Letters: Statements at roundtable about redevelopment of Princeton Seminary properties need clarification

It was great to see so many attendees at the town’s recent meeting regarding the redevelopment of five Princeton Theological Seminary properties. I appreciate the acknowledgment that this is an important gateway to town and that the neighbors have been living with this uncertainty since 2018 – longer than all but one elected official has served. 

Unfortunately, the meeting ran longer than scheduled, and I was unable to stay to comment. However, there are some clarifications that I feel are important to offer. 

Council President Mia Sacks indicated that the town is in negotiations with the schools over the PILOT payments granted to other developers. School board members with whom I have been in contact deny any such negotiations. Granting PILOTs in a town like Princeton is of dubious value, but it would compound the problem of rising enrollment to fund our schools through private negotiations in which the schools are beholden to Council, a process that lacks transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, it is taxpayers who shoulder the burden when the schools and county are shortchanged through PILOT agreements, but at least there is clarity about who made the decision.

Ms. Sacks also suggested that the Seminary neighbors resisted a historic designation fifteen years ago. I believe she is thinking of the proposed historic designation of the Morven Tract, an entirely different neighborhood. Much of the Mercer Hill/Frog Hollow neighborhood is in the Mercer Hill Historic District, including 92 Stockton, one of the lots included in the redevelopment area under consideration. I have asked around informally, and no one has any recollection of resisting a historic designation for this or any other neighborhood. 

The consultant reported that the redevelopment area is a 12-minute walk to Palmer Square and an 18-minute walk to the Dinky. While those are walkable distances on occasion, it doesn’t make the neighborhood walkable in the planning sense of the word. Planners typically use 0.25 mile for determining walking access. Another measure is the 5-minute walk, known as the “pedestrian shed” – the distance people will walk before opting to drive. There isn’t a grocery store, a pharmacy, a doctor, a school, or a soccer field within a 12-minute walk of Hibben and Stockton. Referring to this site as walkable without a clear definition will result in underestimating the need for parking and an unrealistic traffic impact assessment. Both Edgehill and Hibben Road “qualified” for speed pillows without anyone living on the former Tennent-Roberts-Whiteley Gymnasium campus. These “residential” streets already have a concerning and well-documented level of traffic.

The neighbors spent an extraordinary amount of time during the first round of talks trying to make a redevelopment plan work for all stakeholders. We have been cautious about prematurely making requests or providing wish lists to the developer in round 2. We haven’t used the terms “quality construction” or “underground parking.” That’s the developer’s language, not the neighbors’.  We happily re-extend our invitation to all the elected officials to meet with the neighbors.

Jo Butler
Hibben Road