Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 6
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
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Arts and Transit Dialogue May Continue

Dilshanie Perera

Though Princeton University is looking for alternate sites for its Steven Holl-designed arts center, the municipalities may pursue a dialogue with the heads of Princeton University aimed at a consensus about the originally proposed Arts and Transit Neighborhood plan that would redesign the area at the intersection of Alexander Road and University Place.

Members of Township Committee seem to be spearheading a collaborative effort to reopen the conversation with Borough Council and Princeton University.

Township Mayor Chad Goerner noted the “very professional and respectful relationship” that the two municipalities share, adding that he wishes to “engage the University and see if we can find some middle ground” regarding the Arts and Transit plan.

The proposed course of action is to put together a subcommittee or working group of staff and elected officials from both municipalities to “try and work with the University in developing a compromise solution to the transit aspects of the proposed development.” The timeframe would be 60 days for the group to reach a decision on further action, according to Mr. Goerner.

While members of Township Committee were amenable to renewed conversations, as of Town Topics press time, Borough Council had not yet considered the proposal collectively, but would likely do so at its meeting on Tuesday.

“We did not go into that meeting prepared to make a decision,” Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman acknowledged in reference to last week’s joint meeting about the Arts and Transit Neighborhood proposal. Coming to a collective conclusion is “the only fair way to reach a decision when you’re representing a municipality,” she added, noting that Council had not discussed its stance prior to the meeting. “Apparently there was a breakdown in communication somewhere.”

Ms. Trotman called the plan “too great an opportunity, and the site location too ideal for what the University is proposing, to not to try and work together,” adding that “I feel sure something can happen to move this forward.”

Township Committee members generally favored the University’s Arts and Transit proposal, with Mr. Goerner saying that “this project is the largest investment we’ve probably ever seen in Princeton,” but noting that “assuring that we have a transit plan in place for our residents is very important and there remains more work to be done on this aspect of the project.”

Sue Nemeth acknowledged that she is in favor of the proposal, emphasizing that “we need to do this in a way that’s collaborative with the Borough...We can’t lose the Dinky by being unwilling to look at the move...that would be an incredible loss.” Lance Liverman also agreed with the sentiment, remarking that “when you list the positives and the negatives, it seems that the positives outweigh the negatives. I’m personally in support of the project...change is difficult for everyone, but I think that this is the direction we have to go.”

“I came away from the meeting feeling that there were no winners...only losers,” said Bernie Miller, also of Township Committee. “The land from University Place on down to Alexander isn’t being put to its best and highest use.” He noted that the Township and University have been working together for almost a year to rezone the part of Alexander Road in the Township for mixed-use workforce housing, neighborhood-specific retail, and office space.

Borough Council members admitted their surprise at having to give an indication either for or against zoning changes that would allow the approvals process for the Arts and Transit Neighborhood to move forward.

“My understanding was that it was going to be a presentation only, so I was surprised to get the ‘go-or-no-go’ speech,” said Jo Butler. “I’m not sure where communication broke down, but it’s back up and running to some extent,” she said, adding that “it is clear that this is the best spot for the University for the Arts and Transit Neighborhood.”

“I’ve followed this as a citizen and as a concerned neighbor,” continued Ms. Butler, “and I felt strongly from the very beginning that 460 feet is not an insignificant amount,” she said of the proposed move of the Dinky rail terminus away from the downtown. “I’d like to see the University be a little more sensitive about that.” At the same time, she acknowledged that “I’m very grateful that the University wants to build this.”

Roger Martindell of Council also cited a “breakdown in communication” prior to last week’s meeting, saying, “I think there was a lack of preparation by both sides.”

“The way it came across to the Borough was that we were being given an ultimatum...and the Borough was left with no alternative than to withdraw from the engagement,” Mr. Martindell observed, adding that he and some of his colleagues “are prepared to negotiate with the University to resolve the differences as best we can because some of us and many of us in the community believe the Arts and Transit Neighborhood is a worthwhile project. It just needs some refinement.”

The issues Mr. Martindell would like to see resolved include an increased payment in lieu of taxes or PILOT contribution the University makes to the Borough’s annual operating fund to “deal with the impact that this intensive development would have on the Borough,” and to “address the mass transit/train/Dinky aspects of the proposal so that the community feels that its concerns are heard by the University.”

Vice President and Secretary of Princeton University Bob Durkee said that while they are currently at work looking for other possible locations for an arts center on campus, “if it turned out that the municipalities were willing to go forward to put the necessary zoning in place, and we could get to that point reasonably quickly...we would be very interested in talking to them about that.”

The originally proposed Arts and Transit plan “remains very much our first choice,” according to Mr. Durkee, who met with University President Shirley Tilghman and Mr. Goerner last Friday to tentatively discuss a continued dialogue.

“We’ve run out of alternatives,” Mr. Durkee said. “If the project is going to go forward, it is going to have to go forward with the Dinky relocated. We are happy to talk about ways to mitigate that increased distance for people who walk.”

“The irony in this discussion,” he continued, “is that at some point we will end up moving the terminus of the Dinky anyway to make it possible [for future development] it is really a choice of doing it now or doing it later.”

“What we really can’t afford at this point is to end up in another protracted and inconclusive conversation,” Mr. Durkee said.

The community conversation continues in this week’s Mailbox.

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