The local zoning board will hold a special meeting tonight, Feb. 8, at 7:30 p.m. via Zoom to hear public comment about a proposal to build a 178-room hotel at the corner of Chambers and Nassau streets in the heart of Princeton. The board could possibly render a decision tonight on the project.
In the fall of 2019, the owner of 20 Nassau Street, a 72,000-square-foot hub for professional offices in town that also features several retail spaces on the ground floor, sold the building to graduate hotels for $32 million.
Graduate Hotels is requesting variances for the hotel project, including a variance to exceed floor area ratio limits. While many business owners in town support the project because they hope it will bring more visitors and foot traffic to town, residents on historic Bank Street are concerned about traffic, noise, the scale of the project, and the design of the new building at the site. Some neighboring business owners are also concerned about the construction process.
The company wants to demolish the three-story, rear portion of the building and replace it with a six-floor building that would include 130 hotel rooms. The front portion of the building, a six-floor, 28,000-square-foot building, would remain. It would include 48 hotel rooms, plus the existing food and retail spaces on Nassau Street. The hotel also wants to have a restaurant and bar, as well as an underground valet parking deck for 80 cars. A wall would be built between the hotel property, 16 Chambers Street, and Bank Street residential properties. The property is located in the town’s central business district and central historic district.
The zoning board heard more than nine hours of testimony regarding the project at three zoning board meetings in December and January.
Zoning officer Derek Bridger said the maximum floor area ratio for the zone is 1.5, and the existing floor area ratio at the site is 2.67. Graduate Hotels was seeking a floor area ratio of 3.82 but later lowered it to 3.62 after removing some rooms from its original proposal for 191 rooms. A variance to provide 80 parking spaces instead of 122 is also being sought.
Elizabeth Kim, the historic preservation officer for the municipality, told the zoning board in January that the historic preservation commission was not supportive of the setback variance requested along residential Bank Street properties. She also said the commission felt the developer should be encouraged to reevaluate the floor plan, maximize the building footprint if possible, possibly reduce the height of the new building, create a setback, and break up the rear wall of the building, which is most visible from the Bank Street Historic District. The commission members also thought a blade sign on Nassau and Chambers streets with internal lighting was inappropriate and too large for the historic district.
The lawyer for Graduate Hotels, Christopher DeGrezia of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, told the zoning board the adaptive reuse project will have a positive impact on traffic in the area. Regarding concerns about the setback in relation to Bank Street residential properties, he said everything is set back 10 feet except for a fence. He said the hotel needs the additional space for traffic circulation for a proposed auto court behind the hotel.
Architect Josh Zinder told the zoning board the signage at the hotel was originally going to be Princeton University colors, orange and black. The signs have been changed and will feature a black background with white letters. Signs will be lit like a halo so the edges will glow instead of the original proposal for internal lights, he said. The blade sign at the corner of Nassau Street and Chambers Street will be a 44.65 square foot sign. One sign has been eliminated and another sign has been reduced in size to 11 square feet, he said.
Planner John McDonough said the zone the property is located in allows for many permitted uses. “It’s in the heart of downtown, it’s zoned for active use, it’s zoned for people,” he said adding that the zoning is meant to draw people to the area. “It’s a catalyst project to add life to the area,” he said. “That’s exactly what this particular development will do. The use is permitted in the zone.” He said the fence will screen the residential neighborhood from the vehicle traffic behind the hotel.
Zoning Board Chairman Stephen Cohen asked Steve Oakley, an architect for Graduate Hotels, whether he considered reducing the bulk of the building as it faces the Bank Street historic properties. Residents are concerned about the building blocking their light. “The visual bulk as I look at it from Bank Street properties is very big and right on top of those houses,” Cohen said. “Some transition stepping it back from the property line and raising the height would minimize the impact.”
Oakley said the building can’t go higher than it is now. DeGrezia said Graduate Hotels can’t eliminate more rooms and make the project work financially. Unlike the Nassau Inn, the hotel won’t have conference rooms or banquet hall rooms to generate revenue, he said. He also said there is an existing wall on the property line now, and that wall will be reduced down to 30 feet and shifted over by six inches, improving conditions for neighbors. The town’s site planning review advisory board asked Graduate Hotels to look at shifting the building back. “We could shift it back if we had room, but safety is an issue,” he said. “We need to have the driving court function and work.”
David Newton, the owner of 16 Chambers Street and former manager of Palmer Square, said the hotel was an opportunity for wonderful reuse of the building. “It’s a chance to create something at a time when a business opportunity is at an all-time low,” he said. “There’s an enormous air of excitement about the project”
Newton also claimed that there is no longer a demand for office spaces at the site. “The offices were, I wouldn’t say exclusively, but pretty much, in the psychiatric and psychological related spheres,” Newton said. “That form of tenancy has dried up due to COVID. They are doing business better using Zoom.”
RestauranterJack Morrison, who heads the Princeton Merchants Association, the owner of the Princeton Tour Company, and current tenant Milk and Cookies echoed Newton’s sentiments about the project bringing life and more shoppers to the central business district.
Princeton residents David Keddie and Sam Bunting, the founders of the blog Walkable Princeton, a pro “walkable urbanism” blog Keddie said favors density, also voiced their support for the project and argued it will mean fewer cars driving back and forth from hotels on Route 1. Keddie said people will walk to restaurants and shops, and the need for cars will decrease.
But residents of Bank street think the hotel is too large and does not fit in with the neighborhood. They worry about the shadow the hotel will cast on their historic neighborhood.
“The demolition of the building and replacement with a far larger new building with underground parking garage raises some issues,” resident Harriet Flower said. “It’s too large for the space, and in no way approximates the space it is replacing. No other building this large abuts a residential district that borders on the central business district. There are good reasons why existing zoning laws do not permit such a structure.”
Flower also called the design of the hotel “brutalist and minimalist” and said the hotel was planned without any regard for the unique historic designation of Bank Street. A boutique hotel would enhance the neighborhood, but not a large hotel. “It’s completely at odds with what one sees if one drives along Bank Street,” Flower said, adding that long meetings between the company’s representatives and residents only resulted in minimal tweaks to the original design. “The architects were not willing to make substantive changes to address concerns of neighbors or take account of the historical nature of Bank Steet,” she said.
A few neighbors said that when they wanted to make changes to the exteriors of their homes, they had to obtain permits and spend lots of money to do so, and had to follow the town’s regulations. They said the hotel developer should be held to the town’s standards too.
Residents also expressed concerns about increased vehicle traffic on their streets and wondered if drivers will use Bank Street to get to the hotel parking area. One resident suggested that Bank Street, which is a one-way street, should flow in the reverse direction to deter more traffic.
Dentist Kirk Huckel, whose office is across the street from the proposed hotel, asked how traffic would be managed during construction. A consultant for the project said a lane for traffic will always be open. The sidewalk will be open on the side of Chambers Street opposite the hotel. Nassau Street in front of the hotel will have a sidewalk bridge with overhead protection. The construction at the hotel site will take 24 to 26 months, the consultant said.
Bank Steet resident Anton Nelessen said people who testified in favor of the hotel were not the ones who were going to be seriously damaged by the hotel.
“This board is determining what the future of downtown Princeton is going to be. These decisions are really critical,” Nelessen said. “I’m not against the hotel, I’m just against the atrocious design and the planning.” He asked the hotel developer to make some adjustments at the back of the property to improve the buffer between the hotel and Bank Street residents. “Be a good neighbor,” he said.