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Princeton University to add solar array canopy to three parking lots off Faculty Road

A rendering of the solar array canopy project at the intersection of Faculty Road and Elm Drive.

The local planning board on Thursday night approved Princeton University’s plans to build a new solar array canopy over three parking lots located along Elm Drive adjacent to Faculty Road in Princeton. The lots are located just east of the New Jersey Transit Dinky shuttle train line.

Almost three acres of solar canopies will be constructed above the surface parking lots as part of the university’s second phase of solar array projects. The university has a 4.5-megawatt solar array in West Windsor, and the Frick chemistry building also has a solar array on top of it.

Representatives for the university told the planning board Thursday night that the school wants to develop two more solar fields in West Windsor and two more in Plainsboro. The university is adding solar arrays at five locations in Princeton. The arrays are being placed over existing infrastructure. Projects at the West Garage, North Garage, Lakeside Garage, and McMillian have all been approved administratively by town staff members already.

University officials hope the solar arrays will produce between 15 and 18 percent of the school’s energy when all of the projects are complete.

A total of 64 shade trees will be removed for the Elm Road parking canopy project. The university will add 20 shade trees and 42 shrubs to the site to make up for the lost trees.

Because of the loss of trees, the university needed to go before the planning board to request a variance for the project. Municipal staff members asked the university to consider planting the balance of the trees being lost elsewhere on the campus in the immediate area.

University representatives said the trees that would be removed for the project were planted in early 1990s and range diameter from 4 inches up to 12 inches. Under local zoning regulations, the university would be required to replace only 22 trees because of the size of the trees, but university officials agreed to do a one-to-one replacement.

Planning Board Member Zenon Tech-Czarny questioned the placement of the arrays over the parking lots during the Thursday planning board meeting.

“Don’t get me wrong. I think it is fantastic that the university has this goal and is moving very aggressively, Tech-Czarny said. “I’m kind of concerned about the location of surface parking right next to the Dinky station. I don’t know if any decision has been made about the optimal use of the land right next to the Dinky station.”

Tech-Czarny pointed out that one of the best ways to promote sustainability and reduce green gas emissions is to have people live where they don’t have to drive. Mixed-use developments that feature housing are ideally situated next to train stations.

“This is a huge opportunity to build housing and get people living right next to a transit lines. You could have graduate students and faculty living there,” Tech-Czarny said. “Solar just doesn’t seem to make the most sense for the use of the land. Solar on other lots further out makes a bit more sense. Putting housing near transit is the way to go.”

Princeton University Architect Ron McCoy said the university’s 2026 campus plan identifies sites to be developed on the campus over the next 10 to 13 years and sites to be developed over the long term.

“This site was identified as a long-term opportunity site,” McCoy said. “The university would agree. It would be a site developed not in the near term, but over time. Nevertheless, it will not be developed in the next 13 years. This is an opportunity to take advantage of the site for a solar array.”

McCoy said the Alexander Street corridor has also been identified as an area where housing and shops could be built. The university has bought almost all of the properties along Alexander Street between the Dinky station and the West Windsor border.

“We’ve been in conversations with the town from time to time to rezone the neighborhood to encourage the mixed-use development you are talking about,” McCoy said. “Things will change, but not in the near-term plan we have right now.”

The planning board unanimously approved the variance for the solar array. Officials said they would like to see the university add electric charging stations for vehicles to the site.