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Jazz Club Proposal Hits a Major Chord With Board Approval

Matthew Hersh

A proposal to build a jazz club on the former site of Mike's Tavern on Bayard Lane received a boost last week when members of the Site Plan Review Advisory Board of the Princeton Regional Planning Board (SPRAB) voted to recommend the plans despite anticipated legal battles. The vote will recommend the approval of plans to tear down the current structure to make way for a 10,750-square-foot, three-level building that would house a 159-seat restaurant serving lunch and dinner seven days a week and featuring live jazz performances.

While the applicant, Hageman Lane resident Stephen Distler, is proposing to demolish the existing building on-site, the application only needs final zoning board approval, not planning board, because he is only seeking a use variance. Mr. Distler is working with architect Terrence Smith, who also designed Triumph Brewing Company on Nassau Street and in New Hope. In April 2004, the zoning board approved the application to use an undersized lot for the purpose of the proposed club, tentatively titled "Astons." The minimum lot size of that zoning district, the S-2, is 32,670 square feet. Astons' proposed lot size, a combination of three lots to be consolidated, is just under 25,000 square feet.

The original application had included satellite parking just south on Bayard Lane near the corner of Leigh Avenue at the former Stefanelli's Automotive Garage, a property that Mr. Distler also owns. But that element was withdrawn in the face of a lawsuit by opposed residents claiming that while Mr. Distler had informed residents within 200 feet of the former Mike's Tavern, he had not sent notice to those residents within 200 feet of Stefanelli's, thus allegedly violating municipal land use law.

That case is still pending, however. A hearing with Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg is scheduled for February 25 and will look at the Astons application as it was approved by the zoning board ‹ with the off-site parking. The lawsuit also charges that the zoning board did not consider neighboring residents' objections to having a restaurant with live music on that site.

The parking situation was made more complicated with the withdrawal of the off-site parking, but was addressed by the applicant, who proposed having an all-valet system during dinner hours. As such, parking would be provided for a maximum of 165 patrons, and valets could stack cars in, rather than accommodate each car with an individual space. Additionally, Mr. Distler would not have to provide parking for an originally-proposed package goods store. That plan has also been removed from his proposal. "The package store caused more trouble than it was worth," he said. "We liked the idea, but it's not worth the hassle." For the dinnertime valet parking, the only way in to Astons would be specified, from Birch Avenue, with only one way out by turning right on Bayard Lane (Route 206) headed north toward Montgomery Township. During lunch, cars could enter and exit on Birch, but would still be restricted to right turns only on Bayard.

Part of the application provides for a turning lane for cars travelling south on Bayard toward Princeton and looking to turn left onto Birch to get access to the restaurant.

Astons would hold two jazz shows a night, seven days a week, but Mr. Distler said he wanted to reserve the option of holding a third show from 11 p.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

In an apparent attempt to quell the fears of neighbors that the restaurant will produce an abundance of late-night activity in the neighborhood, Mr. Distler said, from a business standpoint, he was concerned he would not get many patrons for a third show.

"Princeton is not a late crowd, by and large, and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to get 50 to 75 people for a 9:15 p.m. show ‹ especially during the week."

Noise pollution, especially outside the restaurant, was another concern for members of SPRAB. The sound of car doors closing and other parking lot activity could spill over into adjacent lots. SPRAB recommended that Mr. Distler seek another zoning variance to build a 10-foot sound shield on the periphery of the parking lot. The current maximum for fencing in the S-2 zone is six feet. While the application is not on its February 23 agenda, the Township Zoning Board will decide when to hear it that day. Mr. Distler's application could be decided on as early as March 23.


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