December 26, 2012

Planning Board Approves Arts & Transit, Citizens Are Considering an Appeal

Concluding six years of discussion and dispute between Princeton University, the governing bodies, and citizens of the town, the Regional Planning Board December 18 voted to approve the University’s $300 million Arts and Transit proposal. Borough Mayor Yina Moore was the only member of the Planning Board to cast an opposing vote.

The approval allows the University to begin planning construction of the 22-acre complex in earnest. “We hope to start the early stages of the project as early as February, if not, then certainly by March,” said Bob Durkee, University vice president and secretary, late last week. “This is a multi-stage process and things need to be done in sequence, so the sooner we can get started clearing the site and working on the utilities, the sooner we can eventually get to the new buildings.”

But a group of citizens opposed to the project will likely file an objection to the Planning Board’s decision. Representing Walter Neumann, Christopher Hedges, Dorothy Koehn, Anita Garoniak, and Marco Gottardis, attorney Bruce Afran said in an email last week, “The Planning Board decision represents a failure to consider the greater needs of the community and an abandonment of any balance in our governmental dealings with the University. In contrast to the AvalonBay project, the Board virtually rubber-stamped the Arts project, raced through the application, asked virtually no questions as to this massive development and entered its resolution on three hours notice in a clear violation of state law. The approval is almost certainly illegal and subject to reversal by the courts and an appeal is being considered.”

Three lawsuits over the project are already pending in the courts. Those represented by Mr. Afran, along with other citizens, have expressed opposition to the part of the plan that requires moving the Dinky train terminus 460 feet south of its present location. Some residents at the meeting pleaded with the Planning Board to vote the proposal down, saying the relocated station will remove an important gateway to the town and make it difficult for those with disabilities to reach the new station. They also complained that the University has not listened to their comments.

But Princeton University Architect Ron McCoy said the University has taken complaints from residents into account over the past few years and studied alternatives to the plan for the Dinky move. None of those alternatives work, he claimed.

Concerns were also raised by citizens about traffic safety and environmental issues. But Planning Board member Julie Nachamkin praised the plan for its walking paths, landscaping, reduction of impervious coverage, and energy efficiency. “And it brings the community to an area of the town where no one spends any time,” she said.

Board member Peter Madison said he is looking forward to the implementation of the plan. “I have lived here for 33 years and have seen a lot of changes, and just about all have been very good,” he said “Unlike someone who sees this as the glass half empty, I see a lot of potential here.” Mr. Madison added that while the existing rail line will never be extended through the campus to Nassau Street, a new light rail line could come in with an alternative route and stops added between Carnegie Lake and Route 1. “I don’t see this as a negative thing,” he concluded. “I understand there are trade-offs.”

Brian McDonald, who heads McCarter Theatre’s Board of Directors, was enthused about the project, specifically for its plan to turn the existing Dinky station buildings across from the theater into a restaurant and cafe. “Better parking and a dining options are two of our patrons’ greatest concerns,” he said. The eateries could help bring additional revenue at a time of struggle for arts organizations.

Before casting the lone vote against the proposal, Borough Mayor and Planning Board member Yina Moore suggested approving only the arts portion of the plan. As a transportation expert who once worked for NJ Transit, Ms. Moore said there has not been enough research done on the moving of the Dinky. Board members Marvin Reed and Janet Stern cast their votes for the plan “with regret.”

Mr. Durkee said the filing of an appeal against the Planning Board will be “another example of imposing costs on the community because the community will then have to defend the process. I think it will be an easy process to defend, because the Board has worked very diligently on this project. There is little likelihood that the appeal will make any headway at all, but it will cost the community money to defend against it.”