Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 26
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
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Restaurant, Bank Plans OK'd After Developer Changes the Tune

Matthew Hersh

A lot can change in two years.

In 2005, a proposal to build a jazz club and restaurant at the site of a Bayard Lane tavern galvanized a neighborhood into opposition, and challenged the integrity of one of Princeton Township's most curious zoning districts.

Now, two years later, the Township's zoning board has given the area a green light for a bank at the old tavern site, and for a 78-seat restaurant at an old service garage and car rental site just a block south.

The unanimous vote by the board, which is made up of the same members it had in 2005, largely reflects an unspoken compromise between the developer and the neighborhood. The restaurant planned for the site at the corner of Leigh Avenue and Bayard Lane has aroused nothing comparable to the resistance to the jazz club and its anticipated impact on surrounding neighborhoods. The restaurant is also seen as a plus since it will mean redeveloping an abandoned area that had become what most considered an eyesore.

The zoning board, which voted on both the bank and restaurant applications last Wednesday in one consolidated hearing, was given an updated plan by the proposals' principal, Township resident Stephen Distler, and his team of architects and engineers. Initially, the restaurant would have provided 10 of its 26 required parking spaces at the bank site a block to the north at the corner of Bayard and Birch Avenue. That plan would have precluded placing all parking on that site, leaving room enough for the relocation of a duplex house, currently behind the former Mike's Tavern, to a vacant lot behind the proposed restaurant. That relocation, as Mr. Distler had said in previous hearings, would have created a buffer between potential restaurant activity and the abutting neighborhood.

As the zoning board heard the public's opinions on the project last month, a new plan surfaced. Bayard Lane resident Chad Goerner, a member of Princeton Township Committee, suggested that Mr. Distler nix the plan to relocate the duplex, keep all restaurant parking on site, and instead landscape the rear of the restaurant in order to block out light and sound.

That plan appeared to be universally embraced, "thus simplifying the application," according to Distler's attorney, Robert Rudolfi.

The initial plan to put a house between the neighborhood and restaurant was apparently the result of heightened sensitivity to feedback from neighbors. When the jazz club was proposed for the former tavern site, neighbors filed suit against the Township and effectively put an end to that proposal.

While the new plan was regarded as good for the neighborhood, concerns about potential traffic flow were expressed at last week's public hearing.

April McElroy, whose mother lives on Leigh Avenue, said that even now, there is an "awful lot" of traffic on Bayard Lane; she praised the developer, however, for keeping all parking on the restaurant site, pointing out that moving a duplex house there would have changed the character of the street.

Holly Nelson, of Leigh Avenue, said that the green area behind the restaurant, while used for parking, should also retain some of its "greener" qualities. "There should be some consideration for that area's perpetuity," she said.

Zoning board member Penelope Baskerville, who, as a Birch Avenue resident, had recused herself from considering the bank and restaurant proposals, questioned the nature of the S-2 zoning district. A restaurant would not be "inherently good for the neighborhood," she said, citing potential exhaust and noise.

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