Op-Ed: Princeton Needs Sustainable Mass Transit

By Kip Cherry

Earlier this month, the Princeton Regional Planning Board voted to recommend the Arts, Education and Transit zone and abutting zoning amendments to Borough Council and Township Committee, subject to the determination that anticipated traffic congestion in the area will not be unacceptable.  It appeared that the board felt a great deal of pressure because they were at the end of the deliberation period.

Further, Princeton University had gone to great pains several days before during a borough council meeting to say that the university was “not” threatening to lower the amount of the payment in lieu of taxes it currently pays to the borough, but that any increase “might” be in jeopardy if the town failed to adopt the proposed ordinance amendments. Somehow this very statement sounded like a threat all over again.

Studies have shown and were confirmed by NJ Transit at a council meeting that relocating the station will discourage a large pool of walkers that currently use the station, and will lead to a significant loss of ridership. I and many others feel that a loss of ridership may well endanger the future viability of the Dinky, and that losing the right-of-way almost certainly will remove the potential for converting it to light rail and extending it to Nassau Street.

With congestion, fuel prices, and the danger of climate change increasing over time, we need to find more sustainable solutions for Princeton. Losing the Dinky would be a major setback. Just the disruption alone during construction of the proposed arts complex could doom the Dinky. Without the Dinky, we will find ourselves unable to be part of the economic vitality of towns with rail connections over the long-term.  We need to look ahead, and we need the university administration to take a new stance and think long-term. Putting everyone into buses crisscrossing our town is not a viable solution financially or in terms of commuting time, and it does not fit into the vision of most for our town.

This is not a Dinky versus arts discussion. I just attended an event at McCarter Theater Saturday and had to deal with the interior and exterior stairs and inconvenience of parking, as did everyone else.  I don’t see major solutions to this problem in the proposed arts complex. Since there were no commuters parked on University Place that night, relocating the Dinky would have had no impact. In fact we parked in the Wawa parking lot, which, under what we have seen of the university’s plans, would be removed and replaced with access to the existing Lot 7 Parking Garage further away from McCarter.

McCarter Theater was sited next to the Dinky for a reason.  The idea was to create easy pedestrian access, right across the street, for actors and theater personnel from New York. McCarter still benefits from this close contact with New York. The proposed Lewis Arts Complex is a little different. This is a classroom complex with some smaller theater spaces for student experimentation. It sounds like a wonderful complex, but it doesn’t have to be located at the Dinky Station and the university has indicated that it has other sites for it.  Further, the Dinky Station doesn’t have to be moved to construct the complex.

I have reviewed the new zoning ordinance carefully and remain very concerned about the provisions related to 100-foot buildings (that’s a 10-story building). I’ve been asking myself whether it is in the public interest to permit any 100-foot-high buildings, and does this conflict with the Princeton Regional Master Plan? The planning board  by law  was required to examine possible conflicts, but for some reason did not address this.

I could understand the idea of increasing the density of offices or residential units at the Dinky terminus – that is called transit-oriented development, but I am at a loss as to why it is in the public interest to increase the building height in the area of the current station above the typical maximum building height for the neighborhood – which is 40-60 feet.  Does it make sense to accommodate classroom space in towers that aren’t intended to serve commuters?

My understanding is that we currently have one fire truck that reaches 95 feet.  Will we have to purchase more fire equipment and construct new firehouse facilities because of this new building height? How much will that cost?

Will the new building height create a precedent that means that Princeton is now moving to a maximum building height of 100 feet? (Obviously the McCarter stage house, (what the University is calling a flyhouse, should not be considered to be a precedent, and it is also set back from the street).  I wasn’t part of the discussion on Fine Hall, but I assume that one of the justifications for allowing the Fine Hall tower was that it is located in a low area and that it is set well-back from Washington Road.

The new ordinance says that “the portion of the building exceeding 60-feet in height is set back from any public street an additional one foot for every two feet by which the building exceeds 60 feet.”  So if a building is 100-feet tall, then the setback is just 40 feet.

Is this a good idea for our town? And how many of these tall buildings can fit into the new district? And Is this new building height and density consistent with the master plan?

Ultimately I would like to see the master plan updated to provide for transit-oriented development.  Right now, I am concerned about whether 100-foot buildings of the type proposed are consistent with the vision we have for our town. I don’t think that it is consistent with our master plan.

Could we reduce the maximum building height in the proposed district to 60 feet?  I am willing to make an exception for the height of the new concert hall that the university eventually wants to construct.  But do we want 10-story classroom buildings along University Place and Alexander Street?

This is our town.  We pay the taxes.

 Kip Cherry is a township resident.