After hearing presentations from members of the design team charged with creating Princeton University’s $300 million arts and transit neighborhood, the Regional Planning Board of Princeton’s Site Plan Review Advisory Board (SPRAB) voted on Monday, September 24, to recommend approval to the planners with certain caveats. Should the Planning Board follow this advice, construction could begin on the first phase of the project this coming spring. The Lewis Center for the Arts, its centerpiece, would be projected for a 2017 opening.
The plan has been a source of controversy among local residents because it involves moving the Dinky train station 460 feet south and turning the existing station buildings into a restaurant and cafe. The project has been opposed by the organization Save the Dinky, and is the subject of two pending lawsuits.
Several university consultants and employees were on hand for the meeting in the Township municipal building. University Architect Ron McCoy led the presentations, which included input from
architects Steven Holl, Rick Joy, and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh. Mr. Holl, designer of the Lewis Center building, said he sees the project as a “middle gateway” to Princeton, “a place where the community and the University can join.” Having worked on the design since 2007, Mr. Holl said, “We’ve improved, improved, refined and improved, and I’m really excited about where we are now.”
But SPRAB chairman Bill Wolfe expressed several concerns about the project. “Despite being very enthusiastic about the quality of the design, I am very, very unhappy with the overall plan,” he said. The concept of the transit center as a gateway to the town and university is not sufficiently grand, he felt. “This is where important scholars from all over the globe first set foot in Princeton,” he said. “In this site plan, the most important public space to the University and the town should be the transit plaza. But it doesn’t yet look it.” Mr. Wolfe was also disappointed that the proposed arts center was not designed to be closer to McCarter Theatre and that University Place does not run straight to the transit plaza.
Mr. McCoy said the University “has been at this for years,” and had many conversations. “We’re very confident that the solution we’ve arrived at is a good compromise,” he said.
Among the features of the plan described by Mr. McCoy and the design team were parking for Dinky riders, a transit plaza at the new Dinky station site for taxis, jitneys and buses, and enhanced public areas with art that has yet to be determined. A traffic circle at the intersection of Alexander Road and University Place will improve flow, Mr. McCoy said.
The arts complex will include a black box theater, a dance theater, music rehearsal hall, and two studios, to serve the University during the day and be used for public performances at night, he said. Bluestone walkways, green roofs, enhanced plantings and underground wiring and utilities were also detailed.
Trees to be planted will have high canopies in order to keep the buildings “filled with light in winter,” said Mr. Van Valkenburgh when describing the landscaping. The commuter parking lot will be divided with trees. The University Place Green, a major part of the project, will have landscaping modeled after the trees in front of Nassau Hall.
Mr. Joy’s firm will design the new station and renovate the historic Dinky buildings with the assistance of Princeton-based Mills + Schnoering Architects. “This is a great opportunity to give some of the most historic buildings on campus to the community,” he said of the old station building, which will be turned into a restaurant. “We’ve maintained and honored the presence of the original building, and sort of snuck in our addition on the back side,” he said of a planned addition.
SPRAB member Joshua Zinder, who is an architect, suggested that the canopy on the historic building be kept. “The removal of the canopy is too bad,” he said. “That structure, with some clever landscaping, could be the east/west gateway. It’s a big part of the historic character of the station.” Mr. McCoy acknowledged that the canopy was “a difficult issue,” but a new canopy will be built. Mr. Zinder also recommended that a material other than stucco, which is planned, be used.
SPRAB included these comments, as well as those from Mr. Wolfe, with the recommendation to the planning board.