Borough Council to debate transit-only zone on Nov. 29th

Less than a week after the election, the Township Committee folded its tent and gave the University carte blanche for development plans that involve moving the Dinky out of the Borough into the campus service zone. Fortunately, Borough Council continues to seek ways to preserve the Dinky terminus and/or the right of way for an eventual extension of light rail to Nassau Street. Council will hold two critical meetings that Dinky supporters should attend.

* One is this Tuesday, November 29th, at Borough Hall beginning at 7:30 p.m. The meeting is a special meeting at which Council will consider the transit-only zone proposal and will also consider an ordinance that would impose a special improvement district (SID) on the Alexander Street/University place area. If you cannot attend, please use the email addresses below to make your views known to Council members
* The second meeting is next Tuesday, December 6th, at Borough Hall at 7:30 pm. At this meeting, Borough Council will hold its final hearing on the Arts and Transit ordinance. If the transit-only zone succeeds, we hope that the zone will be incorporated in an appropriate way in the ordinance. If not, we urge you to oppose the ordinance. We do not believe that Council should approve an ordinance that would degrade our mass transit link to the junction.

Below we give additional thoughts on the SID and transit-only ordinances slated for discussion tomorrow, on November 29th.

(l) SID We believe that Council should defer action on the SID ordinance. We propose a deferral because the public has not had a chance to discuss it. From what we understand, the SID ordinance would be the only one in New Jersey to attempt to impose a Special Improvement District on property that is almost entirely owned by a tax-exempt entity. If great rewards could come from this, it might be worth it. However, our best guess is that there would be no great rewards. SID special assessments are a pittance compared to property taxes, and all special assessment money is directed to improvements in the SID area. This is not an ordinance that would provide tax relief to Borough taxpayers. Assuming the University did not challenge the ordinance, however, we would expect the University to “count” the special assessments toward satisfaction of whatever moral obligation the University feels about the levelof its PILOT payments. However, it seems likely that there would be a legal challenge since it would be an entirely novel proposition to place tax-exempt lands in an SID under a statute that was designed to promote downtown business revitalization. The likely prospect would be that money would be spend in protracted litigation with the result that the effort would be lost or that the University would end up with more control, not less control, over the Alexander Street corridor. We do not think this is a good outcome. In terms of risks to Borough taxpayers, the SID seems much, much riskier than the transit-only zone.

The transit-only zone would designate the area of the existing Dinky right of way for transit-only uses. This would preserve the possibility of a relatively straight path to Nassau for light rail even if the Dinky terminus were moved southward, as the University proposes. Objections were raised at the last Council meeting that the University might challenge the zone as inverse “spot zoning” or as inverse condemnation. We do not think these objections are persuasive. The University can, obviously, challenge any zoning determination that displeases it. However, since this area has been used for transit for over 150 years and since this use is consistent with the Master Plan, we believe that this zoning treatment reflects sound public policy. As for the condemnation argument, if a court were to accept it, Council could surely turn to Henry Posner who proposed to fund an outright acquisition of the area through eminent domain. Finally, all of the arguments depend on the University’s claim that it has a right to move the Dinky and privatize the right of way under the 1984 contract. That claim is contested and is the subject of a lawsuit that Save the Dinky and individual plaintiffs have filed. Borough Council, because of these factors, should do the right thing for the public and impose a transit-only zone on the area.

We should also note that Council members Wilkes and Martindell raised certain technical concerns about the transit-only ordinance based on the objection that it could not provide a “straight shot” to Nassau street without ploughing through an existing building. These concerns were surprising, since the “straight shot” phrase has always been used not as a math phrase but instead as a metaphor for a route to Nassau that would involve an angle over to University and up University. A transit-only ordinance can be drafted to encompass the necessary angle.

Finally, we note that Council member Trelstad raised a point that was real and non-trivial. She pointed out that some of the Dinky right-of-way that will be lost with the proposed Dinky move is right-of-way in the Township. She then asked whether the University could not simply thwart the goal of a transit-only zone by building on the right-of-way in the Township. We would answer her questions as follows: If preserving the right of way is sound public policy that serves the general welfare of Borough residents, Borough Council should do this and should hope that the Township follows its lead with a similar ordinance. Even if the Township does not follow the lead of the Borough, we would hope that in a consolidated Princeton the new Princeton Council would extend the transit-only zone to cover the land in the former Township that was not subject to this zoning.

(3) Four reasons why Council should create a transit-only zone for the Dinky right of way:

First, the University can build its Arts campus without moving the Dinky.

Second, the Dinky provides a crucial mass transit link to the Junction that reasonably accessible to pedestrians living in the core population center of Princeton. The housing developments in progress at Palmer square and that are proposed for the hospital site make the preservation of pedestrian access all the more important.

Third, the proposed move of the Dinky will inconvenience pedestrians, will also add to the drive time of those who drop off passengers or park at the Dinky, and will inevitably add to traffic and lose ridership.

Fourth, the University’s two major reasons for the move may reflect its own preferences but are not in the public interest.

(A) The University wants to build a road from Alexander Street to facilitate employee-access to its Lot 7 garage. This argument places a higher value on automobile commuter convenience than on the accessibility to a mass transit link that serves Princeton residents, many of whom live here because of “walkability.” Issues of access to the garage should not be resolved by devaluing a walkable mass transit link.

(B) The University also also argues that for safety reasons it does not want a train in its new arts plaza area. This argument makes no sense at all in light of the University’s development plans. The University proposes to create a traffic circle at University and a new left-turn lane on Alexander that would provide employee access to the garage and drive-in access to the Dinky. These plans will increase the risk of accidents from vehicular and/or vehicular-pedestrian collisions and certainly involve greater risks than those posed by the Dinky in its current location. In addition, the University has failed to explain why it is more worried about train accidents from the current Dinky location than it would be from the light rail route proposed in the MOU.

We hope that you will reflect on these arguments, attend the meeting on Tuesday, or–if not–send an email to Borough Council members expressing your views. Supporters of the University’s plan to move the Dinky often claim that those who oppose it are a bunch of “squeaky wheel” uncultured soreheads who do not appreciate the benefits that will flow to us all from the arts campus plan. If you would like to see the Dinky stay where it is or if you believe that its right of way should be zoned for transit-only use to preserve an efficient future route to Nassau Street, please, please make your voices heard.

Email addresses for Borough Council members:

Jo Butler
Jenny Crumiller
Roger Martindell
Barbara Trelstad>
Kevin Wilkes

Thank you,
Save the Dinky

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