Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 19
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
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Arts and Transit Plans Presented to Borough

Dilshanie Perera

Calling Princeton University’s Arts and Transit Neighborhood, “the most challenging set of proposals to come out of the campus plan,” University Vice President and Secretary Bob Durkee explained the goals of the project in a formal presentation to Borough Council last week.

Part of what makes the plan so challenging is that the proposed area for the new development sits in both the Borough and the Township at the intersection of Alexander Street and University Place, and extends to McCarter Theatre, the Dinky Station, and the Lot 7 Garage.

In order for the University to move ahead with the plans, the area would have to be rezoned, and approvals would have to be granted by both municipalities, as well as the Regional Planning Board.

Mayor Mildred Trotman explained that “there have been no decisions made about any of this,” and stressed that “we don’t know what’s going to happen,” while inviting the University to present its vision so that Council could hear it as a group.

Despite the current fiscal climate and decline in the endowment, Mr. Durkee noted that the Arts and Transit Neighborhood “remains a very high priority for us.”

The main goals of the plan include creating a new arts district for the campus and community, improving traffic circulation in the area, preserving and enhancing the Dinky experience, creating attractive and lively public spaces in the area, and creating a neighborhood that is “a model of sustainability.”

Mr. Durkee explained that the neighborhood would include academic arts space, as well as public, retail, and transportation-related spaces. A roundabout would be installed at the intersection of Alexander Street and University Place to ease traffic congestion.

Additionally, the Dinky station would be shifted 460 feet to the south in order to build a purposefully designed transit hub that can accommodate bikes, pedestrians, buses, shuttles, and that will incorporate the Wawa inside the station.

The Lot 7 garage would see a new entrance with access directly onto Alexander Street in order to relieve traffic congestion at Alexander and Faculty Road. “We estimate that direct access will save 350 vehicle miles per day,” Mr. Durkee said, basing the estimate on the number of University employees who utilize the space.

While there are currently 413 public parking spaces within a five minute walk of the Dinky station, Mr. Durkee said the proposal includes 433 spaces.

As for enhancing sustainability, the entire neighborhood, which is currently comprised mostly of impervious surfaces, would be landscaped so that it would be much greener. The buildings proposed at the site, including a Steven Holl-designed art center, would all be “highly sustainable,” and incorporate environmentally friendly elements.

The retail on site would be made up of “folks already in Princeton who would expand their operations,” Mr. Durkee said, mentioning that some local merchants have been approached regarding the restaurant, cafe, and bike shop that will be in the Arts and Transit Neighborhood.

Future phases of the plan would bring in a contemporary art satellite for the University’s Art Museum, an experimental media studio, another performance hall, and a museum shop and cafe.

When asked about the particular location of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood by Borough Council member Roger Martindell, University Architect Ron McCoy said that “this plan is intentionally conceived as one that matures the existing campus. We could go to a number of other sites, but we would lose the connectivity, and the space within the continuous campus.”

Council member David Goldfarb remarked, “My concerns are regarding what’s lost,” adding that he worries about what is “happening at the edge of the University at the intersection of the community.”

“There is no community left. There should be some obligation for the University to replace it somehow on the land south of this project,” Mr. Goldfarb continued.

Mr. Durkee assured him that they have a similar view regarding the future of the area south on Alexander Street. “It would be attractive for residential and mixed-use purposes.”

Both Andrew Koontz and Kevin Wilkes of Borough Council expressed concerns about moving the Dinky, with Mr. Koontz citing his main worry as “moving it out of Princeton Borough and further away from the town center.”

Borough Administrator Robert Bruschi and Mr. Martindell suggested that the Borough may need to build another parking facility on or near the proposed site to make the downtown less crowded.

Members of the public also commented on the plan. Of the Dinky station’s move, Bayard Lane resident and frequent Dinky traveler Roberto Weinman said that “those 500 feet coming and going may be pleasant in June, but are worth 5,000 feet in January.”

Calling the Arts and Transit Neighborhood design an “incredibly impressive plan,” Sandra Persechetti voiced her approval, noting that it would serve to beautify the Alexander Street entrance to town.

David Newton of Palmer Square Management, Laurie Rabon of the Nassau Inn, and Kathie Morolda of Cranbury Station Galleries all supported the proposal. Ms. Morolda, who also heads the Borough Merchants for Princeton said that “we would really be lost without the University downtown. The support the University has shown our small business community has been remarkable.”

Chair of the Master Plan Subcommittee of the Regional Planning Board Marvin Reed explained that they “had not been able to come to conclusions” about the proposal, “largely because the concept of the Arts Center, and the emphasis on performing arts, is a very attractive one.”

At the same time, “the train station is an important civic institution in the community” and moving it poses some concerns, Mr. Reed said, adding that the traffic concerns in the area are still yet to be resolved. “A lot of community issues are involved here, and would benefit from more community discussion.”

Regarding the same theme, Managing Director of Princeton Future Sheldon Sturges noted, “I don’t hear a lot of citizens in town getting involved in this,” urging that the University “needs to get citizens engaged in the conversation,” and that the Arts and Transit Neighborhood could be “a huge plus to the town if it can be done with the town, not done in the shadows.”

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