By a narrow margin, as expected, the Princeton Borough Council cast a 3-2 vote last Tuesday in favor of an ordinance that will allow an additional 100,000 square feet of development capacity in the Borough's E-3 zoning district.
Changes to the zone, which encompasses Princeton University's Engineering Quadrangle (E-Quad), were sought by the University as it looked for a new home for its Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM), a building that could potentially exceed 100,000 square feet.
Before the ordinance was approved, the E-3 contained about 82,000 remaining square feet of buildable space, but with the passing of the ordinance, space open to development of the area, roughly bound by Washington Road, Murray Place, William Street, and Prospect Avenue, will increase to 300,000 square feet.
The increase in allowed developable space has been the center of a nearly-year-long debate about how to handle the University's growth as related to the school's annual voluntary contributions to the Borough. Though a tax exempt institution, Princeton is the largest tax payer in both the Borough and Township as it pays sewer and full property tax on several graduate facilities. The University's tax contribution for 2005 reached approximately $8 million, with its voluntary contribution reaching roughly $800,000.
Several members of Council worried that this ordinance would generate an influx of traffic, thus causing greater strains on the Borough's infrastructure, including roads and emergency services.
With two members of Council, Roger Martindell and David Goldfarb, voting against the measure, the changes for the zone are expected to prolong a town-gown dialogue likely to result in increased University contributions to the Borough after the new year.
The ordinance approval follows a lengthy dialogue between the University and residents of the Murray Place neighborhood, which abuts the E-3 on the eastern end. Residents there were worried that any new construction would cause more traffic and parking on side streets, and that new buildings would be visible from residences.
Additional compromises reached between the neighbors and the University included assurances for low-impact buildings, the retaining of a 250-foot landscaped buffer between any development and the homes, and the permanent closure of a driveway behind Murray Place.
In a somewhat unorthodox move, the University incorporated the use of its shuttle system, P-Rides, to offset additional parking and traffic. Under the new code, many users of the E-Quad will be required to be shuttled in from off site, in addition to using the parking garage that already exists. While perhaps not the first of its kind, the ordinance passed last Tuesday is rare, and could indicate a trend toward including public transit in ordinances to mitigate increases in parking requirements.
Prior to 1990, when the E-3 zone was established, the entire area was, in effect, not subject to zoning control. Developable space for the E-Quad at the time was upwards of 900,000 square feet and was "zoned down" when the University expressed a desire for further expansion. At the time, the main concern was to make sure there was enough parking in the neighborhood and to determine whether the now-existing parking garage should be built in the first place.
"From a Planning Board point of view, it was essential to build the garage because otherwise you'd have spill-over parking all over the nearby neighborhoods," said Marvin Reed in an interview Monday. Currently a member of the Regional Planning Board, Mr. Reed had worked on the original ordinance as both Borough Council president and subsequently as mayor.
As stipulated in the original 1990 E-3 ordinance, parking requirements for that zone had to be nearby and provided by the University.
At the same time, the Borough put restrictive two-hour parking limits on adjacent streets to deter University employees and students using the E-Quad from parking on neighborhood throughways.
But with last week's 100,000 square-foot increase in the E-3 and with the University's plans to build PRISM on the site, "there wasn't very much room left to put in additional parking," Mr. Reed said.
That basically left the University and the Borough in a position to contemplate what had changed in the 15 years since the E-3 was established, the most substantial change being the University's institution of the shuttle system.
"Rather than just building more and more parking lots and garages close to the center of town, it was in the Planning Board's interest that the shuttle worked and was maintained," Mr. Reed said. A stipulation in the newly-enacted E-3 ordinance is the annual review of the shuttle's efficacy and maintenance.
Mr. Reed said that the built-out nature of the Borough, especially toward the Central Business District, could one day lead to having broader shuttle or jitney requirements to subsidize parking for future development.
"Conceivably in the future, the ordinance might expand in other ways to accommodate and give us a better way of managing our parking situation rather than simply tearing down buildings to create parking lots," he said.
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