Princeton is well known as a town that appreciates open space, to the extent that 27% of the town is made up of preserved land. Extraordinarily, however, it seems that the town hall for the old Princeton Township was constructed on preserved open space. The old Princeton Township town hall lives on as the “Princeton Municipal Complex” at 400 Witherspoon St. Also known as “Witherspoon Hall”, the building has been the site for all Council meetings since consolidation of the old Princeton Borough and Princeton Township in 2013. The building opened in 2002, and it seems that nobody noticed that it had been built on preserved land.
The mistake was noticed after the recent completion of a full catalog of all Princeton preserved lands (see report: “New Map of Princeton Parks and Open Spaces Released“). Princeton municipal planner Justin Lesko confirmed the problem at a meeting of the Princeton Planning Board on March 2. About 3 acres of protected land, which was intended to be part of Community Park South, was used to build the Princeton Township hall and the adjoining parking lot. Lesko confirmed that the town had notified the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection about the oversight.
The good news is that the town will probably not have to tear down the municipal complex at 400 Witherspoon Street. Instead, the unlawfully-diverted open space could be replaced by protecting other undeveloped land. Lesko said that it would probably be necessary for the town to provide new open space at a 3:1 ratio compared to what had been used, i.e. about 9 acres of new open space would have to be acquired by the town. Signs erected in the parking lot of 400 Witherspoon St indicate that a ‘scoping hearing’ will take place, involving NJDEP, on April 17, 2023. Public comment will be welcomed at a public hearing in Princeton on April 3 at 7.00 p.m. Members of the public may also comment by writing to the town or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The parking lot next to the Municipal Building had been built before the swimming pool complex in the 1960’s, and was in use all the time the old High School across the street was used as the Municipal Building. So, collective ‘overlooking’ is not a recent phenomenon.