Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 19
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
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Arts & Transit Center Joint Agreement Not Yet Approved

Ellen Gilbert

A discussion about the status of a recently released draft memorandum of agreement on the University’s proposed arts and transit neighborhood was front and center at Monday evening’s Township Committee Meeting. No formal action was taken on what was described on the agenda as a “work session.” Members of “Save the Dinky” (savethedinky.org) were also given an opportunity at the meeting to present their case for keeping the Dinky in its present location.

The memorandum was created by Borough, Township, and University representatives in the wake of a January 31 meeting where there appeared to be a deadlock on the future of the University’s proposal, particularly with respect to its wish to relocate the Dinky.

“The negotiation was premised on the fact that the University had produced a letter stating that they had a legal right to move the existing station some 460 feet south along the track right of way,” said Township Committeeman Bernie Miller, citing what became a pivotal talking point during the conversations that followed. “We entered into this with the objective of getting the best possible deal for the municipalities, in light of the university’s letter. That assumption was necessary in order to have a negotiation. During the meetings, a wide variety of terms and conditions were discussed.”

Mr. Miller described the once-a-week meetings as an effort “to negotiate an understanding that would make it possible to proceed,” while at the same time trying “to resolve some of the issues around the University’s proposal.” The last meeting occurred on April 29, and the draft memorandum of understanding was made public at a Borough Council meeting last week.

Mr. Miller reported that the three parties reached agreement on all the terms of the memorandum except for one. In a report following Mr. Miller’s presentation, Mayor Chad Goerner described the sticking point as whether or not the land in question should revert back to the University if new services have not been created in 50 years. Although he noted that an offer of 100 years had also been rejected, Mr. Goerner appeared reluctant to identify the dissatisfied party. “Personally, I think that if we really wanted to come to an agreement we would have,” he added. “If we couldn’t do it in 50 years, we’ve missed the boat,” observed Mr. Miller.

The University did agree that it would not attempt to move the Dinky station again once its current plan for its relocation was finished, and as long as heavy transit rail service to the area continued. Agreement was also reached on proposals concerning the reopening of the station house and efforts by the University to encourage Dinky use, including promotional campaigns using Dinky receipts to obtain discounts at McCarter Theatre.

The University also agreed to schedule and advertise the availability of Tiger Transit vehicles to meet all incoming trains and to travel to Nassau Street during peak hours, said Mr. Miller. A $10,000 contribution from the University in each of two years was planned to offset costs of expanding previous shuttle service to midday hours, and a route through the campus would be found if Alexander Road and University Place prove to be too congested to make timely connections. Mr. Miller noted that the University also agreed to continue to work with both municipalities on the long-term development of the South Alexander area as a residential/mixed-use neighborhood.

“A lot of the discussions that we’ve had in the last three to six months have centered around not just enhancing and preserving the Dinky, but thinking about what comes next,” said Mr. Goerner. He described the three parties as recognizing the need to enhance mass transit, while also providing for “viable” long-term service. A proposed task force, with financial support from the University (50 percent) and the Township and Borough (25 percent each) would work to determine new neighborhood needs and identify funding means. Noting that “we don’t want to be bogged down for an indefinite amount of time,” Mr. Goerner suggested giving the task force a deadline of eight months for delivering its findings. He also reported that the University would be contributing $250,000 as “seed funding” for a joint mass transit fund.

Earlier in the meeting Mr. Goerner expressed surprise at the relatively small turnout for the discussion. Among those who were present in the audience was Borough Council President Kevin Wilkes.

Borough Council planned to consider the transit proposal at its Tuesday evening meeting (after press time). Describing the negotiations as “a difficult process,” Mr. Goerner said that he anticipated a follow-up conversation with all three parties in the near future.

“A Walkable Transit Asset”

If the Dinky is moved at all, it should be moved closer to Nassau Street, rather than the equivalent of “one-and-half football fields” further away (the University’s current plan), observed Save the Dinky founder Anita Garoniak in a power point presentation that followed the Committee’s work session. Common sense suggests keeping a “walkable transit asset,” she observed. Describing the University’s plan as “shortsighted” and noting the community’s strong support for the Save the Dinky organization, Ms. Garoniak suggested the plan would only add more vehicular traffic to area roads.

“The University has done a masterful job of confusing the issues surrounding their proposal,” said another Save the Dinky representative, Carlos Rodrigues. Suggesting that they are “cloaking their real intentions” with a “vision” of upscale entertainment, he described the proposal that the municipalities cede the right of way to the University as “a spectacular mistake in terms of public policy.”

“There is no question that ridership will suffer if the terminus is moved further away from the center of town,” said Mr. Rodrigues. “The University’s plans will do nothing to put more riders on the train. We’re not building Lincoln Center here.”

The third Save the Dinky spokesperson, Alain Kornhauser, emphasized the “market” (i.e. downtown Princeton) served by the Dinky, which he also described as “a community transportation asset.” He noted the irony in the University’s suggestion that moving the Dinky would be an “arts enhancement,” when its current location is ideal for McCarter Theatre artists and audiences. “They just don’t want this transit facility in their back yard,” he concluded.

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