Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 32
 
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
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AT PRINCETON'S SERVICE: As new development comes to town, some planners and business owners worry that service areas, that house auto repair shops, gas stations, and appliance and repair enterprises, could fade away. A group of local principals recently won approval from the Township Zoning Board of Adjustment to transform the former Stefanelli's Automotive at the corner of Bayard Lane and Leigh Avenue, shown above, into a high-end restaurant.

Whither Princeton's Service Industry? Fading Service Zones a Concern

Matthew Hersh

Nearly three years ago, Mike's Tavern, a tiny bar at the corner of Birch Avenue and Bayard Lane served up its last drink, closing the door for good on the 80-year reign of one of Princeton's many storied institutions.

The following year, another well known, locally owned business, Stefanelli's Automotive, located a block south on Bayard at the Leigh Avenue intersection, also closed shop. Along with Mike's departure, the two long-time businesses not only served the community, but also fell into the much-discussed-of-late service industry category.

As Princeton planners grapple with state-mandated updates to the Princeton Community Master Plan, the Regional Planning Board of Princeton has taken on the challenge of looking for ways to preserve Princeton's service industry.

Now planners are worrying that three different areas in both the Borough and Township are at risk: the Alexander Street corridor service district, the service area on the eastern commercial end of Nassau Street, and the four-lot service district on Bayard Lane roughly located between Birch and Leigh Avenues.

In recent years, businesses in all three of those districts have been subject to a slow transformation from economic transition; development pressure from surrounding areas; or simply the changing tide of older businesses that had faded with time. But in the 2007 review of the Princeton Community Master Plan, those changes have become increasingly evident. Princeton University, which owns a majority of properties on Alexander Street from Basin Street to University Place, intends to recreate a gateway to Princeton via a proposed arts neighborhood. That corridor, most notably home to Larini's Service Center at 272 Alexander Street, and the former Grover Lumber Yard, now a storage facility, will likely see significant change in the coming years, losing some of its industrial identity.

East Nassau Street, once home to a myriad of gas and auto repair stations, has also undergone a recent transformation. In that area, just outside the Borough's Central Business District, one can now find everything from a celebrated independent sub shop to a local coffee house, from a shipshape seafood spot to high-end condominiums. There are still, it should be noted, two successful service stations operating there.

Further, some of the businesses on East Nassau, once known as Gasoline Alley, still have the appearance of service stations: the architecture of Jay's Cycles, Nassau Grape & Grain, and the Ivy Inn was not meant to serve as an homage to old garages — those buildings were actually old garages.

"Questions arise as to where the community will find its service facilities," said Marvin Reed, the former Borough mayor who now chairs the Planning Board's Master Plan Subcommittee. In reference to Princeton University's proposed redevelopment of Alexander Street, Mr. Reed, in a May 2007 memo to the Planning Board, called for closer examination of the "future intentions" of the Alexander Street properties, and, from a larger community standpoint, a determination of where else in the community to locate service uses.

Mr. Reed cited the Stefanelli's site, as well as four West Windsor service stations dotting the intersections of Route 1 and Harrison Street and Route 1 and Washington Road that are slated for demolition as the state looks to replace the Millstone River Bridge and build an overpass at Washington Road. "That's a reduction of five at a time when business and traffic in Princeton is increasing," Mr. Reed said.

But other service businesses could be threatened as well. The property at 190 Witherspoon Street that has had an 18-year tenant in Jefferson Bath and Kitchen has been sold for townhouse development, and Jefferson principals say that the threat of leaving Princeton is emblematic of changing times.

"We service about 80 percent of this neighborhood," said Jill Jefferson, Jefferson Bath and Kitchen project manager, in an interview in June. "It's sometimes easier to go to the bigger stores, but people will come to us because they know the local merchant."

The most recent change, just blocks away from Jefferson, will come in the form of a bank and a high-end restaurant. Both locally owned and operated, the Bank of Princeton will open a second office in addition to the one that operates on Chambers Street in the Borough at the former Mike's Tavern site, and a restaurant, Elements, which shares some common principals with the bank, is now slated to transform Stefanelli's.

The result will be a significant change to an area that, just three years ago, was home to a bar, a car rental and garage center, and the still-operating Shell gas station in between the two.

Princeton Township created the service zone on Alexander Street and the one north on Route 206 near the Montgomery Township border, around 1946, with the four-lot service district on Bayard Lane created nearly a decade later in 1955.

From a land-use point of view, municipal officials have looked at the S-2 area through a variety of lenses. The western side of Route 206 has a more residential frontage, but the more industrial eastern side faces the roadway, with a residential neighborhood set further back from the road.

This posed a problem with residents from both sides of Bayard Lane. In 2005, when the Township Zoning Board considered a proposal to build a jazz bar and restaurant at the old Mike's Tavern site, the neighborhood balked. After significant public dissent, and a lawsuit against the Zoning Board (an appellate court judge eventually favored the Zoning Board) that proposal disappeared, though residents still complained of the conflict presented in a service district being lodged between two residential neighborhoods — albeit located off of a major state highway, where service areas are often found.

But some zoning officials familiar with the bank and restaurant applications have said that the new uses will be more appropriate for that area, not necessarily because of neighborhood context, but because the shallow lots are not typical of service lots, and are potentially more amenable to a bank or a restaurant. In fact, the requirements for the S-2 zone call for deeper lots, and none of the four lots in that area conform to the zone's requirements.

At the end of the day, however, it comes down to losing locally owned business, no matter how gritty, Mr. Reed said. In his memo to the Planning Board, he called for new thinking allowing for "local plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and home maintenance suppliers [to] find reasonable rent to continue to operate."

For businesses like Jefferson, location matters in serving its customer base: "When it comes to service, nine out of ten times, people want to support the local business," Ms. Jefferson said.

"And that's what matters."

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