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Vol. LXV, No. 38
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
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Vision for East Nassau Street Neighborhood: Pedestrian-Friendly With Open Public Space

Anne Levin

The future of vacant properties in the East Nassau Street neighborhood was the topic of discussion at the Borough Council meeting on Tuesday, September 13. Neighborhood representatives made a presentation about how they envision the 1.8-acre site that was formerly home to the Olive May grocery, West Coast Video store, and an adjoining laundromat.

Praising the north side of the street and its row of eateries — Blue Point Grill, Nassau Street Seafood, Tiger Noodles, and Small World Coffee — as a lively community gathering place, they expressed hopes that the southern side can be turned into a similarly appealing destination with wide sidewalks and welcoming storefronts.

The report was compiled by neighborhood residents after a survey conducted by Princeton Future last year of registered voters who live in the area. The survey received a 33 percent response from voters’ about their visions for the future of the site. “What was striking was the unanimity,” said Martin Schneiderman, who led the presentation to Council.

What residents would like to see is a pedestrian friendly public space home to a facility similar to Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market; a supermarket; or restaurants. What they don’t want is another laundromat, a bank, or fast food establishments. Kiosks would be allowed; parking at the front of the site, along Nassau Street, would not.

More than 60 residents signed a proposal to amend the zoning of the district, currently SB (Service Business). LInda Fahmie, marketing the former Olive May store site for the owners, the Carnevale family, brought up the possibility of changing the zoning to NB (Neighborhood Business). The property that formerly housed the West Coast Video store is owned by the Bratman family. That property is leased to Rite Aid drug stores for four more years. “We’re open to some others coming in to buy the lease out,” said Robert Bratman, who was at the meeting. “But that has not happened.”

The original proposal by the Carnevales for the Olive May site drew objections from some residents, and is being revised. Envisioned as a three-story building mixing retail, office, and residential spaces with both underground and residential parkting, it would have required variances.

The presentation by Mr. Schneiderman and fellow neighborhood resident David Kinsey recommends that the tract be conceived and designed as a whole. Princeton University, which owns the driveway between the two properties, is willing to consider moving it if approached by one of the property owners, Mr. Schneiderman said.

Council members had several questions about the plan. Roger Martindell expressed concern about prohibiting a laundromat from operating on the property. “A large segment of our population doesn’t have access to laundry facilities. I would have some trouble restricting laundromats,” he said. Mr. Kinsey said that laundromats are currently a permitted use. While the survey showed that residents would not like to see another laundromat, no change is proposed.

Responding to the recommended elimination of fast food restaurants, councilman David Goldfarb asked Mr. Kinsey if popular neighborhood eateries Hoagie Heaven or Qdoba are considered to be fast food establishments. “Our attorney would have to look at this very carefully, because there is a very fine line,” he said. “We don’t want to keep certain restaurants away.”

Councilman Kevin Wilkes, who is an architect, had questions about the public space. “I’m not sure this is fully baked,” he said of the neighbors’ ideas. “Think about this as more specific, quantitative. These facades face north. If it is a three-story building, during half the year it will be fully in shadow. Shouldn’t we be more flexible, allowing for morning or afternoon sun?”

Referencing the public plaza idea, Mr. Goldfarb added, “We really need to think very carefully about what makes a plaza successful.” He used the plaza in front of Princeton University’s Firestone Library as an example. “Nobody uses it,” he said.

Ms. Fahmie expressed frustrations about marketing the Olive May property under its current zoning. “I’d like to see us have some allowances here as NB,” she said. Sports retailers, a high-end grocer, and a finance company are among those who have shown interest in the site, she said.

At the end of the meeting, Council passed a motion to have its staff prepare an ordinance for discussion at a meeting in October.

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