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Shopping Center Proposes Development Plans

Matthew Hersh

The Princeton Shopping Center made its case for structural changes to its 48-year-old facility at a hearing last week, but was sent back to the proverbial drawing board.

Conceptual plans for a façade improvement project were presented before the Princeton Regional Planning Board outlining changes to the physical appearance, and also relocating a gas station along Harrison Street.

Both members of the Planning Board and residents from the surrounding neighborhood greeted the plans with a lukewarm response.

The meeting included no formal action for the 32.6-acre site but various changes proposed included placing a third floor on the building that houses McCaffrey's, developing the currently-unused five acres of land between the McCaffrey's parking lot and Terhune Road for possible senior housing, and moving the Amoco gas station from its current location. Shopping center representatives suggested moving the gas and service station to the southern entrance, near the EMT station on the northbound side of Harrison Street.

This did not bode well with residents.

"The thought of my 9-year-old daughter inhaling [gas] fumes is rather upsetting to me," said Barbara Preston of Clearview Avenue.

Ms. Preston also worried that placing a gas station near Clearview would devalue properties in that neighborhood.

Harry Wolfe, chairman of the Planning Board's Site Plan Review Advisory Board, suggested that the shopping center consider moving the gas station to the corner of Harrison Street and Terhune Road, thus using a corner of the currently unused land. But moving the facility there, some Planning Board members warned, would risk the health of future residents in possible senior housing.

Planning Board member Wendy Benchley suggested that if the drive-through PNC Bank were to be removed, which the shopping center intends to do at some point, either for structural utility or for more parking, the gas and service station should be relocated there at the north end of the parking lot adjacent to Harrison Street.

The proposed addition of a third floor above McCaffrey's could also conceivably cause problems, Planning Director Lee Solow said. Currently, buildings in the shopping center zone are only permitted to build up to 38 feet, and the proposal would increase the height of the McCaffrey's building to 50 feet. Variances needed for this construction would require approval by the Township Zoning Board.

Architects said the building had initially been designed to sustain floor additions. The location, which also houses the Princeton Ballet School on the second level, has historically been the site of shopping center anchor stores. It is the former home of both Bamberger's and Epstein's department stores before becoming McCaffrey's.

While Peter Duncan, president of George Comfort & Sons, the managing agent and owner of the shopping center, maintained that the proposed changes were merely conceptual, Planning Board members lambasted center representatives for not including a comprehensive traffic and circulation study with the suggested changes. With 1,255 parking spaces at the shopping center, the Planning Board could not get a full understanding of the impact of the changes if they were to occur, Board members said.

"I'm disappointed with the concept plan," Board member Peter Madison said, adding "I'd really like to see a master plan for the center before I vote for anything."

Board Vice Chair Vicky Bergman said she viewed the changes an economic upgrading rather than an actual site plan, but Mr. Duncan contended that the shopping center, which last underwent a major façade overhaul in 1987, needs improvement.

Dana Comfort, executive vice president of George Comfort & Sons, told Town Topics that when the shopping center returns to the Planning Board, it would provide its own study as to how traffic will be impacted. To that end, Mr. Comfort said, "there's a whole bunch of things we need to do."

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