Princeton Borough Council Votes to Introduce Zoning Changes for East Nassau Neighborhood

The site of the former Olive May’s on Nassau, which is temporarily being used as a fitness center.

Property owners in the East Nassau neighborhood are a step closer to getting the zoning changes they want so that they can have banks as tenants.

In a split decision, the Princeton Borough Council voted Tuesday night to introduce an ordinance that changes the zoning in the neighborhood that is home to the former Olive May’s and West Coast video. The changes would affect about 10 businesses.

The council voted 3-2 to approve changes that would allow for banks in the zone. Council members Jo Butler, Jenny Crumiller, and Kevin Wilkes voted in favor of the ordinance. Councilman Roger Martindell and Councilwoman Barbara Trelstad voted against the ordinance introduction. The ordinance now goes to the Princeton Regional Planning Board for a review. The Council will reconsider the ordinance for adoption after that review.

Some area residents want to see more restaurants and smaller independent stores in the neighborhood, but property owners have argued that this is not realistic, and that they need a business like a bank to anchor a development like the former Olive May’s site. TD Bank has expressed interest in opening a branch at the former Olive May’s site.

Robert Bratman, the owner of 259 Nassau Street, home to the former West Coast Video, argued that the market should determine what kind of business goes into a building, and that zoning requirements should be more realistic in Princeton.

“Two buildings on Nassau have been vacant for the past 6 or 7 years, They were furniture stores, a Wawa, a video store, drug stores, Davidsons, Wild Oats… For the council to sit here and talk about limiting the uses when clearly the economy is struggling — we are going to continue have empty, vacant buildings,” Bratman said.  “Banks are great, because 7 or 8 restaurants use the parking lot. With a bank, at least at night, people will still be able to go to a restaurant and park in the lot at night.”

Members of the Carnevale family, which owns the former Olive May’s site, said they want to work with the community and are trying to compromise.

“As you probably know, Lou came as immigrant with nothing. He  worked hard, he loves princeton, and we’ve been good citizens,” Elizabeth Carnevale said. “Now we have a building and we can’t rent it. We’ve tried and tried. The only viable candidate is a bank. We pay taxes of almost $80,000 a year and it is killing us. This has been going on way too long. It’s time you do the right thing.”

But Marty Schneiderman, a Murray Place resident, said people in the neighborhood and beyond don’t want more banks and real estate office in town and would rather see retail businesses along Nassau Street that are active at night. “There are so many banks,” he said. “We think there is a sufficient number int he area.”

Jeffrey Albert, owner of 253 Nassau where Prudential is located, warned the Borough Council not to be too restrictive regarding the zoning though.

“I would seriously caution the Council against restricting these areas into complete inutility,” he said. “The zoning is being put in place for a long period, but no one can safely imagine what could be there in four, eight, ten or 15 years. There is a common notion that a real estate office is of no value to the community, but that could not be further from the truth.”

Albert said real estate agents patronize local restaurants on a daily basis and agents work in the offices evenings.

“Princeton is changing a lot. It is becoming a small city,” Lou Carnevale said, noting recent and planned residential, commercial and Princeton University developments.

“Various areas are constantly changing and improving. The only place that has remained dormant is East Nassau,” he said. “The zoning is so restrictive. Sure, everyone wants small little stores. But they don’t  necessarily bring diversity. They can bring the same kind of stores. You just approved a Subway store a few doors down from Hoagie Haven. That is not variety. That is conformity. I need bank to anchor the site or I can’t build and will not build. It is going to remain as it is.”

He said it is fair to limit what percentage of a development can be a bank to 50 percent or less, but questioned an element of the proposed zoning ordinance that would forbid a bank from being built within 500 feet of an existing bank.

“I’m not even sure that is legal,” he said. “You are taking the property owner’s rights away.”

Martindell and Trelstad voted against the ordinance introduction, with Trelstad saying she felt the ordinance was being rushed.

“If we’d given more time to staff, we could have come up with a better ordinance,” she said.

“I’m voting against it because I don’t think the community would be improved by such a broad expansion of financial institutions in this part of town,” Martindell said. “I’m here to protect a community and a neighborhood.”

But other officials argued long-term vacancies and empty buildings are also bad for the neighborhood.

“In reality we have two vacant properties that have failed,” Crumiller said. “It does seem to me that smaller stores are less popular.”

“This discussion has gone on for a year now,” Wilkes said. “Perfect is the enemy of good. We need to move forward.”