Planning Board asks Historic Preservation Commission for courtesy review

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LEA KAHN/STAFF
The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission has been asked to review the potential demolition of 70-74 Witherspoon St., which houses the Terra Momo Bread Company and A Little Taste of Cuba cigar store.

The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission has been asked to review the potential demolition of 70-74 Witherspoon St., which houses the Terra Momo Bread Company and A Little Taste of Cuba cigar store.

The Princeton Planning Board made the request for a courtesy review of property owner CRX Associates LLC’s plan to tear down the building and to replace it with a new, mixed-use building at its April 21 meeting. A courtesy review is non-binding.

CRX Associates has filed an application that calls for demolishing the building and constructing a new one that would have commercial space on the first floor and apartments on the upper floors, Planning Director Michael LaPlace told the Planning Board.

LaPlace said the Planning Department staff was concerned when it learned of CRX Associates’ proposal. The application is still under review, and the staff has had discussions with CRX Associates about the proposed demolition of the building, he said.

“We became very concerned (about the proposed demolition). It’s a very beautiful building. It’s a very old building, and it is on one of the most historic streets in Princeton,” LaPlace said.

The staff has urged CRX Associates to consider incorporating the building into the new one, but the applicant is unwilling to do so, LaPlace said. The staff thought it would be advisable for the Historic Preservation Commission to review it in an advisory capacity, he said.

The building at 70-74 Witherspoon St. is in a historic preservation no-man’s-land. It is between the Central Historic District, which encompasses the central business district, and the Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District.

The building was considered for inclusion in the Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District but it was left out of the district because it is on the opposite side of Paul Robeson Place, which is the southern boundary of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District.

Planning Board member Nat Bottigheimer was leaning toward the plan to demolish the building and to construct a new one because it would help to “activate” Witherspoon Street and bring in new businesses and residents.

But Bottigheimer also said he was concerned that bringing in the Historic Preservation Commission for a courtesy review might start a conversation that could turn negative.

Planning Board member Tim Quinn said “part of the inspiration” for the courtesy review is the building’s historic ties to Princeton’s Black community. It was part of the historically Black Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.

The driveway alongside of 70-74 Witherspoon St. is all that is left of Jackson Street, which formed the southern border of the historically Black Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. The bluestone curb is still visible, and the small park is on land that belongs to the town.

The building at 70-74 Witherspoon St. was the site of Virginia Mill’s Beauty Salon, which was a Black-owned business, according to the town’s website. The Terra Momo Bread Company store was the site of Toto’s Market for many years. Flory and Lucy Toto bought the building in 1924, and their heirs sold it to CRX Associates in 1997.

“I think as a town, we should show greater sensitivity when we can save such a structure,” Quinn said. Some developers have worked with the town to incorporate an old or historic building into their development, he said.

“Just because it is not in an historic district doesn’t mean it’s not historically significant and not worth saving. (But) I am also one who believes not everything is necessarily worth saving or can be saved. That’s the reason for the Historic Preservation Commission review,” Quinn said.

Princeton Historic Preservation Officer Elizabeth Kim said the Historic Preservation Commission understands that properties, lifestyles and economics evolve. There have been modifications and additions made to properties, with an eye toward preserving as much of the historic character as possible.

“I think what the commission doesn’t want to see is that Princeton loses that great history and architecture that so many people come in for. That’s what attracts visitors. If you lose those elements, I think you are losing part of Princeton,” Kim said.

Kim said the building at 70-74 Witherspoon St. is “very viable right now.” The Terra Momo Bread Company is one of the most successful businesses on Witherspoon Street, and “we don’t want them to leave. We want to work with the business,” she said.

LaPlace said the Planning Department was surprised that CRX Associates is not interested in incorporating the building into its plans. The owner wants to move ahead with its plans, he said.

Planning Board Chairman Louise Wilson said she hoped that CRX Associates would meet with the Historic Preservation Commission.

“All we can do is to ask them to engage in good faith. If they refuse, the Historic Preservation Commission can opine on the history of the property and its significance in the neighborhood and the community, architecturally,” Wilson said.

It was agreed that the application should be scheduled for a Historic Preservation Commission meeting for review. The applicant may decline to attend, but the commission can still review it and look at the proposed design of the building.