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Vol. LXI, No. 34
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
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Borough Hall Considers Giving a Bit Back to Spruce Up a Restaurant's Rear View

Matthew Hersh

Once upon a time, Huei Tsai's commercial building in downtown Princeton backed up to a parking lot, where no one would think twice about seeing whatever picture the back of a restaurant might paint.

Nowadays, the back of that building at the corner of Witherspoon and Spring streets unabashedly faces a successful revival of public space featuring mixed use buildings, a public library that is liberally described as the "community's living room," all in a place that is now named after a late, beloved Princeton centenarian who saw much of Princeton's 20th century transformation.

Located at 39-43 Witherspoon Street, Mr. Tsai's building houses The Place to Bead, Village Silver, and Sakura Express, whose rear entrance is the one in question. As Mr. Tsai looks to acquire a narrow easement, currently on Borough property, to build a one-story addition that would replace the narrow alley between his building and the plaza, his building could be undergoing a beautification of its own.

The request, which is likely to be granted, first has to be reviewed by the Borough's Historic Preservation Review Committee, as the site falls in the Borough's Central Business District. The proposal outlines a low wall without openings, built on the undeveloped foundation, providing a "neat and orderly background to the pergola and planting bed," along the edge of the plaza, according Mr. Tsai's architect, William Wolfe, in a June 25 letter submitted to Borough Council.

The pergola, the final portion of the Borough's first phase of its downtown redevelopment project, is slated to get underway in the next few weeks, according to Borough officials, and while work on Mr. Tsai's building will likely not begin until later this fall or spring of next year, that area on the plaza could begin to look more like a public space, Mr. Wolfe said.

"Right now, it is what it is: it looks like the back of a restaurant," he said in a separate interview.

After several meetings with the Borough, Mr. Tsai and Borough engineer Carl Peters decided to put a wall on the property line and in doing so, contain not only trash generated by Sakura House, but employee circulation to and from the street.

No date for HPRC review has been set, and the proposal still needs to undergo zoning review, but Mr. Wolfe said he hoped for a review by the first week of October.

The entire discussion, Mr. Peters said, began after the plaza was complete, and dampness and minor flooding started to appear in the building's basement. A drain will be installed under the pergola to address that, but "then we started talking about the trash and the grease, and it's not attractive, especially in the summertime," Mr. Peters said.

Mr. Tsai's request may not be complicated in itself, Mr. Peters said, but it is administratively complicated.

"That building's been there since the 1800s: it predates zoning, but we think that this will spruce up that side of the plaza."

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