Borough Council Approves Princeton University Arts Plan (Updated)

Princeton University's arts and transit zone
After more than five years of discussion and debate that centered on moving the Dinky station, Princeton University has won the zoning changes needed to move forward with plans for its $300 million arts and transit neighborhood.

The Princeton Borough Council voted 3-2 Tuesday night to approve an ordinance that allows the University to include arts buildings on school property on the western edge of the campus along University Place. Council members Kevin Wilkes, Roger Martindell and Barbara Trelstad voted to approve the zoning, while members Jenny Crumiller and Jo Butler voted against it.

Township officials already approved zoning earlier this year for the portion of the project that would be located in the township. Princeton University will still need to submit plans for the project to the Regional Planning Board of Princeton for approval.

“It’s bad public policy to move the Dinky in terms of global warming, transit policy, development, and community relations,” Councilman Roger Martindell said.  “That said, we have to play the hand we were dealt. In that regard we have some constraints…The University has the legal right to move the Dinky station whether I like it or not. The University intends to move it whether we pass the zoning or not. We can’t reasonably doubt another party’s intention unless there is clear and convincing evidence that they are lying or manipulating the process. I don’t see clear and convincing evidence. And NJ Transit is highly motivated to move the station 460 ft south. The Governor indicated that’s what he wants, and he controls their board.”

Martindell added that improving traffic flow and transit is in the best interest of the University, asking, “Why would the University want to build a $300 million project no one can get to?”

“It makes sense to move forward because of the benefits of the memorandum of understanding, which includes improvements to transportation,” he said.  “We have the ability to work with largest single stakeholder in the town and to have good relations with the state, NJ Transit and Princeton Township…It has been a struggle. It’s nice and healthy to have discourse and differences of opinion but at some point there comes a time where a resolution needs to be reached and we need to move on. I think we’ve reached that stage and I look forward to a better relationship with the University.”

Borough Council President Kevin Wilkes said he met with the heads of New Jersey Transit and the state Department of Transportation Tuesday morning and received assurances from them that they will support the Dinky and long term transit planning goals outlined in the transit agreement known as the memorandum of understanding that was negotiated between the borough, township and Princeton University officials.

“I’m  taking the university at its word that it will stay at the  table with us through groups like  the joint task force to study transit issues,” Wilkes said. “I think it is important that we all work together in future to achieve goals. It’s a shame it took five years for us to get to this night, but a lot of hard work had to be done to get the issues resolved. The issue of the train, larger resentments that had built up over time, the issue of the growth of downtown, issues related to university expansion — it’s taken a while to paddle through the complexity of issues. We may not have arrived at a solution that is ideal for everyone, but we arrived at a point where we can advance and move forward.”

But Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller sand approving the zoning would be the biggest public policy mistake ever made by the council.

“Transit experts and even NJ Transit officials agree that moving the Dinky is not good public policy,” Crumiller said, adding that smart growth projects seek to move transit closer to the center of town and create transit villages with residences closer to trains, not farther away.

“The University states that it will not build the project here if it can’t move the Dinky,” she said. “They are holding the arts hostage to the Dinky. It’s a calculated strategy to divide and conquer.”

Crumiller questioned whether attendance at McCarter Theater event will increase under the plan as the University has projected and said people would be discouraged from taking the Dinky because it will be relocated behind buildings surrounded by roads, like a strip mall. Commuters who walk to the station will have to take stairs up a steep incline to get to the station, she said.

Councilwoman Jo Butler said the University has not negotiated a new voluntary payment (PILOT) agreement with the borough, and approving the agreement was rewarding the University for bad behavior.

“The University can pay or not pay it’s fair share, but this is no way to govern,” she said. “We passed a resolution saying we did not want the station moved. It will be farther from the center of town for most of our current residents.”

Butler called for discussions about light rail to be conducted in an open, transparent fashion, and expressed outrage that one of the main reasons the University wants to move the station is to provide another access road to its large parking garage known as Lot 7. She also said the borough should conduct an in-depth traffic study before approving the zoning instead of conducting the study after the new zoning has been approved.

Residents, nonprofit arts leaders and business people lined up at the microphone to express their opinions on the plan, with businesses and arts groups in favor.

“Nationally the arts have proven to enhance and advance communities in many important ways,” said Jeff Nathanson, head of the Arts Council of Princeton. “We are participating in a study about what impact the arts have on the economy. We know even before we get the results that the impact the arts have on the local community has been tremendous.”

Nathanson said the project would provide both cultural and economic stimulus to the local community. “It would fulfill the promise of Princeton being a cultural destination,” he said. “It would be a whole new ball game for us.”

Borough resident and businessman Scott Sipprelle said sustaining the economic vitality of a community is a fragile matter and that Princeton is a unique place.

“Princeton University has never taken a stubborn, one-sided view toward the shared space in this community,” Sipprelle said. “Plenty of minds, money, and meetings have been expended on this topic. I don’t think we at this point should be second-guessing that. We need to take steps to work more collaboratively with the University and ask them to work more collaboratively with us.”

Lori Rabon, general manager of the Nassau Inn and a member of the board of directors for the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce, read a letter in support of the project signed by Chamber head J. Robert Hillier. She said the letter marked the first time in 51 years that the Chamber has publicly taken a position supporting the University. The letter cites the economic benefits to both the local and regional economy.

“The university has really showed an open hand and really wanted to work with the community,” said Restauranteur Raoul Momo, who said it is not true that Princeton is an easy train ride. Momo said Princeton needs more restaurants, and that the Dinky station building would make a great restaurant for McCarter Theatre patrons.

But many residents oppose the project  because the plan also includes moving the Dinky station about 460 feet south of its existing location, farther away from the center of town. They have repeatedly questioned why one of the greatest universities in the world can’t find a way to creatively incorporate the existing Dinky station in to the arts plans.

“The moving of the Dinky is pretty ludicrous, said Princeton Professor and transportation expert Alain Kornhauser.  “People have worked hard to find a win-win over the last five years. It’s amazing that this project basically hasn’t changed from the University’s perspective in five years. The University has found a way to say no to all the suggestions.”

Borough Resident Clifford Zink said if the Dinky move had not been part of the plan, the zoning would have been passed a long time ago.

“Moving the Dinky is really bad urban planning,” Zink said. “All you have to do is stand there on University Place and look at the Dinky where it is now…there is a sense of arrival. It stretches the imagination to not think, by moving the Dinky farther down, placing it 150 or 200 feet from the public road, that you are not going to diminish the use of the Dinky. You are certainly going to diminish the experience and diminish our town, losing this transit center we’ve had for a hundred years.”

Zink pointed to successful towns in northern New Jersey where the transit hub is closer to the center of town an the towns are built around the transit.

Township resident and professional planner Kip Cherry said the council would be making a mistake by approving the ordinance and argued that the university’s claim that it has the right to move the station should be challenged.

Before the vote, Princeton University Vice President Bob Durkee argued that the project would reduce traffic during peak hours by 1.4 percent. If the area were developed under previous zoning regulations he claimed the traffic would increase by 9.7 percent. Some residents and officials questioned the traffic study data.

An earlier edition of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Clifford Zink about the Dinky being visible from Nassau Street.