University to abandon planned Arts and Transit neighborhood
“I think the outcome of tonight means we abandon this project and find another location,” he said.
The meeting was a culmination of five years of conflict over the 2006 University plan that sought to expand the University’s art facilities and reduce congestion in the area around the Dinky station by moving the station and developing a series of new arts buildings to the west of campus.
A crowd of around 100 filled the room at the Township building to hear presentations from University representatives including Durkee and President Shirley Tilghman, as well as Township and Borough representatives.
“It is a rare occasion when the president of the University appears before the Borough Council and the Township Committee,” Tilghman said, noting that the project “would pump more than $300 million and hundreds of jobs into the local community.”
Durkee also gave a 45-minute presentation on the University’s proposal. He said the plan would provide new arts facilities, enhance sustainability, and provide the best chance of saving the Dinky from abandonment by New Jersey Transit.
Durkee explained that, in the initial phase, the proposal would improve intersections and traffic flow in the area and provide a new 137,000 square-foot home for the Lewis Center for the Arts. About half the cost of the project would be spent on infrastructure, he added, which he said would benefit the community but be paid for by the University.
Durkee also addressed the controversy over moving the historic Dinky, a change which had played a central role in the University’s plans, explaining that the train’s continued existence is in jeopardy because its ridership is too low for New Jersey Transit to support the line.
The University’s proposal would have moved the station 460 feet south in order to allow access from University Place to the Lot 7 parking garage.
Although Durkee said he could not guarantee that the Dinky would continue to operate if the neighborhood was approved, he went on to present a letter from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pledging the “full support and cooperation of [his] administration” for the project.
“If your highest priority is saving the Dinky, approving this project is the surest way to achieve that goal,” Durkee told the gathered crowd.
However, while citizens who commented on the proposal at the meeting expressed broad support for the proposed neighborhood, any change to the Dinky location was far more controversial. In the hour that followed Durkee and Tilghman’s presentations, many Township and Borough residents expressed their criticisms of the proposal.
The plan’s opponents argued that the University should create a compromise proposal, while civic organizations such as Save the Dinky and Princeton Future generally spoke out against the move.
“This community has listened to Princeton University. It is our belief that perhaps President Tilghman ... could listen a little better to the community,” said Sheldon Sturgis, co-founder of Princeton Future, a group of volunteers who are involved in discussions about growth and development plans in the area.
Ultimately, the continued opposition of local community members and consequent zoning troubles led the University to abandon the plan, Durkee said. Though the joint meeting was called only for the purposes of discussion with no formal voting, the University viewed the meeting as a “watershed moment,” as Tilghman said in her introduction.
“We’ve had that conversation now for a very long time and we’ve gotten to a point now where we need resolution,” Durkee said of the zoning issues after the meeting. “The planning board resolution that called this meeting was very clear ... What we do now is leave this project behind.”
According to Durkee, the University will turn its attention to other potential construction areas and develop an alternate use for the land in question.
“Based on this experience, we will think of ways to use this land that are allowed in existing zoning,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to have to face the zoning process again.
Borough Councilman Kevin Wilkes ’83 said that he thought abandoning the site was unfortunate, noting that other locations such as the old Frick building or Green Hall could work as sites of new arts facilities.
Still, he added, the University might face problems on alternate development sites.
“Maybe finding a different location will just exchange one set of problems for another,” he said.
Despite the outspoken local objections to changes to the Dinky, the University has not taken the apparent failure of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood as a definitive statement on train’s future, according to Durkee.
“I think at some point it will probably go further south,” he said of the station.