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University Addresses Residents' Concerns Over E-Quad Expansion

Matthew Hersh

As Princeton University officials continue to seek approval of an ordinance that would expand the development rights of Princeton University's Engineering School Quadrangle, the school has formally responded to growing concerns from residents who worry that more development will have an adverse impact on their neighborhood.

Robert Durkee, vice president and secretary of the University, has submitted a letter to the Regional Planning Board of Princeton in an effort to answer a list of concerns put forth by residents seeking to curb expansion.

Princeton Borough's E-3 zoning district, comprising the University's E-Quad, has been under consideration for expansion to enable the University to build on its current campus rather than expand on lands outside of the community, in keeping with a "smart growth" campus. The changes, first proposed earlier this year to Borough Council, which tabled an ordinance introduction in June, would allow for an additional 100,000 square feet of development; create a "no-build," buffer zone of 150 feet west of Murray Place, which includes a 50-foot heavily landscaped buffer; and require the use of a jitney transportation system to shuttle employees and students to the Engineering School.

The University is not seeking changes in height allowances.

But Residents of nearby Murray Place, which lies directly to the east of the zone, are living through a struggle they thought had ended 15 years ago when the Borough created the E-3 to enable the University to build an additional 200,000 square feet, plus 140,000 square feet for the existing garage, resulting, to date, in 623,316 square feet of development. The University is proposing to demolish 56,283 square feet and build 238,645 square feet, for a total 668,206 square feet of development including the garage.

So when the University came back to Borough Council this year to seek additional square footage, many residents were caught off guard.

"It was a surprise to us, that there was the recent proposal to this change ‹ because what we've seen in the last 15 years, is a very significant -increase of the flow of traffic on our street," said Martin Schneiderman, a Murray Place resident. He added that he and his neighbors were concerned not only with the volume of traffic, but the speed of the cars that, residents feel, are present because of the University's expansion.

As the possibility of an expansion of the University's development rights looms, neighbors fear that traffic will only get worse, even with the University's jitney proposal promising to reduce traffic flow.

"The issue is that the University said they had enough [space] back then," Mr. Schneiderman said, referring to the 1990 creation of the E-3.

But that was before the University decided not to raze two dilapidated buildings at the corner of Olden and William streets to further the Engineering School. With the jitney system in place, and at the recommendation of Marvin Reed, who in 1990, as Borough Council president, oversaw the creation of the E-3, the University began to revisit the building capabilities of the project.

"What could we build on that site, while still respecting the importance of buffering behind the neighbors, while living within the height limitations?"

The answer, Mr. Durkee said, was that building 100,000 additional square feet on the existing campus was preferable to building on an area that abuts Nassau Street.

"It wouldn't create additional parking needs or traffic on the site, because we would be using the shuttle system," he added.

And that is what has changed since 1990.

"Here's a way that a significant University need can be accommodated without imposing additional impact on Murray Place."

The University's current strategy is to demolish buildings closest to Murray Place, and move new construction back 150 feet. Proposed razing includes the G Wing and Von Neumann Hall, resulting in the aforementioned 56,283 square feet.

"That seems to be a better way to meet that need than trying to find another location for those 100,000 square feet someplace else in that area ‹ I think it's as simple as that," Mr. Durkee said.

Residents, however, are seeing things in a more complicated light. When the expansion ordinance was tabled at Borough Council, one of the key concerns put forth by those living on Murray Place was about what, exactly, the University intended to build, but University representatives could not offer specifics; a specific application would go before the Borough Zoning Board of Adjustment, but to redefine a zoning district only requires more nebulous conceptual plans. This distinction does not sit well with many residents.

"They said Œwe have no plans for construction'," Mr. Schneiderman said. "The University's not getting much sympathy at this point because nobody understands enough about what it is the University wants to do and how they would do it ‹ it's been very non-committal."

And while the University has promised to increase the buffer to 150 feet, residents worry that new construction will bring brighter lighting and noisy HVAC units that had not previously existed. In fact, Von Neumann Hall, a building that lies as close as 25 feet to Murray Place backyards, is virtually unused. The perception is that new buildings, while farther away, will produce more activity ‹ potentially allowing the University to continue building so-called "high impact" structures on-site.

"It leaves the door wide open," Mr. Schneiderman said. "The fundamental question is not Œhow do you build the buildings?' but ŒDo you build them?'", he added. "What we heard the neighbors saying is ŒWhen is enough enough?'"

But Mr. Durkee said the same question could have been asked 15 years ago when the zone was first changed and there would not have been a solid answer then either.

"In fact, 82,000 square feet we were given at that point still isn't constructed ‹ we still don't know everything's that going to be constructed in the initial capacity."

In addition, Mr. Durkee said, the academic field that provides for the Operations, Research, and Financial Engineering (ORFE) department (now located on the E-Quad) did not exist in 1990. "No one in 1990 could have said Œyou know, within 15 years we could need a home for [ORFE],' so, in a way, we're in the same dilemma now that we were then."

"We can't look down the road and say ŒHere is exactly what we would do with all the square-footage over time.' We can't do that."

But what Mr. Durkee and his office did do was look at the E-Quad in 1990 and how it's grown, and used those numbers to provide for a projection of what could happen in the future.

"If you want a sense of what is going to be going on at that site 20 years from now, the most likely answer is it would be a lot like what is going on now, it would just be more of it," he said, adding that the proposed setbacks would keep construction away from the private homes.

"If you stand in the parking lot that exists now between the Engineering School and Murray Place, the experience you would get in the future and the experience you get now ought to be about the same," Mr. Durkee said.

Andrea Stine of Murray Place, said that in addition to her neighbors' concerns, the residents "should have been involved early," in the University's planning process. That foresight worked in 1990, she said, when the original E-3 application resulted "in a good compromise."

The University, Mr. Durkee said, is looking for the same middle ground.

The Regional Planning Board is scheduled to revisit the E-3 expansion on October 6 when they will decide to refer the ordinance to Borough Council

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