After more than 5 and a half hours of testimony and discussion, the Princeton Zoning Board voted unanimously on Monday night to approve plans for a 180-room hotel at the corner of Nassau and Chambers streets.
The project will take 24 to 26 months to complete.
Just after 1 a.m., the board voted to approve Graduate Hotel’s plans for 20 Nassau Street. Neighbors from the historic Bank Street area next to the property objected to the size and scale of the project on Monday night.
Near the end of the meeting, Michael LaPlace, the town’s planner, told the zoning board he thought the positives of the project outweigh the negatives. “This is an overwhelmingly positive project for the municipality,” he said, adding that the developer is willing to work with the neighborhood.
“If you look at the overall project itself, it is a very good thing for the town, to take a property that is old and underutilized and upgrade it,” Zoning Board Chairman Steve Cohen said just before the vote. “It also provides a nice ratable for the town. It will be a real asset.”
Cohen said he was disappointed that Graduate Hotels didn’t provide more information on why it needs 180 hotel rooms to make the deal work financially. He was dissatisfied about a few other issues including the rear wall setback but said he thought overall the project would benefit the community.
“It’s a very tough decision. There’s been a lot of good testimony and good comments from neighbors,” Cohen said, adding that he hopes Graduate Hotels will continue to reach out to the residents of Bank Street.
Board member Harlan Tenenbaum agreed that the project was a positive, but noted that the residents of Bank Street raised legitimate concerns. “I feel we have some kind of duty to protect the people on Bank Street,” he said. “It seems like a ‘take it or leave it’ proposal right now. Something doesn’t sit well with me. I’m under the impression that we have to not only look out for the entire community but also the people most affected by this construction.”
Board member Michael Floyd said he didn’t think the project would be detrimental to the public good, though he acknowledged that there was some detriment to the good of the residents on Bank Street. He said the intent of the zoning for the central business district is not impaired by granting the variances and said the zoning in the district is “all screwed up anyway” and will be revisited when officials revise the town’s master plan.
Zoning board members seemed to all agree that a worse alternative than granting the variances would be for the hotel to do what the zoning allows as of right.
The biggest issue for the zoning board to decide on during the hearings, which lasted a total of more than 14 hours over four meetings from December through February, was Graduate Hotel’s request for a variance for the floor area ratio. Zoning regulations require a floor area ratio of 1.5 or less, but the Graduate Hotels requested a floor area ratio of 3.62. Zoning board member Bernice Chen said she found testimony by architect Josh Zinder compelling showing that other buildings in the central business district have similar floor area ratios. She and other zoning board members felt more could be done to improve the rear facade of the building, which faces the Bank Street properties.
‘The rear facade is a bit monolithic,” said zoning board member James Davidge. “Windows, even if they were really high, would break up the massive wall…The building does overall look great. Dealing with the rear facade would go a long way to help the neighbors feel more comfortable.”
Christopher DeGrezia, the lawyer representing Graduate Hotels, said windows could not be placed on the rear of the building because of fire safety regulations related to the setback distances of the building.
Zoning board member Stephen Schreiber said Graduate Hotels has made changes since the beginning of the process. “I can’t imagine a developer paying more attention to neighbors than these guys have done,” he said. “When I look at what’s there now (the current building), it’s really awful.”
A 20-foot wall will separate the rear of the property and the Bank Street neighborhood. Graduate Hotels made some adjustments to plans in order to move a portion of the back wall that borders Bank Street properties. The wall will be at the property line for some residents and it will taper off to eight feet from the property line back along the western edge of the property. The core of the building was shifted about three and a half feet to do so, and that meant making the lobby area smaller. One car staging space was also eliminated, along with four underground parking spaces, bringing the total number of underground valet parking spaces to 76.
Residents of Bank Street repeatedly expressed concerns about the scale and design of the building, traffic, noise, and the blocking of light on their street, raising many of the same issues they brought up in previous meetings.
Pablo David, the vice president of government affairs for Graduate Hotels, said residents of Bank Street wouldn’t have to worry about people parking on their street. The hotel has worked with town officials to make sure Bank Street will be part of a parking permit pilot program, he said. As part of the program, residents will be able to park on their street 24 hours a day. He also said the municipality will raise the pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection of Bank Street and Nassau Street so the street looks more like a private street. He said Graduate Hotels made “tremendous changes to the design” that have a serious impact on the project’s budget.
A few zoning board members asked why Graduate Hotels needed so many rooms. Residents on Bank Street said the company’s hotels in other cities are much smaller even though the cities are larger than Princeton. Floyd said the board had only heard general information on the topic.
DeGrezia said the project has huge costs because it involves the adaptive reuse of a building, and underground parking, which he said is very expensive to build. “We could do something without underground parking, but it would not be as effective and impactful and as good for downtown,” he said. “The hotel needs a certain number of rooms to keep afloat…The project is over a 100 million dollar investment.”
Tim Ryan, the founder of Graduate Hotels, said much of the company’s financial data is private and confidential and can’t be shared. “We know what we’re doing,” he said. “Our approach is beyond thoughtful. We are experienced in urban infill. This is a dense urban setting with a university market. We’ve done it time and time again.”
Ryan said the costs for the project were under $100 million previously but are now well above $100 million. Graduate Hotels had reduced the number of rooms to 178 but split two suites in half to create two additional rooms, bringing the total number of rooms to 180. He said the profits have been shrunk “in the spirit of compromise” to accommodate some of the neighbors’ concerns. “We’re bringing Princeton something incredible and high quality that will age well another 100 years,” he said.
A speakeasy bar will be located in the basement of the hotel. Under town ordinances, it must be closed from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m.
During public comment, Bank Street resident Chip Crider said the project would harm the neighborhood and added that there is plenty of utility on the existing site without expanding it. “If they were overly optimistic on their assumptions, the numbers were off, or projections were done at a time when the economy was different, there’s no reason we should take a hit because their assumptions are wrong. It’s a nice application but it’s oversized and oversold,” he said.
Crider and other residents asked again that the setback between the hotel and their properties be increased, and that the building design be changed so that the rear of the building fits the scale of the area better.
Kathleen Klockenbrink, an owner of Jammin Crepes and a tenant of Graduate Hotels, said Graduate Hotels has been a gracious landlord, and that she appreciated their efforts to be sustainable in their development.
Bank Street resident Melina Bilic said the building design is overpowering and is not aesthetically pleasing. “We also pay taxes. We pay lots of taxes,” she said. “I’ve dealt with the town on many projects and it was hard to get permits for anything. I wanted a skylight for my house on Bank Street. I couldn’t even get a little window, but someone can get a waiver for 178 rooms. I don’t think it’s fair.”
Thomas Letizia, the representative for the Gund Investment Corp., said the company owns the property at 14 Nassau Street, which shares a partial wall with the graduate hotel building. Letizia wanted assurances regarding how the demolition and construction would be handled, and requested items such as reviewing the hotel’s logistics plan and doing a photo survey of the property before the work begins. Graduate Hotels agreed to the Gund Investment Corp. requests.
Tony Nelessen, a planner who lives on Bank Street, said the town needs another hotel. But he questioned the size and said in New Haven, which has a larger population than Princeton, the Graduate Hotel there only has 72 rooms. “Why do they need 178 rooms in Princeton?” Nelessen said. “Is it to make the model work or is it just about some level of financial greed? The financial consideration is not an appropriate justification for approving a variance.” He also added that the rear of the building facing Bank street properties looks like a penal colony or warehouse. “It’s a slap in the face to the entire historic neighborhood,” he said. “The hotel will have a lasting negative impact on the Bank Street neighborhood.”
Near the end of the public comment portion of the meeting, Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros wanted to comment, saying she was speaking as the chair of the town’s economic development committee and from the standpoint of businesses in town. Karen Cayci, the lawyer for the zoning board, cautioned that the governing body for the municipality is supposed to remain separate and apart from what the zoning board does. She asked Lambros if she was speaking in her capacity representing the merchants association. Lambros said she is the council liaison to the merchants association. “My only concern is that the board may take this as extra influence,” Cayci said. Floyd said a governing body member has never testified at zoning board hearings in all his years on the board. “I’ve never seen it at the planning board either,” he said. Lambros said she had planned to express opinions from the business community, but others would speak up and she would bow out.
Shortly after Lambros commented, former mayor Liz Lempert then spoke, urging the board to review the application “with the entire community in mind.”
“Having another hotel in Princeton has been a goal of the mayor and council,” she said. “It’s really important for downtown because we lose so many visitors to the town who are staying on Route 1. They create traffic and are not around to support restaurants and businesses. If they were in town there would be less traffic.”
Lempert said the walkable location would be a huge boost for Princeton businesses. She also said the municipality is funded through local property taxes, and that the hotel tax is the only other tax the town can collect. “This business will directly help every single taxpayer in town get some relief,” she said. “There is no perfect spot in town, but in my opinion, this is as good as it gets in so many ways.”
At the end of the meeting, after the vote was taken, one board member expressed shock that Lempert spoke during public comment, and a few others agreed. At first, they thought her commenting would be fine, but not after they heard her comments telling them what the council wants. “The council appoints us and can remove us,” one member said.