At the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood meeting last Saturday, local residents heard details of a proposal to apply for ‘historic district’ status for the area around John Street in Princeton. If this application is successful, the Witherspoon-Jackson area would become the fifth officially-recognized historic district in Princeton. The designation would mean that homeowners in the historic district would have to request permission from the Historic Preservation Commission any time they wanted to make modifications to their properties. A similar proposal to obtain historic district designation for the so-called ‘Morvern Tract’ in Princeton’s Western Section was shelved in 2012 after objections from residents. Would historic district status be more appropriate for the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood?
What is called the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood is usually taken to mean the close-packed residences between Witherspoon Street on the east and Route 206 on the west, with Birch Avenue at the north side and Paul Robeson Place to the south. Those borders are certainly not official, and the exact borders of any historic district are a potential subject of debate. What is clear is that this is one of Princeton’s most historic areas. Its homes have housed Irish and Italian immigrants, a long-standing African-American population, and more recently, a large Hispanic community. Infamously, many of Princeton’s African-American residents were relocated to the area during the construction of Palmer Square. Their community developed with its own stores and businesses, acquiring a unique culture among Princeton’s neighborhoods.
The drive for historic district status can be understood based on the fear of loss of the neighborhood’s historic properties. This week, municipal officials are hosting a meeting at the town hall to discuss plans to acquire a property at 31-33 Lytle Street. The plan involves razing the historic building, which dates from 1870, and converting it into a park. (Municipal officials insist that the demolition will go ahead regardless of whether the town purchases the site.) It’s understandable that the loss of neighborhood character like this motivates an urge to protect the character of other buildings in the area. But a historic district would potentially be an onerous way to achieve this aim.
Residents of a historic district would be required to make themselves available before a panel of municipal officials to request the right to modify their own properties. Choices of windows and front doors could be rejected, and even basic maintenance would need to be put on file with the Historic Preservation Commission. These requirements are a large part of why many neighbors of the proposed ‘Morvern Tract’ had lawyers at the ready when the town proposed making their neighborhood a historic district. Last Saturday, advocates of historic designation argued that much of the opposition was misplaced and based on fear. But it is a fact, that, for example, if you want to put solar panels, on a roof on the front or side of your house, this can be denied by the Historic Preservation Commission. This is certainly a burden.
Historic designation would also make it much more difficult for homeowners to add on to existing properties. Additions would have to go through the Historic Preservation Commission, adding uncertainty and expense to the process of improving a property. Any modification that would be visible from the street would be subject to review, and the criteria for that review are vague and subjective. This is likely to be a question of particular concern for young families, in what is one of the few areas in Princeton where ‘starter homes’ are still available.
The broader question of affordability is one of the biggest concerns about making the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood a historic district. This neighborhood is traditionally where working class people in Princeton live, and that is still the case. It is uncertain whether historic designation would increase or decrease availability of properties suitable for people on limited incomes. Existing properties would be more likely to be preserved, but they could be subject to boutique makeovers targeting wealthy clients, carried out by upmarket architecture practices who are familiar with working the municipal boards and commissions. Flexibility and adaptivity of use of existing properties are potentially more likely to allow existing residents (and their families) to be accommodated.
The next step for the historic district application is likely to be a discussion before Princeton Council, before it goes to the State for review. That discussion has not been scheduled at this point, but is likely to come up some time later this year. It will be interesting to see what boundaries are selected for any potential historic district, and what properties will be excluded. The proposal is likely to once again divide opinion, although the neighbors at the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood meeting last week seemed receptive to the idea. Either way, this neighborhood will remain one of Princeton’s most historic and interesting areas.
What’s your view on making Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood a historic district? Do you see it as having more benefits than risks? Let us know in the comments section below.