State Historic Sites Board Approves Dinky Track Removal (Updated)

The state’s Historic Sites Council voted Thursday morning to approve NJ Transit’s plans to to remove some railroad tracks once the Dinky station is moved 460 feet south to make way for Princeton University’s $300 million arts project. The Dinky Station and tracks are on the national and state historic registers.

After almost two hours of comment for and against the plan, the council voted 5-1 to recommend that the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection approve the track removal. More than 50 people attended the hearing at the state Department of Environmental Protection in Trenton.

Because Princeton University is a private property owner, officials argued that the council has a very limited scope regarding the tracks, which are still owned by NJ Transit. The easement would automatically be abandoned anyway five years after the station is moved.

“Our position is that NJ  Transit could cease using the existing station without any approval by us,” said Dan Saunders, the administrator for the state’s Historic Preservation Office.  “It would not require an application. NJ Transit can simply go ahead and do it. Imagine the DEP compelling someone to continue using some historic building for a particular use. Since 1986, we’ve never done such a thing.”

‘This is a complicated project that involves multiple approvals yet to come,” Saunders said.  “The planning board can consider some of our comments as part of their consideration. Our review is strictly with NJ Transit. Technically we have no oversight over the University.”

Some council members said the tracks and other features should be preserved, but Saunders said nothing would be binding regarding designs. “We really have nothing to say here other than to convey our thoughts on what would be a good thing in the way of preserving the presence and ambiance. The rest is out of your control.”

The Council recommended that NJ Transit not abandon the easement until the new train station is in operation. A recommendation was also made that the “character-defining features of the train station”, such as the buildings, canopies, the platform and tracks be preserved.

Princeton University Vice President Bob Durkee said the University plans to create attractive pathways and links between the old station site and the new one, including commemorative markers recognizing the Dinky’s history. The University plans to use the existing station buildings for a restaurant and cafe. He said school officials have reviewed the plans numerous times over the last few years with students and the community.

Borough Mayor Yina Moore and Borough Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller urged the council not to approve the track abandonment. Crumiller noted that no one ever mentioned the Dinky station and tracks were on the historic registers during the debate about zoning for the arts neighborhood.

Margaret Westfield, an architect who specializes in historic preservation, said the track abandonment would have an “irreversible and catastrophic affects on the station complex” and detract from the historic integrity of the property.

Princeton University student Josh Shulman said while he was sitting in the Dinky waiting room recently he was thinking about not only the historic value of the station, but also all the historic figures who have used the Dinky, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Albert Einstein and Michelle Obama.

“Students have been left out of that plans that are being shoved down everyone’s throats,” Shulman said. “The University president is like the board member of a huge corporation. The University should give students and all affected groups a chance to reach a compromise before destroying it entirely. We are the guardians of history and tradition. We should also be the guardians of democracy.”

Pete Weale of West Windsor said the track and right of way removal would eliminate the possibility of the train ever being extended to Nassau Street.  He added that the University should be planning for the next 100 years and that the line could be extended to Plainsboro.”If the University wanted to act in good faith, it had plenty of years to do so,” Weale said. “But this is all about empire building.”

Princeton-based lawyer Bruce Afran, who represents residents in two lawsuits opposing the Dinky station move, said the Dinky station is an important historic site because it is the first high-level train platform built outside of city in the U.S.  and it was built by the most important railroad engineer and architect in U.S. history, Alexander Shand, who also designed railroad crossings over the Delaware and Hudson rivers.

Afran argued that any decision by the council would be premature. He said litigation could drag out for at least a few years, and questioned whether the council should be making a decision now given that a certified site plan for the arts neighborhood does not exist yet.

But Princeton Township Mayor Chad Goerner urged the council to approve NJ Transit’s request as soon as possible, arguing the University plan is pro preservation because the buildings will be used as a restaurant and cafe.

Lori Rabon of the Nassau Inn said local businesses support the University’s plans. Brian McDonald, president of the McCarter Theatre Board, also urged approval. McDonald said the McCarter board unanimously supports the University’s plans for the arts and transit neighborhood. The new arts neighborhood and restaurant are expected to boost attendance at McCarter, which has struggled like other arts groups have in the tough economy. McDonald estimated that once the arts center is completed, McCarter would see an increase of $200,000 to $400,000 in revenue per year to help balance the budget because of the additional visitors the area would draw.

“I’m confident the University will treat the station with great care,” McDonald said, adding that the University is thoughtful in the way it reuses old buildings.

Afran argued that McCarter has a conflict of interest in the Dinky debate because it receives a large financial subsidy from the University.

Tom Clark, regional manager of government and community relations for NJ Transit, said NJ Transit is eager to move the project forward. He praised the University for its dedication to the public transit, and said the school helped rescue the Dinky when it purchased the land in 1984. The purchase helped subsidize the train service for the next 20 years, Clark said.

“Reusing the original station as a restaurant is a wonderful fit,” Clark said. “It is not uncommon for a historic rail station to be converted to restaurant. This will bring vitality to the area, a lot of life, and help ridership.”