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Princeton Theological Seminary scraps plans to build new student housing on Stockton Street (updated)

Princeton Theological Seminary officials announced Wednesday that the seminary no longer has plans to build new apartments on the Tennent Roberts campus along Hibben Road and Stockton Street in Princeton.

Instead, school officials said they will focus on efforts to restore and renew other buildings on the campus. Seminary officials said they have informed municipal officials and neighborhood residents about the decision.

Increased cost estimates for the project were cited by seminary officials as the primary reason for the decision to scrap the apartment project.

A seminary proposal to tear down the existing buildings and construct larger apartment buildings that would accommodate more students was met with opposition by many people in the neighborhood surrounding the Tennent Roberts campus. Some residents were concerned about the scale of the buildings. Others were worried that the neighborhood would be engulfed by the campus. Some residents were worried that increased density at the site would increase traffic and change the look of one of the main gateways into Princeton. While some residents were supportive of the seminary’s plans, others were prepared to file a lawsuit if the project moved forward.

Seminary officials were in discussions with planners, elected officials and residents about the project for about a year and a half. The seminary hosted several discussion and information sessions with residents, and seminary representatives also met individually and in small groups with residents in the neighborhood. It was clear as summer approached that there was still a lot of debate and unanswered questions about the plans, and discussions were put on hold for the summer. The seminary was scheduled to come before the planning board recently, but the meeting was not properly noticed by the municipality. The local planning board was going to consider whether to add the parking lot next to the seminary’s library to the redevelopment zone the Princeton Council created last year.

The seminary will continue to house students on its main campus in Princeton and at the Charlotte Rachel Wilson apartments in West Windsor for the foreseeable future, officials said. The existing buildings on the Tennent Roberts campus will still be used for housing, a spokesperson for the seminary confirmed in an email Wednesday afternoon.

“This decision enables us to re-prioritize other projects in our long-range campus plan,” President M. Craig Barnes said in his letter to the community. “We remain committed to providing the campus facilities that enhance our life together and foster spaces where a sense of community can flourish.” 

Seminary officials have been looking at how to reconfigure the school’s properties and the size of the student body in response to the realities of contemporary mainline church life and changes in theological education. In January of 2017, the seminary’s board of trustees voted to endorse a proposal to study the possibility of creating a 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

Seminaries, the training ground for future clergy, are struggling as the membership in mainline churches declines. Over the past decade, full-time enrollment in theology schools nationwide dropped 50 percent, stabilizing only in the past few years, according to the Association of Theology Schools.

Princeton Theological Seminary, founded in 1812, is the first seminary established by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Its students and more than 11,000 graduates are from all 50 states and many other countries. Princeton is the largest of the 10 seminaries affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, a 1.6-million-member denomination. 

The seminary’s Tennent Roberts campus. File photo.