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Vol. LXII, No. 9
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
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Community Gets Another Glimpse of PU Arts and Transit Neighborhood

Matthew Hersh

In what has now effectively become the prototype of Princeton University’s long-term campus vision of establishing academic neighborhoods in an effort to create a more pedestrian-friendly campus, school officials last Tuesday again offered a glimpse of the planned arts and transit neighborhood that envelops portions of University Place, Alexander Street, and New Jersey Transit’s Dinky station.

The move follows the release of the school’s campus plan — a two-year effort that employed a team of architects, landscape architects, and University planners — as PU envisions more than two million gross square feet of construction by 2016.

The launch of the campus plan followed the University’s 2004 announcement that it would abandon what was once conventional wisdom about developing a mirror campus on school land holdings in West Windsor. The school has since indicated that it could someday develop faculty housing on the site, but that a full campus there is, for now, out of the picture.

In light of that decision, the University has focused its efforts on developing a denser, in-town campus. That effort was unofficially launched in 2005, when, after a months-long University appeal, Princeton Borough voted to increase the development capacity of the municipal E-3 zoning district that encompasses the University’s engineering quadrangle, near Olden Street.

But last week’s presentation at the former U-Store building on University Place offered a vision for areas that are not clearly regarded as “on campus,” as is the case with the arts and transit neighborhood. While no official blueprints have yet been produced, the signature component of that plan is replacing the University Place-Alexander Street traffic signal with a roundabout, similar to the one the school installed at Faculty Road and Elm Drive, and relocating the Dinky station an estimated 460 feet south from its current location. The neighborhood, which would extend further south on Alexander Street, is intended to create a gateway, complete with public plazas, cultural and retail spaces, including an expanded University Art Museum, and academic buildings.

The Dinky relocation, which has caused concern among several municipal officials and commuters, is a necessary detail, said Robert Durkee, the school’s vice president and secretary, pointing out that it facilitates pedestrian flow onto the main campus, and eases traffic flow into a 700-car garage from Alexander Street, as well as creating space for a commuter parking lot. “It’s not just about the Dinky station,” Mr. Durkee said. “It’s about the parking that goes with the Dinky, the proximity to the Wawa, and if you retain all of that and retain the [Dinky’s] current relocation, then you really can’t improve the traffic circulation and you can’t develop a parcel that would allow you to develop the arts neighborhood.

“Fundamentally, we’re trying to create an arts neighborhood and a transit neighborhood that will allow us to improve traffic circulation in the area, preserve the parking in the area, and dramatically expand opportunities in the arts. We tried a number of designs, and it just didn’t work.” Mr. Durkee added that the existing Dinky buildings would be preserved and worked into the area’s planning scheme.

Any new Dinky station would anticipate the implementation of the state’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, creating a rubber-wheeled, bus- and emergency vehicle-only travel lane along the existing Dinky line, eventually expanded outward along points along the Route 1 Penns Neck Corridor. Mr. Durkee did not offer any further detail on BRT. Representatives from the state Department of Transportation and from New Jersey Transit appeared before the Regional Planning Board of Princeton’s Master Plan Subcommittee in September 2007, and provided the most recent findings in a series of municipal updates given since the BRT Alternatives Analysis Study was first released in February 2006. Funded by New Jersey Transit, the Delaware Valley Planning Commission, the New Jersey Department of Transportation, and the New Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, and conducted by the Central Jersey Transportation Forum and the Federal Transit Administration, the $916,000 study was launched in 2004, and by the time of its release outlined a BRT that, in its most extensive form, would create a $600 to $700 million bus- and emergency vehicles-only roadway connecting points along Penns Neck. In denser areas, like downtown Princeton Borough, a BRT vehicle would join regular street traffic patterns, making key stops at frequently used destinations.

Any BRT consideration, Mr. Durkee said last week, would be anticipated, but in the meantime, the University could not provide further details as to whether a BRT vehicle would reach its terminus at the Dinky station and then turn around, or if it would extend further into the community, as DOT indicated last year before the Planning Board’s subcommittee: “We designed this so either of those things could happen,” Mr. Durkee said, adding that a program would be implemented that would provide direction for both rail commuters and visitors.

Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who chairs the Lewis Center for the Arts, said the look and feel of an arts and transit hub would encourage student learning, and that “hopefully, in the not-so-distant future, one will get off the train, and will be able to pick up a fortifying cup of coffee.”

The University has retained Steven Holl Architects to design the buildings for the area, which would house academic space for the University’s new Lewis Center for the Arts.

Mr. Holl, who was on hand at the presentation, said that while any particular building vision has yet to be mapped out, the architecture needs to “add quality to the site.” Princeton University has been working with campus plan lead consultant Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, a New York-based firm.

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