July 18, 2012

TD Bank Could Move Into Wild Oats Site On East Nassau Street

The future of a stretch of East Nassau Street once known as “gasoline alley” was the focus of a meeting of Princeton Borough Council last Tuesday, July 10. The question of whether to allow banks in the area took up much of the discussion of a draft ordinance that would change the zoning of businesses between Olden Street and Murray Place from service business (SB) to neighborhood business (NB), which is the zoning for the opposite side of that portion of Nassau Street.

Some officials and neighborhood residents have expressed opposition to allowing banks on that side, preferring the mix of retail and restaurants that exists across the street. Others, such as business owner Lou Carnevale, would welcome banks to the location. Mr. Carnevale has been paying taxes for five years on the empty building that previously housed the Wild Oats market, and he is anxious to bring in TD Bank, which he said is interested in opening a branch in the first floor space.

“I need an anchor, a triple-A tenant,” he said during the public comment segment of the meeting. Mr. Carnevale added that he would like to have a variety of businesses in the building, but he can’t get financing without a major tenant such as TD Bank. “I have tenants that want to sign, but I can’t keep them forever,” he said. The second floor of the building would have offices.

A survey conducted by Princeton Future last year indicated that many neighborhood residents would like the space to house an establishment in the style of Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. What they didn’t want, the survey revealed, was banks, fast food restaurants, or a laundromat. But during ensuing public meetings, some residents said they would be in favor of banks that were up to 5,000 square feet.

Linda Fahmie of ROI Realty, who represents the Carnevale family, said that TD Bank would fit into the neighborhood because it wants “a community orientation,” and would like to install a mural depicting historic Princeton on a wall of the facility. The branch would be 4,500 square feet, Mr. Carnevale said.

Councilman Kevin Wilkes suggested that there be 500 feet between any banks that are brought onto the street, “to limit banks on top of banks.” He was opposed to the idea of limiting the frontage of banks or other types of financial institution to 25 feet, because it could affect the design.

Also discussed was the idea of adding a boutique hotel to the mix. “That could be an interesting addition to the neighborhood,” commented Council member Barbara Trelstad. Lee Solow, Princeton’s Planning Director, voiced concerns about traffic and deliveries. But he said he would look into the matter further.

Ms. Fahmie commented that a hotel might work if it were considered as a conditional use in the zone, meaning it would have to meet certain standards. Andrea Stine, who lives on Murray Place, expressed concerns about a hotel because it would bring tourists to the neighborhood, making it “very transient.”

Area business owner Jack Morrison disagreed. “We won’t have a flop hotel,” he said, using the 16-room Peacock Inn on Bayard Lane as an example of a quality boutique hotel. “Let the market forces get down there,” he said, adding that offering more opportunities for entrepreneurs would energize the area.

Alexi Assmus, a neighborhood resident, encouraged the Council to establish small spaces on the street so that small business owners can afford to operate there. She also suggested that new businesses be LEED-certified. Responding to concerns expressed about traffic, she said, “One of the things we’re forgetting in these discussions is that 8,000 students from Princeton University use the restaurants [on East Nassau Street], all of whom walk.”

David Kinsey of Aiken Avenue said there are already eight banks on the north side of Nassau Street between Bank Street and Scott Lane. “I wonder what major national bank is not represented in the community,” he said. “The one flaw in the ordinance is opening [the street] up to banks. How many more do we need? I ask you to think really carefully about opening the south side to banks.”

Borough Council will revisit the ordinance at its meeting July 24.