As we reported in July, the Studio Hillier architecture practice is seeking feedback on a proposal to update zoning along Witherspoon St to enhance this key Princeton corridor. Many of you will not have seen any details from Mr Hillier’s presentation about the plan, so we wanted to share some grainy photos that we were able to get. We hope that this will stimulate interest in the proposal, and encourage people to give feedback to Mr Hillier and our elected representatives.
It’s worth stressing that the plan is at an early stage, with no proposals for specific buildings at specific sites. It’s more about broad brush-strokes. However, there is significant value to considering the Witherspoon corridor as a whole, instead of ‘spot-zoning’ individual sites, as was done at the former Princeton hospital site. Considering the entire street at once increases the possibility of having a more complete, harmonious outcome.
Apologies for the grainy images, which were snapped during to Mr Hillier’s presentation! Hopefully the outline of Witherspoon St, running from top to bottom around the middle of the picture is clear enough. You may want to refer to the Google map below for orientation. As the image shows, a number of areas along Witherspoon St are in fact already zoned for commercial use, but it’s not clear that the commercial properties are optimally used. Many ground floor sites are being used for offices, when we could instead have food stores, cafes and really useful shops. When the new AvalonBay development opens at the former hospital site, there will be a big increase in foot traffic along the street, which could support more desirable businesses.
Mr Hillier is proposing some changes to the zoning along Witherspoon St, to encourage development that will be more beneficial to local residents. The areas under discussion are shown in the image above. Under the plan, certain stretches of Witherspoon St would gain a mixed-use designation, enabling more flexible use of the space. Additional homes could appear above commercial space, as is the form for development along Princeton’s historic Nassau Street, and in traditional towns everywhere.
Whereas the Witherspoon Street concept is a product of the Studio Hillier architectural research and planning practice, there are likely to be accusations of a conflict of interest as Mr Hillier is also a principal of the J. Robert Hillier development group. However, everyone in Princeton would benefit from investment in Witherspoon St, which contains a number of fairly unloved sites that could find uses that would benefit the entire community much more. Mr Hillier is a local guy who is doing this as much out of love for the town as for personal profit. The Studio Hillier practice seeks a genuinely innovative approach. Their new website, which is well worth a look, suggests an idealistic approach to using great architecture to deliver regeneration and opportunity for everyone, or as they put it:
“We believe in the inclusivity of architecture and that it is open-ended and without limitation. We believe in the profound need for dialogue between people and between the public and private spheres.”
It’s also worth considering previous Hillier projects, including the Princeton Public Library, the Waxwood Condominium, and his renovated architectural practice (also on Witherspoon St) have all been of great benefit to the town.
The Hillier plan does not involve knocking down anybody’s house. In fact the existing neighborhoods on either side of Witherspoon St are not part of this proposal. They would be preserved in their existing form. Altering the zoning would enable existing properties lining Witherspoon Street the to gradually be upgraded. However, Mr Hillier has identified several sites as being particularly suitable for redevelopment. These include:
- Hospital MRRO site (currently approved for redevelopment by AvalonBay)
- ‘Princeton Packet’ buildings at Witherspoon and Henry Ave
- Mini-strip mall containing Molisana Deli at Witherspoon and Leigh Ave
- Lambert Project housing at Franklin Terrace
Hillier does not envisage his development company (J. Robert Hillier) buying or redeveloping all these sites. Instead, a number of agencies would likely be involved. The concept also does not just involve buildings or zoning, but would also incorporate improvements to the streetscape to make it more livable and walkable. That would potentially mean wider, more even sidewalks, and perhaps outdoor cafe spaces.
Again, the plan is still at an early stage, as Mr Hillier gets feedback from the Princeton community. We think this is an essential conversation to have, because the Witherspoon corridor is one of the most important streets in our town. As such, we hope you will leave your comments and thoughts (please use the comment box below). In principle, we see a masterplan for redevelopment of Witherspoon Street as a very good thing for Princeton. Here are some more of our thoughts and suggestions in response:
– Build Up to enable housing opportunity
Princeton has 24,000 daily car commuters, but not much space for new single family homes. To provide housing for many of the people who work in Princeton but can’t afford to live here, we need to go back to our historic development patterns. This is typified by Princeton’s historic Lower Pyne building, a mid-rise building which was built with commercial space on the ground flower and residential above.
No more luxury townhomes like The Residences At Palmer Square. Build smaller units that normal people could realistically hope to buy or rent. The wealthy have their pick of housing in Princeton, but normal folks are priced out. Similarly, a 2-story height limit has no utility here. It would only serve to limit housing options for people looking for walkable places to live or retire to, and help perpetuate the cycle of social exclusion that has held Princeton in its grip for decades. We need homes, for people to live in, and to provide foot traffic to support a variety of local businesses.
– Complete the Street
Both Princetons adopted ‘Complete Streets‘ policies recently, which requires road layouts to take into account all users, including cyclists, pedestrians and people with specific mobility requirements. Despite, this, Witherspoon Street north of Wiggins St is a split-personality thoroughfare that in many cases seems to place vehicle volume ahead of local residents. Let’s fix it so that all users can safely use the street. Our streets should be seen as long parks, not speedways. This is not utopian idealism– it’s happening already in other forward-thinking municipalities. It also ties in with…
– Unite Neighborhoods along the Witherspoon Corridor
For years, Witherspoon Street has been a dividing line between a traditionally lower-income neighborhood on the west side and more affluent areas on the east side. Both neighborhoods have expressed the desire to erase this perceived boundary and a Witherspoon Street Masterplan could and should make that happen. Let’s not forget the history of the area. Install north-south and east-west mixed-use trails, with multiple ‘stations’ commemorating the unique history of the area and the different people who have lived there.
– Provide a Mix of architectural styles
To provide interest to people walking along the street, let’s aim to have a diverse range of architectural styles, including modern and post-modern forms. Yes, we could build everything so that it looks the same as buildings in the surrounding neighborhoods, but this would produce an overwhelming conformity of appearance as to dull the senses. Good architecture is art. However, as with art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder with architecture. Princeton University doesn’t build everything to look the same, and the campus holds delights for everybody. Let’s aim to do the same with this key Princeton corridor.
What are your thoughts on the Hillier proposal? What would you like to see along Witherspoon St? Please leave your thoughts below! You can comment anonymously or using your real name. Your email address will not appear with your published comment.
I think the writer is confused about the zoning for the Witherspoon Street areas in question. A few years ago (at the time of the hospital rezoning, I think), a new “RB” zone was created to allow for mixed residential and business uses. Most of the area under discussion by Mr. Hillier falls into this zone. There is no need to create another zone for this.
Which leads me to wonder … what are Mr. Hillier’s blue zones for?