November 30, 2011

Borough Council Members Questioned at Meeting About Zoning Change

At its meeting last Tuesday, November 22, Princeton Borough Council was questioned repeatedly about why a proposed zoning change to the former Wild Oats Market and West Coast Video sites on east Nassau Street had not been discussed, as originally promised, at its previous meeting.

The complaints came from Linda Fahmie of ROI Renovations, who represents the families that own the two properties. Council members had agreed at their September 13 meeting that the proposed change, which would move eight properties zoned service business (SB) into a neighborhood business (NB) zone, would be part of a discussion at an October meeting. But that discussion did not take place.

“Now, we are here to discuss it, and everyone is on vacation and no one has been notified,” Ms. Fahmie said. “We only got notice at the end of last week, and it’s two days before a holiday.”

Councilman David Goldfarb expressed his concerns as well, saying the omission was “not the right way to do the public’s business.” Since Council had voted to have the public discussion on the October agenda, he expected it to be held at that time. “But somebody somewhere made the decision to ignore the clearly expressed will of the council, and I have very great concerns about that,” he added.

Borough administrator Robert Bruschi explained that the Borough staff had worked on an ordinance concerning the proposed rezoning, in addition to a large workload. “We were trying to work with the neighbors,” he said. “The presentation tonight is a supplement to the dialogue we have had.” Since Council had only heard from those in favor of the proposal, he added, it wouldn’t be fair to present an ordinance before others had an opportunity to speak. “This is a step in the process.”

The Wild Oats and West Coast Video properties are located at 255 and 259 Nassau Street. Princeton University owns the driveway separating the two sites, which are in the neighborhood known as Gasoline Alley. The area has been the subject of studies and presentations by Princeton Future, including one held last August at the Chestnut Street firehouse. Jim Constantine, who gave that original presentation, spoke again at the Council meeting about visions for the neighborhood compiled after a year of discussions and polling of area residents.

“People think of this part of Nassau Street as a kind of Village High Street,” he said. “But they don’t want it to be part of downtown. They like the diversity.” The area is a place where there is a true “town and gown” relationship, he said, where Princeton University faculty and graduate students intermingle with members of the community.

Mr. Constantine projected images of how the area along Nassau Street could look, focusing on a concept known as shared space. Adjacent properties would use the same paving patterns, a practice that is followed in Petoranello, Italy, Princeton’s sister city.

The survey of neighborhood residents showed that restaurants, a market similar to Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal, and a supermarket were the most desirable tenants for the Wild Oats and West Coast Video spaces. Least appealing would be a laundromat, fast food restaurant, or bank.

Ms. Fahmie commented that banks are “triple A tenants,” while restaurants are among the riskiest potential occupants. Mr. Goldfarb said he thought a bank would be a reasonable tenant for the site. “Banks can be attractive,” he said. “There is no reason why a bank wouldn’t be a good use there.” Both Ms. Fahmie and Mr. Goldfarb questioned how the survey was conducted and who responded.

Planning Director Lee Solow commented that having spoken to residents of the area, he believes a bank is undesirable because it doesn’t add much to the streetscape. “They’d like to see a lively area,” he said.

Council member Jo Butler said that by not doing what they agreed to do, Council has cost businesses in the Nassau east area money. “We’ve set them back a long way,” she said. “We’re going to have a lot on the agenda in January. It’s not like we are going to be a whole lot less busy next year. And we haven’t even begun the conversation with the business owners. It’s unfortunate.”

If the discussion is not put on the Council’s and Planning Board’s December agenda, property owners will have to start the process over with the two groups.