Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 19
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
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Arts and Transit Memo: Concerns Remain

Dilshanie Perera

Borough Council voiced concerns at its meeting last week regarding the draft memorandum of understanding with Township Committee and Princeton University regarding the university’s proposed Arts and Transit Neighborhood. No determination was made regarding the draft agreement. Over 25 residents voiced their respective reservations, questions, and support of the overall arts and transit proposal as well.

Distinct from the zoning consideration pertaining to the same area at the interstice of University Place and Alexander Street, the memo dealt primarily with the future of the Dinky and light rail in Princeton.

Council President Kevin Wilkes explained that the result of various meetings between the two municipalities and University was this draft memorandum of understanding, which “outlines areas of agreement” between the three institutions. The document addressed the immediate needs of the Dinky station and commuting public, the future station location, and long-term transit improvements.

Under the agreement, the provisions of the memo would go into effect only after the Regional Planning Board grants final approvals to the University for its Arts and Transit proposal. The memo does not negate the possibility that the Dinky may move further south, but the University has agreed not to do that as long as heavy rail service is in existence. A future light rail easement provided by the University in perpetuity to “accommodate light rail service or other mass transit service” to Nassau Street is also part of the draft agreement, though the transit use must occur within 50 years.

After Mr. Wilkes explained that the three entities would approach New Jersey Transit to get permission for opening up the north station waiting room to the public, Council member Jenny Crumiller pointed out that many amenities were previously agreed to in the 1984 sales agreement between the university and NJTransit.

Roger Martindell of Council, who along with Mr. Wilkes, was the Borough’s representative in the negotiations, said that he valued the easement and the mass transit trust fund that would be set up to total $250,000, but that he was concerned that there is “no mandate here. Nothing is controlling NJ Transit; there is no mandate and no metrics. Something could happen, or nothing could happen.”

“There is no real way to enforce things” Mr. Martindell cautioned.

Regarding the fact that under the memo a joint task force would be formed to evaluate the future of transportation needs in the community, Ms. Crumiller said that a transportation study should be done by the Borough and that “we shouldn’t have to give up the station for it.” Her further concerns included pedestrian access to the new station.

Council member Jo Butler noted that she was not in support of the items delineated in the memorandum because it seemed that “the benefits flow to the Township, while most of the costs are coming from the Borough.”

Emphasizing her concern about the traffic in the Alexander Street corridor, Ms. Butler continued, “The negotiation occurred without information I think would have been helpful.” She added that a goal was necessary prior to taking measures to “increase ridership.”

Barbara Trelstad agreed that “We as a community and University are missing the boat without looking at the entire Alexander Street corridor.” She pointed out that the University’s proposal for expanding the Hibben-Magie graduate housing complex would likely change traffic patterns at Faculty Road and Alexander.

Ms. Crumiller pointed out that “the Dinky tracks are not in the way of the Arts Building,” referring to the proposed location of the Steven Holl-designed Lewis Center for the Arts. She publicly queried the University as to whether they would consider leaving the Dinky and its tracks where they are presently located.

“It is an assumption in the [memorandum of understanding] that the future of the Dinky is threatened. We’ve never had the real information from New Jersey Transit,” Ms. Crumiller said.

“I personally feel that [the proposal] is bad public policy,” Mr. Martindell commented, though he acknowledged that the University was not simply a private developer without an interest, a stake, or a long history in the area.

In a letter dated May 11, Princeton University Vice President and Secretary Bob Durkee responded to Ms. Crumiller’s question regarding moving forward with the Arts proposal without moving the Dinky, explaining that “at full development [the proposal] is likely to include at least two other buildings to the east of [the Lewis Center for the Arts] and at least one other building (the performance hall) to the south. The plan depends on easy and safe pedestrian access through the site from north to south and east to west as well as on diagonals for all who walk through the neighborhood.”

“Another key element of the plan is the access driveway to the Lot 7 garage,” Mr. Durkee wrote, pointing out “sustainability benefits” and congestion reduction measures.

Mr. Durkee went on to explain that even if the university was unable to enact the proposed development, “it will be critical to future development to be able to create the access driveway and an open and safe pedestrian space north of the proposed new terminus. This is why we would plan to relocate the terminus, as provided for in our agreement with New Jersey Transit, whether or not we receive the zoning necessary to construct new space for the arts in this area.”

Mr. Durkee also noted that “we do not agree with those who assert that ridership will be reduced because of the relocation of [the Dinky terminus by] 460 feet, and we also do not agree that the proposed site of the new station creates impediments to use by those who will drive to it.” He added that “if we are able to go forward with our proposed plan, we are prepared to make the commitments and contributions in the draft agreement if it is approved by the two municipalities.”

The discussion regarding the proposed Arts and Transit Neighborhood will continue at the open public meeting on Tuesday, May 24 at 7:30 p.m. in Borough Hall.

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