Princeton’s Council members indicated earlier this month that they will create a new historic district in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. The measure drew significant support, particularly from members of the African-American community, who have historically made up the largest share of residents. However Council’s enthusiasm for preservation risks going too far, as the boundaries for the proposed historic district are set to include parts of Witherspoon Street – a major local thoroughfare – which contain few historic structures, and which would benefit more from orderly redevelopment.
Consultants retained by the town proposed a historic district beyond the area they were asked to study. Whereas the study area was west of Witherspoon Street and south of Leigh Avenue, the consultants extended the proposed district to include all of Birch Avenue and a swathe of buildings on the east side of Witherspoon (compare the black vs blue lines at this map at PlanetPrinceton.com). Although Witherspoon Street includes important historic sites at the southern end close to town, there are no key contributing properties, and a relatively high share of non-contributory properties north of MacLean Street. Put another way, there are few really important properties in this area, and a good number of properties that are either mundane or just an eyesore.
Having a larger historic district is likely to slow or prevent redevelopment of these properties along the central Witherspoon corridor. In addition to the structures, which are of very variable quality, the streetscape also needs improvement. The sidewalks and verges are in poor shape, and there are many ugly utility poles. Council seemed poised to move toward enabling orderly redevelopment last year, when they considered a proposal to harmonize zoning along the Witherspoon corridor. But the process seems to have broken down into inaction. Inertia is not the only problem – local residents will soon have to contend with a large new ambulance station at Witherspoon & Valley, and potential expansion of the firehouse at 363 Witherspoon St. Staying the same is not an option for the Witherspoon corridor, and for local residents and street users, things could get worse.
Instead of freezing central Witherspoon Street in its current condition, Council could revise the boundaries of the historic district to focus on the residential areas of the neighborhood, and the important properties closer to town. The historic district would still be huge, with the largest number of properties of any historic district in town. But greater flexibility along Witherspoon north of MacLean would allow orderly redevelopment to beautify this key approach route to downtown. Redevelopment could and should include much-needed new affordable housing, amenities to serve the neighborhood, and improvements to the street layout to make it safer and more convenient for people on foot, on bicycles, or users of the 606 bus. Council can improve this section of Witherspoon for everybody, and it can go hand-in-hand with creation of the new historic district.