February 10, 2021

Zoning Board Approves Plan for New Hotel

By Anne Levin

At the end of a marathon, five-and-a-half-hour meeting Monday evening that ended after 1 a.m. on Tuesday, Princeton’s Zoning Board of Adjustment voted in favor of a plan to turn an office building at 20 Nassau Street into a 180-room hotel.

Chicago-based Graduate Hotels, which has properties in university towns in the United States and the United Kingdom, will repurpose the building at Nassau and Chambers streets while demolishing a three-story building on Chambers Street and replacing it with a five-story addition to the hotel. The entrance will be on Chambers Street.

While some residents and business owners have been in favor of the plan, several who live on neighboring Bank Street have expressed major concerns about blocked light, traffic, noise, and the project’s size and scale. Representatives of Graduate Hotels met with residents several times over the past few months to hear their concerns. But there were still worries voiced at the meeting Monday night.

During public comment, homeowner Chip Crider said that while original projections for the hotel might have been made at a time when the economy was different, “there’s no reason we should take a hit because their assumptions are wrong. It’s a nice application,” he said, “but it’s oversized and oversold.”

Another neighbor objected to a solid brick wall to be built behind the Chambers Street section, saying it would block light and make his utility bills go up. Melina Bilic of Bank Street said she didn’t understand why she couldn’t get permission to put a skylight in, while “someone can get a waiver for 178 rooms. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Bank Street resident and professional planner Tony Nelessen commented that while Princeton needs another hotel, the proposed plan is too big. He noted that the Graduate Hotel in New Haven, Connecticut, has only 72 rooms. “Why do we need 178 rooms in Princeton?” he asked. “Is it to make the model work, or is it about some level of financial greed?” Nelessen was critical of the plan for the back of the building on Chambers Street that will face Bank Street properties, saying it looks like a penal colony or warehouse. The plan “is a slap in the face to the entire historic neighborhood,” he said. “The hotel will have a lasting impact on the Bank Street neighborhood.”

Princeton architect Michael Mills, who specializes in historic preservation, praised the plan. “It saves and provides a vibrant use for a historic building,” he said, adding that 20 Nassau Street is where Educational Testing Service and the Institute for Advanced Study had original offices. “I believe it fits really well into the historic district and the town, and it will be a good neighbor to the Bank Street neighborhood.”

Graduate Hotels requested a variance for the project’s floor area ratio, moving it from the usual regulations of 1.5 feet or less to 3.62. Architect Joshua Zinder, who is a tenant of 20 Nassau Street and is working on the hotel design, said that other buildings in the downtown have similar floor area ratios.

Some members of the Zoning Board said they were hoping to have more data about why Graduate needs to have 180 rooms when properties they own in other cities larger than Princeton have fewer rooms. Attorney Christopher DeGrezia, who represents Graduate, said that number is needed in order to make the project financially viable. The costs are high because the project involves adaptive reuse of the building and underground parking.  “The hotel needs a certain number of rooms to keep afloat,” he said. “This project is over a $100 million investment.”

Originally, the company wanted to build 191 rooms but reduced the number to 178 after meeting with neighbors. The final request was for 180 rooms. Adding those two rooms does not involve altering the building’s exterior; they will be splitting two suites in half to create two more rooms.

Zoning Board member Eve Coulson said she would have liked to know more from the company about how the pandemic has affected the hotel industry. “I give you a lot of credit for being brave and risk-taking, and hopefully thoughtful about it, and I believe you are, but we want this to be an adventurous journey that will be a positive one,” she said.

Board member Michael Floyd said the project could be detrimental to residents of Bank Street, but he didn’t think it would be detrimental to the public good. Steve Cohen, who chairs the Zoning Board, also had concerns, but thought the project was, overall, a good idea. “It’s a very tough decision,” he said. “There has been a lot of good testimony and comments from neighbors.” Board member Harlan Tenenbaum said some aspects of the project troubled him, and he was especially sympathetic to Bank Street neighbors. But in general, the project is a positive, he said.

The hotel will have a small “grab and go” bar in the lobby, and a smaller bar in the basement. There will be no restaurant or room service. Kathy Klockenbrink, co-owner of Jammin’ Crepes, which is located at 20 Nassau Street and is now a tenant of Graduate, said the company has been a good landlord. “We understand the impact [the project] can have on Bank Street, but also on the community,” she said. “Graduate Hotels is a real team player. We trust they will continue to be strong team players in the community.”

Former Mayor Liz Lempert commented that because of the hotel tax, the project would benefit all taxpayers in town. She added that while she appreciated the concerns of Bank Street residents, she urged the board to keep the entire community in mind. “Having another hotel in Princeton has been a goal of the mayor and Council, because we lose so many visitors to town who are staying out on Route 1,” she said. “They’re not around to help support the restaurants and businesses.”

Gund Investment Corporation’s historic building at 14 Nassau Street shares a party wall with 20 Nassau Street. Attorney Thomas Letizia, representing the investment firm, said owner Gordon Gund does not oppose the plans, but does have concerns about the effect of demolition and construction on his building’s structure, employees, and tenants. He asked for certain assurances and conditions, to which Graduate agreed.

The project is expected to take 24 to 26 months to complete, and will eventually create 100 jobs, Graduate representatives said. Tim Ryan, the company’s chief investment officer, said a conservative estimate is that the hotel could bring over $7 million a year in economic impact. “The market is wildly underserved,” he said. “The municipality is missing out on millions of dollars of tax revenues.”