Princeton Council approves historic district for Prospect Avenue

The character of Prospect Avenue, one of Princeton’s most iconic streets, will be protected under a new historic preservation ordinance.

On Monday night, the Princeton Council voted unanimously to approve an ordinance that creates the new Prospect Avenue Historic District. All 21 of the buildings included in the district are either owned by Princeton University or private student eating clubs. Originally, the university wanted to demolish three Queen Anne Victorians at 110, 114, and 116 Prospect Avenue to make space for a former eating club called Court Club, which later became an academic building at 91 Prospect Avenue. But after months of discussion and planning board hearings during which Princeton University Architect Ron McCoy said it would be impossible to save any of the homes, university officials did an abrupt turnaround and agreed to a compromise plan that saved all three houses while still relocating the 91 Prospect Avenue building next to them. The land at 91 Prospect Avenue will be used for a “Theorist Pavilion” that will be part of the university’s Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences project.

Dozens of residents spoke out during public meetings last year against proposals to tear down the houses, and almost 2,000 people signed a petition calling for their preservation. Residents and alumni who attended the public meetings expressed concerns about preserving the historic character of the street.

Princeton alumnus Sandy Harrison, head of the Princeton Prospect Foundation, noted Monday night during the public hearing for the ordinance that both university officials and the eating club leaders support the creation of the historic district. Resident and architectural historian Clifford Zink said the coalition to save Prospect Avenue worked tirelessly for months to save the homes.

“I was pleased and somewhat surprised at how many people came out in favor of wanting to preserve this very important part of Princeton,” Zink said. “The adoption of this ordinance is a positive outcome of well over a year of work to come up with a compromise solution to maintain the quality and historic character of the street.”

Zink said the compromise plan brings meaningful benefits to the town, particularly regarding ongoing involvement in the future of Prospect Avenue. He said Prospect Avenue won’t be frozen in time and won’t always remain the way it is today, but any future changes will have to balance property owner needs with the meaning and significance Prospect Avenue has for the town.

Princeton resident and university alumnus John Heilner said he was thrilled about the historic district and said it was imperative that the council pass the ordinance. He said the original plan to tear down the houses would have disregarded 125 years of history and culture, in spite of community opposition. He said he was hopeful that the historic district compromise represents a “turn in town and gown relations.”

Former Princeton Historic Preservation Officer Christine Lewandowski voiced her support for the district. “I’m so happy there is this meeting of minds between town and gown,” she said. “It will be a wonderful thing to preserve the historic treescape and buildings.”

James Bash noted that efforts to create the historic district began 30 years ago when local officials proposed the creation of the district. The proposal never gained traction back then because university officials opposed it.”This is a great triumph for our town,” he said.

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