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No Harmony for Jazz Club

Matthew Hersh

A proposal for an as-yet-approved jazz club on Bayard Lane was met with an outpouring of neighborhood opposition last week.

The contentious scene took place last Wednesday night as the Princeton Township Zoning Board of Adjustment met before a packed house to consider the second half of an application seeking site plan approval of a 10,750-square-foot restaurant on the former Mike's Tavern site at the corner of Bayard Lane and Birch Avenue.

The hearing, which was not completed due to time constraints, was extended to May 3 at 7:30 at Township Hall.

The applicant, Hageman Lane resident Stephen Distler, received a use variance for the site in April 2004, along with the recommendation of the Site Plan Review Advisory Board, but must overcome this final obstacle before the first note is played.

Residents objecting to the club, designed by Triumph Brewing Co. architect Terence Smith, worried that the 159-seat restaurant would generate a volume of traffic and noise not suitable for that neighborhood.

The Zoning Board session, residents complained, did not allow enough time for every comment to be heard. Board hearings typically offer a half hour for public comment.

An adequate public hearing will come when the testimonial has been delivered to the Board in its entirety, said Carlos Rodrigues yesterday. "You've got to have a substantive basis for public comment and obviously, people have things to say," he said, adding that allowing public comment earlier would put on the record "preconceived notions of what the application may or may not be."

The club, which would lie on the periphery of the John-Witherspoon neighborhood along Route 206, would enter a neighborhood that has long battled continued development. Last year, after a years-long disagreement with many residents, the Princeton Regional Planning Board finally approved a plan that would allow the Arts Council of Princeton to expand its facilities on-site The proposed club lies in a commercial zoning district, the S-2, which allows for uses "conducive to heavy trucking and to bus transportation" and for "uses characterized by a moderate amount of dust and noise." The zone also -allows for commercial garages and gasoline service stations, as well as retail stores.

But the S-2 also abuts the R-9 residential zone. Area residents fear that two nightly jazz performances, combined with the regular clientele of the restaurant, which would be open until 1 a.m., would create disturbances that nearby businesses like the Shell Station do not.

But Mr. Distler said that his restaurant, tentatively called "Astons," would not generate the kind of activity that has been described by the club's detractors.

"Some places have people who play all night, with folks coming in and buying drinks and doing what they want – this is not what we're planning on doing," he said, adding that reservations and table turnover would be handled in a manner that would leave "two-hour windows" for patrons during each performance.

"The idea is that we want to ensure that we can move the people out freely from the first performance before people start showing up for the second performance."

Mr. Distler said that while he expected some people to stay at the bar up until closing, the "bulk of the people" would leave the restaurant by 11 p.m.

The valet-only parking during dinner hours troubled some Board members. Mr. Distler, who also owns the former Stefanelli's Garage at the corner of Bayard Lane and Leigh Avenue, had once intended to use that area as off-site parking. That element of the plan was withdrawn, however, in the face of the lawsuit filed that claimed Mr. Distler violated state municipal land use laws by not notifying residents within 200 feet of that property. A New Jersey Superior Court Judge rejected the plaintiff position that the withdrawal of off-site parking was a "ploy to limit notice and avoid the parking needs of the proposed jazz club."

With off-site parking out of the picture, Mr. Distler first outlined to SPRAB in February a system that would provide all parking on-site with stacked – or closed in – spaces.

But Zoning Board member Janet Stern worried that customers who did not want to partake in a valet-only system would opt to park on the nearby residential streets.

Mr. Distler said that while he can encourage customers to use the valet system, he would not be able to determine where people park.

One Bayard Lane resident wondered why the application hearing was taking place at all: "We're talking about putting a night club in a residential neighborhood – why does anything else have to be said?"

Harris Road resident James Floyd asked the Zoning Board to "look beyond the immediate neighborhood."

"This is a very vulnerable neighborhood. Think in terms of the citizens who have spent a lifetime on these streets."


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