December 5, 2012

Planning Board Hears Testimony, Discussion Of Arts and Transit Plan

Arguments for and against Princeton University’s plan to move the Dinky station as part of its $300 million Arts and Transit plan continued at a meeting of the Regional Planning Board last Thursday. The board is hoping to wrap up discussions of the final site plan for the project before consolidation goes into effect on January 1.

Opposition has been expressed not so much for the plan itself, which would bring a complex of performance, rehearsal, and other spaces to the campus, but for the relocation of the train station some 480 feet south of its present location. The Lewis Center for the Arts project would turn the existing station buildings, opposite McCarter Theatre, into a restaurant and cafe.

Attorney Bruce Afran, who represents a group of citizens opposed to the move, spent much of the meeting questioning officials about such issues as pedestrian safety and traffic impact. The opposition maintains that the University does not have the legal right to move the station because of an easement that allows public transportation access over its land, and that the plans for pedestrian crossings in the area are unsafe.

But Board member Peter Madison said it was not the Board’s job to rule on those points. “We have an application here that is in full compliance with the legal zoning,” he said. “If it is, I don’t see that I have an alternative to turning this application down.” Mr. Afran disagreed, saying the Board was not limited to the question of zoning compliance, and could deny approval if they feel public safety is at risk.

Among those testifying against the proposal were planner and University transportation professor Alain Kornhauser and local architect Michael Landau. Mr. Kornhauser delivered a power point presentation in which he said the project could proceed without moving the Dinky terminus. “Princeton University can even extend Blair Walk without moving the Dinky station or the tracks,” he said, adding that traffic flow and pedestrian safety would be compromised by the proposed plan.

Mr. Landau said that the design for the new Dinky station by architect Rick Joy keeps it “hidden from the public.” He cited New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to give in to public pressure and cancel the New York Marathon after Hurricane Sandy as an example to be followed. “Why can’t we accommodate the public?” he asked, saying it wasn’t too late for changes to be made to the Lewis Center plan.

Earlier in the meeting, University Secretary and Vice-President Bob Durkee took issue with statements made at the previous Planning Board meeting by a member of the public. “We were chastised for not listening to the community,” he said. “I can tell you that we have listened … and the design reflects that.” Mr. Durkee added that other proposals were studied in detail, and that the project is consistent with the master plan.

Members of the public testifying in favor of the project included Peter Crowley, president and CEO of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce; David Newton, vice president of Palmer Square Management; and former Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand. “The plan you have before you complies with recently adopted zoning,” she said. “I think it is your obligation to move ahead.”

There will be further opportunity for public comment at the Planning Board meeting scheduled for December 19, at which there is expected to be a vote on whether to approve the plan.