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Vol. LXV, No. 19
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
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Amid Caveats, Borough Introduces Arts, Education, Transit Zone Ordinance

Dilshanie Perera

Borough Council introduced an ordinance at its meeting last week that may rezone much of the University Place/Alexander Road corridor area for “Arts, Education, and Transit” (AET) uses. If passed, the AET zone would allow for Princeton University’s proposed Arts and Transit Neighborhood to be built in that area.

Before voting on the ordinance, Council members emphasized the fact that an introduction does not equal final approval, and that the proposal would be discussed with the public and sent to the Regional Planning Board for further input. The introduction only allowed for the formal public process to begin.

“Nothing is cast in stone. If you introduce [the ordinance], you can amend it as many times as you’d like,” noted Borough Administrator Robert Bruschi. “We want to keep the process moving to an end.”

Pointing out that the transit element of the plan would have a “major impact on Borough residents,” Council member Jenny Crumiller lamented the fact that Council had not fully discussed the status of the Dinky prior to ordinance consideration.

Mr. Bruschi reminded Council that the zoning in place already allows for transit and that the new zoning would do likewise.

As it currently exists in the ordinance, the proposed Arts Education Transit zone would be approximately 5.5 acres and encompass the McCarter Theater property, the site of the current rail station buildings, and the site of the University’s proposed arts buildings.

The homes adjacent to McCarter Theater would remain in the R3 zone, and consistencies would be achieved with respect to the zone in Princeton Township, which abuts the Borough in the area under consideration.

Permitted uses in the new AET zone include: transit, museums, galleries, studios, retail stores, restaurants, cafes, pubs, convenience stores, office buildings, childcare facilities, and educational uses.

The bulk regulations of the zoning ordinance further stipulate that whatever may be built on the site have a maximum height of 100 feet; a minimum 15-foot setback and an additional one foot of setback for every two feet of height above 60 feet as well as 15 feet of setback for every 25 feet of height in areas adjacent to the R3 zone. The floor-area ration (FAR) was proposed at 0.3, but staff recommended 0.2.

Parking and traffic circulation are still up for fine-tuning in the ordinance. Mr. Bruschi noted that the Borough Engineer, Planning Director, and University consultants will be further developing suggestions for improvements to traffic flow and traffic impacts in that area. The planning board would also be weighing in on the matter.

Council members Kevin Wilkes and Barbara Trelstad both pointed out that the zoning ordinance seems to assume that the Arts and Transit Neighborhood would be built as it is currently proposed. “We are writing a zoning ordinance that enables any one of a number of design strategies,” Mr. Wilkes said.

Jo Butler noted that she still had “a lot of unanswered questions,” remarking that the Borough would “need a clear idea that this is something we can live with,” prior to final decisions being made.

Also requesting more information, Roger Martindell asked for a list of benefits and effects of the proposed project, as well as data to support any claims made. He also requested details as to alternative sites the University may consider for building their Arts Neighborhood.

Princeton University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee urged Council to consider what the corridor of town might look like 20 years from now, envisioning South Alexander Road as a “residential/mixed-use neighborhood in a corridor with at least one signature building,” alluding to the Steven Holl-designed art center.

Calling the picture “an attractive scenario,” Mr. Durkee said that within existing zoning, the landscape instead would be largely office and storage space. He characterized the decision before Council as one deciding whether the area would be “for the arts or something else.”

“At the end of the day, what is important to us is that whatever zoning adopted be zoning that would allow the [Arts and Transit Neighborhood] project to go forward,” Mr. Durkee said.

Ms. Crumiller questioned whether the Dinky terminus would have to be moved in order for the arts proposal to be realized. “I don’t know that the sacrifice has to be made,” she said, referring to the Dinky move. “It does if we are to go forward with this project,” Mr. Durkee replied.

Residents espoused a range of views on the topic. Planning Board member Yina Moore noted that zoning can be “permissive and also prescriptive” and pointed out that in this case it was “serving more as a directive.” She questioned the fluidity of labeling a zone “Arts Education Transit.”

Virginia Kerr requested that the ordinance introduction be deferred until remaining questions could be answered and in order to involve a broader section of the community.

“I hope we don’t lose what sounds like a wonderful project for the community … over one city block,” Lucy Harmon noted, referring to the 460-foot distance the Dinky terminus would be moved.

Resident and local business owner Mimi Omiecinski said that “this project being built in a recession is critical for jobs,” adding that it would be a “chance for more money to be coming into the community” by attracting more tourists and visitors to town.

Kip Cherry expressed unease at having to cross private property in the form of University land in order to get to the Dinky train station. She suggested that the University deed that property to the Borough to maintain its public access.

Council introduced the ordinance unanimously, with David Goldfarb recusing himself from the discussion and vote. Further public discussions will be scheduled prior to the final vote.

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