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Vol. LXV, No. 10
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
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University Proposes New Arts, Education, Transit Zone For Council Input

Dilshanie Perera

Despite the fact that Princeton University’s plans for its Arts and Transit Neighborhood are still in flux, with Borough and Township officials meeting with University representatives to negotiate a plan for the University Place and Alexander Road corridor, representatives from the University presented a proposal for rezoning the area at last week’s Council meeting.

Describing the space as “an area we have been thinking about since the early 1980s,” Princeton University Vice President Robert Durkee explained that the proposed Arts, Education, and Transit (AET) Zone would combine the four existing zones in the Borough into a more seamless area.

During his presentation, Mr. Durkee said that the existing zones “have competing bulk standards for height and massing that are not conducive to comprehensive redevelopment.”

The AET zoning would span both the Borough and Township in an effort to create a “transitional edge neighborhood,” according to Mr. Durkee. The proposed uses within the zone include residential dwellings; educational uses; performance halls and theaters; transit uses, including parking lots and garages; museums, galleries, and studios; retail stories, restaurants, cafes, pubs, convenience stores, and other complementary uses; office buildings; parks, playgrounds, and public buildings; clubhouses; and childcare facilities.

A draft ordinance for the AET zone suggests a scale for future buildings on the site that would compliment McCarter Theater and create an entryway into Princeton. University Architect Ron McCoy said that one’s “sense of arrival” would be “reinforced by the bulk regulation we propose.”

For non-residential structures on a lot of one acre or smaller, the building height is proposed at a maximum of 50 feet, with a front-yard setback of 10 feet, a maximum coverage area of 30 percent, and a floor area ratio (FAR) of 0.6. Non-residential uses on a lot over one acre would have a maximum height of 60 feet, with a tower setback provision for 130 feet, a front-yard setback of either 10 or 15 feet depending on the building’s front facade.

“We hope this area in its entirety will emerge as an attractive area for people to walk through,” Mr. Durkee said, explaining that the first phase would involve transit changes and the creation of the main Steven Holl-designed Lewis Center for the Arts building, and some restaurant and retail space and would likely be complete at the very earliest in 2017. Secondary phases could include a performance hall, and art museum and gallery spaces, among other structures.

Council President Kevin Wilkes inquired about the existing lots in the AET zone and how University personnel had arrived at the numbers for setback, height, and FAR. Mr. McCoy called the proposed maximums a “starting point,” emphasizing the fact that the goals for the site include porosity, openness, and connectivity.

Barbara Trelstad of Borough Council wondered whether the proposed zoning changes would disrupt the flow of the area, noting that the buildings described were “coming closer and higher,” and that it might “create a downtown feel” in an area that is not the downtown.

Mr. McCoy responded that the arts building would be at a nexus with a lot of space around it, and urged the elected officials to think of it in the context of rezoning along Alexander Road.

Borough Council member Jo Butler noted that the incline along Alexander Road in conjunction with the proposed building height maximums, could lead to future development looming over the road.

“This whole area will look quite different,” said Mr. Durkee, describing the townhouses along the roadway, which would create a corridor into town. He added that “we need to have the height necessary to support artistic work.”

Roger Martindell of Council said that he sees the “University as making a development proposal and seeking zoning consideration … which raises questions in my mind, like ‘Why should we do this?’”

Asking what costs and benefits would accrue to the municipality as a result of changing the zoning, Mr. Martindell requested an itemized list and data supporting the pros and cons, adding that he would ask for a similar list for any alternate space should the Arts and Transit negotiations fall through for this particular site.

Planning Board member Yina Moore said that she was “very concerned about some of the general, sweeping, overarching designations of the land use” under the proposed AET zoning. She urged Council and University to consider what a “gateway” into Princeton really means. “What are we defining as the community’s entrance?”

Alexander Road resident Anne Neumann noted that the scale of the structures proposed may be more appropriate for the downtown, and also questioned the University’s move to alter the “aesthetic and historic character” of the neighborhood of Stedman and Stedman-like homes further up Alexander Road.

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