The Princeton Regional Planning Board began its review if Princeton University’s $300 million arts and transit project last night at a meeting attended by more than 200 people. The hearing ended at 11 p.m. and will be carried over to Nov. 1, when the board will hear public comment on the controversial project.
Residents support the construction of the university’s arts center, but many oppose the university’s plan to move the Dinky station 460 feet south of its existing location. Residents have filed lawsuits challenging the station move and the rezoning for the project.
Borough Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller, an appointee to the planning board, recused herself at the start of the meeting, citing her history of opposition to the university’s plan to move the Dinky station. A Borough lawyer advised her to recuse herself, and the planning board lawyer also recommended it.
Planning Board lawyer Allen Porter said there is case law on “the doctrine of prejudgment” that made it prudent for Crumiller to recuse herself so that the planning board decision could not be challenged in court.
Officials debated the recusal for more than a half hour. Borough Mayor Yina Moore questioned whether other planning board members should recuse themselves, such as elected officials who negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the university on transit issues.
Planning board member Marvin Reed asked at what point a planning board member is not allowed to have an opinion, especially an elected official. Porter then said the issue was not having an opinion, but an issue of state ethics law.
“I don’t know how we can be engaged in the public process as public officials or volunteers without the clash of opinions,” Reed said. Residents cheered and clapped.
Moore said the attorney who told Crumiller to recuse herself has a conflict of interest because the firm represents NJ Transit and therefore the lawyer should not have been advising Crumiller on the issue. Porter said the board should err on the side of caution.
Lawyer Bruce Afran, who represents residents who oppose the Dinky move, challenged Crumiller’s recusal. “She is an appointed to this board as an elected official,” Afran said. “Presumably such an individual would have made public statements on a long series of contacts and complex public issues . The lawyer’s opinion is also not appropriate given that NJ Transit is represented by the firm.”
Afran, who residents applauded, called for the board to take a vote on the issue, but it did not.
University representatives then reviewed details of the plan that will create classroom and performance spaces for the arts on the western edge of the university’s campus along Aleander Street and University Place. The anchor for the arts neighborhood is the 129,000-square-foot Lewis Center for the Arts, which was designed by architect Steven Holl. The Dinky station buildings will be converted into a cafe and restaurant.
“It is the most important project we have ever been involved in,” Holl said. “It will create a new gateway to Princeton and it is a project that connects the university to the community.”
University lawyer Richard Goldman emphasized that the zoning for the project was approved by both Princetons last year after several hearings and presentations. The plans full conform to the zoning ordinance and the university is not seeking any variances, he said.
“This a project that attempts to address a number of community needs, as it also attempts to address one of the university’s highest priorities,” Princeton University Vice President Bob Durkee said of the arts center.
A traffic engineer described the new roundabout that will replace the light at Alexander Street and University Place, and said the circle will slow traffic down and make things safer for pedestrians. Some parking locations will shift as a result of the project. There will be enough parking to accommodate all the visitors to the area, the traffic consultant claimed. Even though all of the venues for events in the neighborhood could draw a maximum of about 5,000 at once, the consultant estimated that the peak demand would be about 980 parking spots.
The planning board chair opened up the meeting for public comment for anyone who would be unable to make the Nov. 1 hearing.
Emily Mann, the artistic director for McCarter Theatre, said she was thrilled about the project that will also benefit McCarter
“There have been a lot of questions about whether we are happy,” she said. “We are huge supports of the Lewis Center and we are thrilled by the potential of what it can be for McCarter and for Princeton.”
Mann said the project would be a dream come true for her even if it only included the cafe and restaurant, which would be nice amenities for McCarter patrons. The arts center would encourage more collaboration between the university and McCarter while providing more needed space for the arts such as rehearsal space, she said.
“I cannot imagine a more gorgeous gift,” Mann said. “This is the confluence of arts, education, and community. It is a map for the future of this country and the arts in America.”
But resident William Moody said while he supports the arts portion of the project, he is saddened about the station move and the university’s unwillingness to listen to the community. He said Princetonians and university graduates consider the Dinky station an important gateway to the community and want to keep it that way.
“I know it is only 460 feet, but study after study shows when you move transit farther from the center of town, ridership goes down. A football field and a half is not a long distance, but data shows you still lose riders. This could put the Dinky sin huge jeopardy,” he said. “Keeping the tracks where they are does not interfere with a single building you want to build. Ninety-eight percent of what you want is fantastic. For that last 100 years the Dinky station area has been a public and university shared corridor. Shouldn’t the public be listened to?”