Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 26
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
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Borough Hall Looks to Answer Questions on Delayed Downtown Development

Matthew Hersh

A "significant amount" of issues related to Princeton Borough's stalled downtown development project are currently being addressed by Borough officials, in the latest effort to examine several obstacles that have stymied both the developer and the municipality in bringing a major piece of in-town real estate to fruition.

The laundry list set for full Borough Council review includes issues related to closing out the first phase of development — the completed Hinds Plaza, Witherspoon House, and now fully-operational Spring Street garage — and what needs to be worked out before starting Phase II, a five-story mixed use commercial and residential complex on what is now a surface parking lot on Tulane Street.

Although Phase II received a nod from the Regional Planning Board of Princeton in the spring of 2004, it has yet to get underway due to a combination of roadblocks, including a faulty architectural design for the municipal garage that resulted in a damp basement level; a series of liens, since resolved, filed by subcontractors with the project's former contractor; and a Verizon telephone poll that literally blocks the development of a pergola designed to decorate the plaza's periphery.

The presentation, which was scheduled to be delivered to Council by Borough administrator Robert Bruschi on Tuesday night, took place after Town Topics went to press, but in earlier interviews, both Borough Hall and developer, Nassau HKT, seemed confident that work would be underway in the near term.

"This is a report based on reactions we've had so we can say 'here is what we're talking about,'" said Borough administrator Robert Bruschi, adding, in his report, that the goal of the discussion is "to wrap up all of the issues of Phase I and have the project closed out," as well as to address issues related to the linkage of the first and second phases of the development project.

"We have been ready to start the second building for eight or nine months," said Robert Powell, NHKT principal, adding that progress had been held off by the garage repairs, which have since been addressed, despite the Borough being named in a legal action with the garage architect, HNTB. The lower level of the garage, which had been closed because of water entering the basement from an underground spring, kept the entire project from moving forward, in part, because a permanent certificate of occupation is required in the developer's agreement with the Borough before the second phase on Tulane Street gets underway.

"That was obviously giving the Borough pause in closing the Tulane Street lot," Mr. Powell said, refraining from expanding on some of the legal "issues" involved in the delayed project, though officials have maintained that most of those issues relate to the litigation involved with Witherspoon House, the apartment building facing Hinds Plaza, and the payment of subcontractors.

In suggesting that the final phase of the plaza could occur this summer, Mr. Powell pointed to an agreement the Borough has arrived at with Verizon, which owns the easement at the pole's location toward the rear of the plaza, behind several Spring Street shops that back up on to the plaza.

Other issues related to Phase II construction, according to Mr. Bruschi's report, include a PSE&G proposal to place electric service underneath Spring and Tulane streets, as well as outstanding environmental issues.

Finally, NHKT has requested a transfer of ownership of the Phase II building prior to its construction. While the developer transferred management of Witherspoon House to an entity headed up by Mr. Powell and Jack Morrison, owner of Witherspoon Grill, after that building's construction, some members of Borough Council have remained uneasy at the prospect of ownership transfer of Building C, the five-story structure envisioned in Phase II.

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