(Note-This post was updated 4.2.2013 in the light of ongoing developments regarding the proposed AvalonBay development at the former Princeton Hospital site.)
At the southwestern end of Nassau Street in downtown Princeton lies a number of beautiful buildings that are part of Princeton University. Madison Hall, Hamilton Hall and Holder Hall (which are themselves parts of Rockefeller College and Mathey College), are joined around two large courtyards, with Nassau Street on one side, University Place on another side, and the rest of the Princeton University campus behind. These buildings are built in the Collegiate Gothic style for which Princeton is famous, and are an essential stop on any tourist trail of the University.
These buildings are interesting in that they are laid out around grassy, open courtyards. We can see this when we look at the satellite view of the buildings:
This form of building, set around interior courtyards is sometimes called a ‘quadrangle‘. In the case of Princeton University, the inspiration for building in this style probably came from the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge University in England, many of which were built from the 14th century on in a quadrangle style. This style is also seen in medieval monasteries and military colleges. It is a form that has evolved independently in several parts of the world, and has many advantages in that it allows natural light to enter the buildings from both sides, and affords a quiet central space that can be used as a meeting place or for relaxation. By concentrating a large number of residential units together, this style of building also allows for compact, walkable development.
In 2012, the Princeton Planning Board considered a proposal from AvalonBay to build a 280-unit residential apartment community on the former Princeton Hospital Site on Witherspoon Street. The proposal from AvalonBay was ultimately rejected and is now the subject of litigation. (-Update 4.2.2013-Subject to an agreement with the Princeton Council, the original AvalonBay plan with the courtyard layout has been re-designed and the litigation is currently on hold-) One of the most bizarre allegations made by opponents of the original AvalonBay plan was that it would be a ‘gated community’. We heard this idea of a ‘gated community’ repeated time and again in letters to local news outlets. But the AvalonBay development had no gate, and in fact was laid out in essentially the same courtyard format of Hamilton/Holder Hall! Let’s take a look at the planned layout of the buildings in the original AvalonBay plan:
If we look at the Google Maps satellite view of Holder/Hamilton Hall and compare the original AvalonBay plan, we see that both share the same double-courtyard format. Under the AvalonBay plan, any member of the community would have been able to enter either of two courtyards through archway entrances. Inside, they would have found peaceful green spaces, shielded from the traffic of surrounding streets by the walls of the residents’ apartments. We can see how effective this layout is by strolling through the delightful oasis of quiet green space in the center of Holder Hall:
Residents may have envisioned that a development on the hospital site would have featured a more ‘conventional’ park, like that found two blocks away at Mary Moss Park. We see this in letters demanding a ‘real’ park. But the AvalonBay plan would have provided a real park, just one that took the form of a beautiful central courtyard like that at Holder Hall. In fact, there are some advantages to a park in a courtyard setting. It is quieter, because you are shielded from traffic noises. It is also potentially safer, because compared to a park fronting onto the street, it is harder for kids to absent-mindedly rush out into traffic.
Obviously the comparison can only go so far: it is very unlikely anyone would mistake an AvalonBay community for Princeton University. In 2013, AvalonBay is unlikely to build an apartment community out of quarried stone in a Collegiate Gothic style. Would anyone seriously expect that anyway? A more reasonable criticism is that there were too few access points to the inner courtyards. The AvalonBay plan only had one entry/exit to each courtyard, whereas the courtyards at the center of Hamilton/Holder Halls each have more than one entry point. Adding an extra passage-way to access the courtyards would definitely have improved the AvalonBay plan.
Another key criticism of the AvalonBay plan was that the buildings were too tall. The plan would have involved a mixture of buildings ranging between 3 and 5 levels. Critics claimed that this would have ‘dwarfed’ the surrounding neighborhood and could not possibly fit in. However, when we look at Holder Hall, we see that it rises to up to 6 levels:
Six levels clearly does not mean a skyscraper. It is still on a human scale. At Walkable Princeton, we are very much of the opinion that building up to five or six floors would not ruin the character of Princeton. In fact, many of the best buildings in Princeton, such as Holder Hall, are on this scale. But it does allow us to accommodate more residential units in a smaller area, which tends to favor walkability and also frees up land to preserve as open, green space. We can see that across the street from Hamilton Hall, lower-level houses co-exist perfectly happily with the taller structures on the Princeton University campus.
The AvalonBay plan could undoubtedly have been better. It’s also possible that the AvalonBay executives did not spend enough time demonstrating the benefits of their plan. That said, if AvalonBay lose their appeal of the Princeton Planning Board decision, and their plan goes unbuilt, we will miss out on seeing whether it is possible to re-create the quiet green courtyards of Princeton University in a modern apartment community.