The Princeton Regional Planning Board voted Tuesday night to approve Princeton University’s $300 million arts and transit neighborhood plan by a vote of 9 to 1, ending half a dozen years of town and gown discussion and debate about the controversial project.
Opponents of the plan, who object to the university’s intention to move the Dinky station 460 feet farther from the center of town, have vowed to continue their battle in court, while Princeton University hopes to begin work on the transit portion of the project as early as this spring. Three lawsuits are already pending in the courts, and a fourth is expected to be filed.
The planning board meeting at town hall, attended by about 80 people, was the third in a series of meetings to review the university’s proposal for the arts center and new train station.
“I’ve lived here 33 years and seen a lot of changes and just about all have been very good,” planning board member Peter Madison said. “Unlike some who see this as the glass half empty, I see a lot of potential here. The existing rail line will never be extended through the university campus to get up to Nassau Street. But we could see new light rail along an alternative route, and stops could be added between Carnegie Lake and Route 1, making the train more viable. I don’t see this as a negative thing. I understand there are tradeoffs.”
Board member Julie Nachamkin praised the university’s plan, which includes reducing the impervious coverage on the property and planting almost 500 trees, and she said the community would be blessed if every developer created such an environmentally friendly design.
But Princeton Borough Mayor Yina Moore, who cast the lone vote against the plan, said pedestrian access to the station should be a priority.
“It’s a quality this town has prided itself on all these years,” Moore said. “This project could in fact be built and still accommodate the Dinky in its existing location.”
Moore, a transportation expert who previously worked for NJ Transit, said enough research has not been done on the move and NJ Transit has not held any public hearings on the station move. She added that the arts center is primarily a facility to teach students and will not be a community arts center. She also said she didn’t think the university’s desire to add a second access road to it parking garage was a strong enough rational to truncate the Dinky line.
Some members of the planning board who voted yes expressed that they were doing it “with regret.”
Prior to the vote, board attorney Allen Porter advised the board that its role is not to redesign an application, but to determine whether the application is compliant with zoning. Other issues about the train station and whether the university has the legal right to move it do not fall under the board’s jurisdiction and will be decided in court, he said.
At the start of the meeting, opponents of the plan objected to the continuation of the hearing because their lawyer, Bruce Afran, is out of the country and could not attend. But Porter advised the board to go ahead with the hearing. The board voted 9-1 to do so, with Moore casting the lone vote against moving forward.
Responding to challenges by opponents of the plan about the university’s right to move the train station, Richard Goldman, the lawyer representing Princeton University, said the planning board’s only task was to decide whether the plan conforms to the town’s zoning and master plan. He characterized issues regarding the train station move as “incidental” to the application.
Residents who oppose the station move argued the station has been a significant community resource and that the university has not proven it has made a concerted effort to look at alternatives to moving the station.
“The site plan is in violation of the master plan,” resident Kip Cherry said. “It destroys the houses south of the existing station and damages the small town character required to be maintained by the town’s master plan.”
Resident Anne Neumann, a member of the town’s site plan review advisory committee, said the current station is a better gateway to the town than the proposed station, and that it would be more difficult to access for people who have disabilities because walking to the station would require a long walk down a hill and uphill coming back.
“This project would demolish the neighborhood,” Neumann said. “It would be a permanent loss for both town and gown.”
Neumann raised concerns about traffic, pedestrian safety and environmental issues and called on the board to reject the application and for the university to resubmit it next year with the current Dinky train right of way unchanged.
Transportation consultant and Princeton resident Rodney Fisk said he would like to see the Dinky ultimately replaced by light rail along the existing train right of way.
“No matter how important the project is, or how well it celebrates the genius of Steven Holl or the generosity of Peter Lewis, the town is being asked to give up so much more than the university would gain,” Fisk said of the iconic station. “The right of way will forever be denied if the train tracks are shortened just to allow the university another access road it its Lot 7 garage.”
Ron McCoy, the architect for the university, said the site plan has evolved significantly over the last six years as the university works toward its overall campus plan. He claimed the university has studied alternatives to moving the Dinky station and all the alternatives are either unfeasible or would have a negative impact on the project. In response to residents’ concerns that the station would not be visible and no longer be seen as a shared public space, McCoy said the station would still be visible to pedestrians from the Blair walkway.
McCoy reviewed pedestrian access to the station and said pathways leading to the station platform, though a bit serpentine, have a slope of less than 5 percent. A consultant for the university said pedestrian and traffic safety would improve under the school’s plan.
Several architects who live in Princeton voiced their opposition to the transit element of the plan, including Bill Wolfe, head of the site plan review advisory committee. Wolfe said the proposed transit plaza is not a suitable gateway to Princeton and should be larger. He also expressed concerns about traffic and delivery trucks making deliveries to the new restaurant and cafe that will be located at the current Dinky station buildings.
Alain Kornhauser, a Princeton University professor who is a transit expert, urged the board to suggest that the university withdraw its plan and redo it without moving the Dinky terminus.
“The Arts Campus can readily be built without touching the Dinky,” said Kornhauser, who then lamented that donor Peter Lewis may never see the completion of the project, which could be tied up in court for years.
“What a shame for Peter Lewis. All of the delay may mean that he will never see the fruits of his generosity,” Kornhauser said. “For what? Because Nassau Hall has entangled his vision for an arts center in some irrelevant yet seemingly greater mission to move the community’s Dinky? Mr. Lewis doesn’t deserve this. He has been a great steward of and given most generously to the university. He deserves to see and enjoy the fruits of that generosity without it being held up so that a few may have a slightly shorter automobile commute to the university garage while a thousand Dinky riders are inconvenienced every day. That’s about as unsustainable as one can get while contributing nothing tangible to an arts center.”
Several commuters begged the planning board not to move the station farther away, while some business owners and a university communications department employee voiced support for the plan, which they hope will bring more visitors and more business to Princeton. McCarter Theatre also supports the plan and the head of the board of directors, Brian McDonald said the addition of a restaurant and cafe are expected to boost ticket sales at the theatre and bring in needed additional revenue at a time when many theaters across the country are struggling for survival.
Resident Joe McGeady suggested the town hold off on making a decision altogether, until the new president is chosen to lead the university.
“We are at an important crossroads for Princeton University and the town with consolidation,” McGeady said. “Hopefully new leadership will bring fresh insight and a consider the larger community picture before moving forward with the arts and transit plan.”