Mr. Cohen is also involved in negotiating the affordable housing settlement and there is an inherent conflict for him to be driving the zoning decision, and negotiating a payment to an affordable housing fund which is directly tied to the density ultimately approved.

“In light of recent concerns raised by these letter-writers and others, the seminary has proposed a hiatus in the ad hoc committee process to allow them to redouble their efforts over the summer to find creative solutions which will satisfy the broadest cross-section of Princeton residents. We applaud their desire to continue working with the community for our mutual benefit. Does this development represent a departure from what is on the site currently? Of course! But unless we encase Princeton in amber, change is going to happen, and the process and results of this planning exercise have so far been exemplary, and we expect even better results as the search for solutions continues, setting a wonderful precedent for how future projects can be managed in sensitive locations throughout the town.”

It is clear from Mr. Cohen’s last statement that he lacks impartiality and a sense of the interests of the taxpayers of Princeton. His reference to voters and taxpayers as “letter writers” is simply unforgivable and reflects his dismissive approach in public meetings and his bias towards development over community-sensitive changes that better respect established neighborhoods. The suggestion that there is a desire to preserve Princeton “in amber” could not be further from the truth. The residents have consistently asked what is allowed under current zoning and we are still waiting a response.

The perception is that input from the public has been treated at best as an irritation with the outcome pre-ordained in favor of a massive exception to current zoning guidelines with minimal benefit to the residents of Princeton and the immediate area.

At a minimum, to restore confidence in this process, Mr. Cohen should consider stepping down from his role of chairman of the ad hoc committee. His role negotiating the COAH settlement creates an inherent conflict. This may jeopardize thoughtful planning and result in a payment from Princeton Theological Seminary to help the town deal with their obligation, at the expense of neighbors and tax payers. We need a person leading this process that will embrace the genuine feedback from residents and is seen to be impartial, to fairly consider this development proposal from the seminary.

Sincerely,

John and Ruth Sayer, Library Place
Caroline Cleaves, Edgehill Street
Rakesh & Sophia Kumar, Campbelton Road
Anita Wu, Armour Road
Christopher Rice, Library Place
Lee Hagan & Mimi Mead-Hagan, Armour Road
Michael and Susan Head, Hibben Road
Jim and Jo Butler, Hibben Road
Doug Palmer & Christiania Foglio, Mercer Street
Steve and Shirley Kern, Mercer Street
Justin Taffer, Stockton Street
Dean & Jill Mitchell, Hodge Road
Dorothy and Charles Plohn, Jr., Library Place

Please share your thoughts on this story.

8 comments
  • There are hundreds of people who live in this neighborhood, and probably 100+ of them are related to the Seminary right now (quite a number of seminary faculty in residential houses and then the Tennent community). This is part of the “character of the neighborhood,” including the library and buildings on Library Place. If you aren’t aware of them, it’s because this tends to be a pretty quiet neighborhood (a testament to all of the residents, whether in houses or apartments, seminary or not). I have talked to a mix of residents informally and there are obviously concerns about renovations and also adding more people. However, saying a “majority of existing residents” are opposed, when there’s been no survey and only a small number have signed on to the letter, is not fair. I think it’s appropriate for people to debate and discuss and raise concerns. But it’s also not fair to make this community vs. institution or to make it into a zero sum game (it’s not individuals benefiting, hopefully it’s the whole town). We should all be seeking the greatest good for the community.

  • @Won’t you be my neighbor? It’s definitely true that some members of the Seminary will greatly benefit from the proposal as there is always a benefit to the proposer in a change of zoning proposal. However, the reason that the town has developed a master plan for development is to ensure that the character of neighborhoods isn’t unduly changed by specific plans. I don’t think the letter writers are considering Seminary members as outsiders but are asking what the benefit to overall Princeton (and not specific individuals) is if the town’s master plan isn’t followed and the majority of the existing residents in the area oppose the development.

  • I live in the Tennent campus of Princeton Seminary. There are roughly 40+ apartments here currently. Tennent is often home to international students and it is a community that is ethnically and economically diverse. There are already children who live and play here and catch the bus to school with other local kids.

    Students or spouses have worked in almost every institution in Princeton: IAS, the public library, the University, downtown businesses, etc. They’ve coached in the community and volunteer at JP and other schools and attend all the downtown events (Halloween, Communiversity, annual Christmas tree lighting). On weekends, seminarians often serve in local houses of worship and non-profits.

    This is a community that has been here for a long time. The neighborhood itself grew around the Seminary, as can be seen in street names like “Library Place” and “Hodge Road.” I know current residents whose parents lived in Tennent fifty years ago. This is a graduate school and it is not uncommon to have students spend a decade on campus.

    To me it’s unfair to say that these residents offer “no discernible benefit to Princeton or the neighborhood.” The members of the Seminary *are* residents and members of the neighborhood. Please don’t treat us as outsiders—we care about Princeton and are committed to its longterm health.

  • Here is my basic issue with this process boiled down, Mr Cohen ends his letter, “while no one is going to get everything they want in this process, everyone can get more than they thought was possible at the outset, if we all work together.”

    While I appreciate the spirit of compromise, if the Seminary’s development plan is at odds with the master plan, than why is a councilman starting from a position where the Seminary “gets” anything?

  • Mr. Cohen should know that it’s not a good look to have an architect/politician involved with developmental issues. Perhaps, he should get another Council assignment such as the Sewer Operating Committee. Just kidding! How about the Shade Tree Committee or a return to civilian life.

  • David, you make many good points and there probably isn’t a solution that appeases all sides. However, it does seem that you a serious conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of one, in this situation. You need to recuse yourself from one of those roles to ensure that citizens have faith in the integrity of the system.

  • Too late David. Your arrogance and contempt for your constituents is evident. If you don’t think your job is to listen to the taxpayers – what exactly do you think your job is?

  • I am not going to respond to Mr. Head and company point by point, as I find arguing in public just tends to heighten emotions and entrench peoples’ positions. In the aftermath of last week’s Council meeting, I reached out to this group on Saturday to request a meeting to try to find common ground, and am hopeful that they will be willing to work together to improve the plan, as have so many of their neighbors, rather than close off dialogue and leave us to plan without their input. We have already taken steps to extend the area in need of redevelopment, per Jo Butler’s suggestion at the May 31st ad hoc committee meeting, and slowed down the process to give the Seminary’s designers an opportunity to creatively address the neighbors’ concerns. I remain optimistic – while no one is going to get everything they want in this process, everyone can get more than they thought was possible at the outset, if we all work together.

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