Princeton Township Approves Arts and Transit Zoning

Princeton University’s proposed plan for a $300 million arts and transit neighborhood overcame another major hurdle last night as the township governing body approved the new zoning for the project.

The township committee unanimously voted to approve new zoning that would allow for arts buildings. Committeewoman Liz Lempert abstained from voting because her husband works for the university.

“We began discussing the possibility of an arts and transit neighborhood about five years ago,” Princeton University vice President Bob Durkee told officials. “We’ve been to multiple meetings to talk about the project..From the beginning, principally what we’ve focused on is the opportunity it provides us to expand opportunities in the arts, both for our students and the broader community. Most of what we could do is within the existing zoning, but what can’t be done is items in arts and education.”

Unlike past discussions of the arts and transit proposal, the meeting, attended by about two dozen people, most of them university representatives and journalists, lasted just over an hour and included several other agenda items.

University Architect Ron McCoy reviewed in detail an aspect of the proposed project that some officials wanted more information on – a fly tower for a performance hall that is part of the proposed arts neighborhood.

The fly tower would make the highest point of the performance hall just under 100 feet high, and the performance hall would be 150-feet wide when measured on a diagonal. The theatre would seat between 650 and 800 people. In comparison, Berlind Theatre seats about 360 people, Richardson Auditorium seats 885 people, and the Matthews Theatre seats about 1,100 people, McCoy said.

“The size allows for intimacy for community performances, and also academic performances,” McCoy said. “We also wanted a performance hall that can accommodate music, drama and theatre performances. With a fly tower we can combine an orchestra with a chorus, for example. That range of theatrical and musical performances is not currently accommodated.”

McCoy said the fly tower, part of a system used for moving equipment and set pieces, serves a highly functional role in the theatre, but is not noticed when people attend theatre performances.

Township committee members did not have any questions last night about the zoning, but a few residents in the audience commented during the public hearing portion of the ordinance review.

“Now that we are unified, I want you to keep in mind that five years ago West Windsor planned a transit village,” township resident Jim Harford said. “I would like you as a unified township, when you are voting for this zoning, to consider this area of Princeton now as a transit village. I don’t believe Princeton University has satisfied the conditions for a transit hub. Several issues need to be addressed, for example pedestrian access and train lines not impeding traffic. And I do think the train line should go all the way to Nassau Street.”

Township Mayor Chad Goerner said a so-called “memorandum of understanding” with the borough and university provides for a long-term transit study for the community. “The goal is to bring some service to Nassau  Street at some point in the future,” Goerner said. “We have a lot of work cut out for us on the transit proposal in the months ahead.”

Melanie Clarke, executive director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, said the proposed $300 million arts development would stimulate the economy and improve the quality of life in town by offering a real center for the arts in Princeton.

“The Princeton Symphony routinely sells out concerts,” Clarke said, adding that the arts plaza proposed by the university as part of the project could be a venue for free public concerts when the weather is nice. She added that the project would allow for more collaboration between private arts groups and the university, and would offer more needed rehearsal space.

Brian McDonald, president of the board of directors at McCarter Theatre, expressed the board’s strong and unanimous support for the project and said it would benefit McCarter and enhance collaborative projects with the university.

“Scarce parking and a lack of dining options are often cited as reasons people are not renewing their ticket subscriptions,” McDonald said. “The project would make the university parking garage much more accessible to patrons for use evening and weekends and would add dining, which is very attractive to patrons.”

McDonald said if the new project encourages just 10 more patrons per theater performance, McCarter’s annual income would increase by $80,000. If 50 more patrons attend McCarter per performance, the increase would jump to $400,000 annually.

Borough resident Chip Crider urged officials to approve the ordinance, saying the township has taken a leadership position and salvaged the “shambles of the borough.”

“You could pass the ordinance tonight and the borough could not pass their ordinance and you could be in limbo,” Crider said. “A torpedoing of the ordinance is already in the works in the borough. So vote yes, cross your fingers and hope the next year whizzes by. When we consolidate we won;t have the grief we have now.”

Goerner acknowledged that the arts and transit process has been a long one.

“The process didn’t begin Jan. 31, though that seems like ages ago,” he said. “Things have gotten to a point through the memorandum of understanding that we are addressing transit concerns. At the same time we are also moving forward with the ordinance to create a project the community truly benefits from, from arts perspective, and eventually from a transit perspective. I’m proud we’ve gotten to this point.”