Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 17
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
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Zoning Board Gives University Green Light For Renovation of “Town Topics Building”

Dilshanie Perera

Standing vacant for over two years, the Princeton University-owned building at 4 Mercer Street recently received the go-ahead from the Borough Zoning Board in a 6-1 vote to utilize the ground floor for offices, with the upper floors used as two residential units.

Board members Steve Cohen, Lavinia Hall, Ryan Lilienthal, Russ McFarlane, Ann McGoldrick, and Thomas Pinneo voted in favor of the variances that allow the University to proceed, while Michael Floyd opposed the measure on grounds that no deed restriction for corresponding parking was created.

Known colloquially as the “Town Topics Building,” since this newspaper used to occupy the space prior to moving to its present location, the edifice at 4 Mercer Street was first constructed in 1878, when it sat on Nassau Street. It was moved back a few feet to Mercer Street in 1914, and Priest’s Pharmacy occupied the ground floor until 1944.

Attorney Richard Goldman of Drinker Biddle & Reath explained that the University’s goal in renovating the structure was to “restore the building to its historical look, and also restore it to its historical downtown use,” adding that benefits to the area included reducing building size, and improving the surrounding landscape.

Engineer Tom O’Shea observed that the renovations would result in a net decrease of impervious surfacing by over 3,000 square feet. Currently, the existing parking lot contains 28 spaces, and the lot at the rear of the building has room for approximately five spaces, with an additional two-car garage on site.

Vehicular access to the building’s parking lot will flow one-way, entering on Mercer, and exiting onto University Place, with an 18-foot-wide driveway. Noting that the ingress and egress were purposefully determined, Mr. O’Shea said that it would be easier to to access Nassau Street from the one-way route.

Responding to a question from Mr. Floyd about parking, Mr. Goldman noted that the spaces on site would be part of the University’s larger system, which is monitored and managed to accommodate supply and demand. “Since we own both lots, and they are part of the University’s global system, we felt that a deed restriction was not necessary,” he said, adding that such a restriction may hamper flexibility within the University’s parking system in general.

Mr. Floyd advocated for a deed restriction that would require a certain number of parking spaces provided for the building to remain on site.

Architect Robert Russell said that the University sought “to conform to [the building’s] historic use,” pointing out that the edifice itself had changed little since its construction. Utilizing the first floor as University office space “does not conform with the current zoning, but is consistent with the wishes of the Historic Preservation Review Commission and the historic use of the building,” he said.

Assuring the Board that no alteration of the front facade would be made aside from taking down the window air conditioning unit, Mr. Russell noted that the major renovation would involve an infill for the upstairs floors, such that the front of the building and back of the building align. Currently they are at slightly different heights.

Signage would be unobtrusive and would likely be painted on the glass frontage, he added.

Zoning Officer Derek Bridger said that 4 Mercer Street had been used for a mixture of offices and apartments over time, while Ms. McGoldrick reminded those present that the reason it no longer conformed to the zoning code was because it was vacant for over a year, and thus reverted back to its residential use since the permitted grandfathered use is dropped after that time period.

Reception to the proposal was generally positive, with no neighbors speaking out against the changes. Board members supported most aspects of the plan, with Mr. Cohen saying “this will be a welcome addition to the street,” and that “the variances would have no negative impact on the neighborhood.”

“I think that this is an improvement,” Mr. Floyd acknowledged, but noted that he was wary of the absence of a deed restriction linking the parking on site to the building.

Mr. Lilienthal said that the parking restriction for the site was not problematic for him, but that there was a concern about setting a precedent for future cases. “But we do have a distinction with the University,” he reasoned.

“I think that the case has been made by the applicant that there will not a be a negative impact,” Ms. McGoldrick said. “This is a good fit for the Zoning code and Master Plan.”

Director of Community and Regional Affairs for the University Kristin Appelget said that while the specific construction and opening schedule have yet to be determined, and while it is too soon to know which tenants will live in the residential units, and which will occupy the first floor, “we are pleased to have approvals from the Zoning Board that will enable us to move forward with this project.”

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