By Anton “Tony” Nelessen
Bank Street residents were violated once again by the action of the Princeton Zoning Board of Adjustment as the board unanimously approved the massive new hotel on Chambers Street. The board granted variances for insufficient parking and approved a bulky building with a floor area ratio nearly three times over what is allowed, with only a 4-foot average setback from the residential historic district at the ground level and a massive 65-foot-high blank brick wall facing Bank Street, most of it only six inches from the property line. The building steals light, air views, and privacy. The western facade looks like a massive windowless warehouse or a prison from the southern end of Bank Street. What the Bank Street residents got in return for their hours of meeting, testimony and exhibits was one small tree. This in return for the next 100 years of a blank wall and additional traffic on Bank Street as drivers search for the entrance to the hotel.
It was clear from the beginning that the developers would pack the site with as many rooms as possible, adding two more rooms at the last meeting. The applicant modified the building from its unacceptable, initial state, making minor improvements to the rear façade that should have been considered from the start if they were good architects or had any sensitivity to the context, noise, and pollution. Instead, what Princeton got and what it wanted is a tax ratable, promoted by the ex-mayor and council members. It became evident that Princeton has financial problems even with our very high property taxes. Design and sensitivity to neighbors is of no concern. Room tax is! What will be then is an oversized, neo-federalist, decorated box on narrow Chambers Street with a fake mansard façade, circa the 1890s.
It is clear that Princeton needs one or more hotels in downtown. The residents were never opposed to a hotel, only the gross insensitivity of the design. The residents of Bank Street had multiple meetings, with each other and a few meetings with the hotel, to determine what they could live with. All the conditions the residents wanted, except the replacement tree, were ignored after hours of testimony. At the critical end of the hearing, residents were held to 10 minutes while the applicant had unlimited time. Unbelievably, most of the conditions in the municipal land use law were ignored or dismissed. Much to our shock, the applicate was fully engaged in the executive session with the board members to justify the variances, while the public could only watch in horror and disbelief as it was approved. At the end, it was totally unclear what conditions had been approved.
Clearly, the negative impacts on Bank Street are of no consequence to Princeton or to the hotel owners. What is even more disgusting is that the p.r. from the hotel keeps emphasizing that they are such good neighbors. To whom? It is all public relations b.s.
The one positive thing is that now the standard has been established for all the older one, two, and three-story buildings in the downtown, which does need a serious rezoning and a makeover. Owners can redevelop, tear down their buildings, build up to 65 feet with a floor area ratio of up to 4, and have to provide minimum or no parking. If you want to go above these limits, it appears that the zoning board is happy to consider it and approve it if it has financial benefits for the town coffers.
Mr. Nelessen, a Bank Street resident, is also a professional planner and professor who specializes in architecture and urban design.