Despite all the rancor surrounding the plan to shrink the Dinky commuter rail line to make room for Princeton University’s ambitious new arts and transit neighborhood, not everyone is taking a “my way or the highway” approach.
As the university and municipal officials have resumed talks in order to forge a “memorandum of understanding” on the issue, some planning participants have advanced a proposal that would enable the university to get its wish — moving the Dinky station further away from the campus — and also pave the way for a mass transit line that could link the existing Dinky tracks and replace the heavy rail Jersey Transit car with a multi-stop streetcar that would run all the way from the main line of the railroad in Princeton Junction to Nassau Street.
The ironic source of that proposal: Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and a graduate level urban design studio taught by Jim Constantine, principal of community planning at the Looney Ricks Kiss office at 182 Nassau Street, and Gonzalo Echeverria.
The design studio, a graduate-level class at the at Rutgers in New Brunswick, was commissioned by Princeton Future — the private coalition of community leaders seeking proactive solutions for planning issues. The charge: to create a design for this transformation of the Dinky through a process that involved stakeholders from the university and the community.
The streetcar is actually not a new idea for Princeton, which formerly had trolley lines on Alexander and Witherspoon streets. Current interest in streetcars is in some sense reaching back to a past when the country was not as dependent on automobiles. Says Constantine: “You end up going back and finding the ghosts of transit pasts. We knew what we were doing when we were a simpler nation with less resources.”
Constantine explains that light rail refers not to the gauge of the track, which is identical for a New Jersey Transit car or a streetcar, but rather to the vehicles themselves. That means the streetcars could use the existing Dinky track. Because streetcars are lighter, the tracks need less stabilization and foundation support, reducing the construction costs for new track. Light-rail is also designed for almost 180-degree visibility, which increases safety.
The game changer for streetcars, however, is the flexibility that allows them to make multiple stops over a short distance, which is impossible for a train. This is because streetcars shift and brake much like a motor vehicle, as opposed to the heavy rail Dinky, which requires brake tests at the end of each run and is subject to union crew changeover requirements.
When Sheldon Sturges of Princeton Future learned of this flexibility last September he was immediately converted. “The eureka for me is that we should stop talking about a location for a station, i.e., a terminus,” he says. “We should be talking about multiple stops.” Multiple stops would mean that a resident of the Hibben-Magie graduate student-faculty housing on Faculty Road near Carnegie Lake could jump on a streetcar to come to town for lunch and errands and then return home, without needing a car or bicycle. And of course the people at Palmer Square Management favor a shorter walk to a transit link to New York, says Sturges.
Streetcar advocates are not all environmentalists in Birkenstocks. The director of the Virginia-based American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, William S. Lind, is a strong supporter of streetcars on the national scene. Lind explains why there are now more than 60 streetcar projects around the United States. “A lot of what is driving this is that the streetcar is very successful in spurring redevelopment,” he says. With a streetcar present or in the works, a potential developer can count on a service that is attractive to middle and upper-class people with significant disposable incomes. This group does not like to ride buses because of discomfort and class issues but apparently loves to use streetcars.
Streetcars can be as successful in a smaller town as in a big city. At the height of streetcar use, every American city with more than 5,000 people had a line, and today one of the most successful ones is in Kenosha, a city of fewer than 100,000 in Wisconsin.
Lind calls the streetcar a “pedestrian facilitator.” Its goal is to collect and distribute people throughout the downtown. “If a city does not have middle or upper-income people on its sidewalks, it is essentially dead,” says Lind. Portland, Oregon, has encouraged people to spend more time on its sidewalks — shopping, eating, and generally increasing the city’s tax revenues — by instituting a free-fare zone in its downtown.
Especially appealing to fiscal conservatives, building a streetcar line can often be handled effectively through a public-private partnership, and its costs do not have to be excessive. “You get consultants who gold-plate the hell out of the thing, and pretty soon you’re spending $50 million per mile when you should be spending $5 million,” says Lind.
In Portland, says Lind, an investment of $100 million in the initial line brought $2 billion in new development, much of which developers said would not have happened without the streetcar. The 2.5 mile line in Kenosha, which was built to help redevelop a brownfield in its downtown, went in for a cost of only $6 million, and it has encouraged a great deal of residential development by providing a direct connection to the metro commuter train to Chicago.
The idea for the urban design studio’s project arose last spring when the Princeton Regional Planning Board rejected the idea of replacing the Dinky with bus rapid transit. Princeton Future charged Constantine and the urban design studio with focusing on the arts, education, and transit zone that runs from McCarter Theater down to the proposed Dinky station and could eventually extend all the way to the canal. The studio was asked to explore the corridor on regional, community, and site-specific scales and to create designs that would include potential future transit stops and redevelopment along Alexander Road.
The students’ design had to satisfy three requirements: Incorporate the university’s proposed arts campus; test the design code and zoning being worked out for the lower Alexander corridor, envisioned as a residential, mixed-use district; and transform the Dinky vehicles from heavy rail to some form of light rail and figure out how to get from the existing tracks up to Nassau Street.
On January 11 Princeton Future made a proposal to realign the Dinky around the existing station building, go through the arts plaza, and continue up University Place — the so-called “straight shot,” which would be the shortest and cheapest route. The university, however, was concerned about issues of danger and liability and nixed this path.
Constantine points out that the Portland streetcar runs straight through the Portland State campus, and very slowly at that. “They have cafes lining the edge of the tracks and kids walking across the tracks texting,” he says. “Human beings are safer in the Portland State streetcar plaza than crossing at the mid-block crossings on Washington Road.”
Yet he asserts that Princeton University is within its rights to reject the straight shot. “To the university’s credit, they studied that alternative seriously in January,” says Constantine. Although Princetonians who felt that the straight shot route made the most sense were bothered by the university’s decision, Constantine challenged the class to accommodate the concerns and desires of the university, which is a major stakeholder, landowner, and driver in the Princeton community.
Constantine’s students are taught to try to address the concerns of all stakeholders in the planning process — including transportation and sustainability advocates, the business community, important local institutions, and the general public. While listening to these important constituencies, including people who want to maintain the existing Dinky, the students were given to understand that the university was key. “The message they heard from the stakeholders was ‘Hey, guys, we love some of your ideas, but the only way they can work is to make them work with the university’,” says Constantine.
The university, however, did not meet with the students. “They indicated they were too busy looking for alternative arts campus locations,” says Constantine.
One of the students in the urban design studio, Patrick Jensen, described his own surprise and that of his classmates when they realized that the design job they had embarked on was not just a matter of sitting down with an area map and then designing a streetcar route and the buildings that would surround it. “In the first week, we went to a public meeting, and found there was a lot of disagreement about whether the line should exist,” he says. “The issue was pretty contentious; the university wanted to go one way; there were stakeholders who wanted to go a totally different way; and the organization we were working for wanted to go another way altogether.”
Another student, David Novak, agrees with Jensen about the challenges of dealing with a divided community. “Princeton has a lot of very passionate and opinionated people, so you have that many more voices and opinions to balance out,” he says.
So the students had their work cut out for them. “We had to take all these opinions and find a design that would work for everyone,” says Jensen. “We were trying for a win-win situation where we were satisfying the university’s wishes and the wishes of the residents of the community.”
The criteria for the streetcar line were that it had to run to Nassau Street while avoiding the university as much as possible and that it had to use the existing train line as far as it possibly could. “The students looked at how to do movement through this corridor with a development scheme that would tie in with a new way to live in Princeton,” says Constantine. “Lots of people could live within a two-minute walk of transit.”
The students developed their design with the expectation of additional workforce housing on the Lower Alexander corridor and an expanded number of residents at the renovated Hibben-Magie apartments that is now in the works.
Because the university did not want any transit going through its campus, the problem the students faced was how to extend to Nassau without going through the campus. To accomplish this, they added two swings to the route, one out to Alexander Street, and one back to the top of University Place, which has led some to call the design “the big dipper.”
The turn out to Alexander occurs about 300 feet past Faculty Road, going towards town — through what used to be the Grover lumberyard. “It seemed like that would be the most proper place — a balance of making sure it could swing out far enough using pre-existing track but not so far that it was getting closer to the university’s campus and getting them nervous,” Novak says. This location also worked well for the way they had designed potential buildings along Alexander.
The track would then follow Alexander along its east side, with a double-track stop in front of the arts center, where streetcars going in different directions could pass each other. By placing the stop here the students were re-creating a historic relationship between town, street, station plaza, and gateway to the campus that existed when the terminus of the Dinky was at Blair Arch.
New York architect Steven Holl, commissioned by the university to design the academic buildings in the arts neighborhood, has referenced Blair Arch in his plans by way of a “gateway” structure that stretches over the pathway between the two buildings facing Alexander. After this stop the track then turns onto University Place between McCarter Theater and the arts center and proceeds up the east side of the street to Nassau.
In an effort to circumvent what could be the biggest challenge to the students’ design — an increase in traffic backups — the students gave their proposed light-rail line its own lane so that cars could pass it. Because this design feature would mean getting rid of some street parking on Alexander and University Place, the students also designed garages along the corridor.
Kevin Wilkes, Princeton Borough Council president and an architect and builder in his professional life, is concerned about traffic on Alexander and notes several factors likely to increase it in the future.
First, the state Department of Transportation has made a proposal to prevent northbound traffic on Route 1 from making jughandle turns into Princeton at the Washington Road and Harrison Street intersections, thereby making Alexander a more accessible entry road into Princeton. Second, West Windsor has talked about building a parking garage at Princeton Junction that would serve only its own residents. Third, there is the enlarged parking area that will accompany the Hibben-Magie renovation, which Wilkes calls “a large beast ready to disgorge cars on Alexander to make it harder for us to get around.”
These issues, combined with potentially denser development along Alexander, are a perfect recipe for traffic tie-ups. “I am concerned that Alexander maintain through capacity, and there are lots of pieces of evidence that say it won’t in the future,” says Wilkes, “and that’s another reason why I think a strategy of light rail is good for us to pursue in the long term.”
Many people were concerned about traffic after hearing the students’ presentation to the Master Plan subcommittee of the Princeton Regional Planning Board on April 30. Novak of the design studio responds that, although a streetcar would be able to relieve some of the traffic, any real solution lies outside of Princeton. He says, “Ultimately I think there is going to be a traffic problem, but it has to do with Route 1, and we need a regional solution to deal with those traffic woes. Princeton is such an historically old town, developed before the automobile, and when it was laid out, people didn’t have traffic flows in mind.”
Sturges was happy with the students’ report. “They came and listened, worked with different subgroups, with merchants and environmentally concerned people in town, and what they’ve done makes a lot of sense,” he says.
But Sturges has an even bigger vision — a streetcar line that would extend along the Northeast corridor rail bed to the new town centers in West Windsor and Plainsboro. This would allow people to park in other places and come into Princeton, he says, adding, “The whole idea of multiple stops is that you choose the place you are going to access. If it’s done right, it is exciting, fast, and efficient, and you can look at your iPhone and tell when it is coming.”
Sturges dreams that a little further along, perhaps with a little help from Rush Holt and some federal dollars, this streetcar line could be extended from Plainsboro along Scudders Mill Road to the new hospital, thus relieving people in Princeton who are worried about how they will get to the hospital when the Harrison Street bridge is backed up.
Although the university is willing to think about the possibility of a streetcar line, for the present it is committed to its plan to shorten the Dinky line and create a new station and transportation plaza. A May memorandum of understanding negotiated between the university, Princeton Borough, and Princeton Township focused mostly on details surrounding the Dinky, but does talk about a study to explore “next generation transit service.”
The university agreed that, “coincident with the filing of the Planning Board application for phase 1 of the Arts and Transit proposal,” a joint task force would be set up to evaluate long-term transit needs and service to Nassau Street by conducting a formal study. Funding for this study, which would look at, among other things, a light-rail system, would be funded 50 percent by the university and 25 percent by each municipality.
The university also agreed, if the memo is adopted, to provide $250,000 to establish a mass transit trust fund for studies, planning, and implementation of improvements to the Princeton community’s transit needs. The university would also provide easement sufficient to accommodate light-rail or other mass-transit service.
After first clarifying that the university would provide no funding for a study until the draft memorandum is approved and the university is able to go to the planning board with a proposal for its arts and transit neighborhood, Robert Durkee, vice president and secretary of the university, said he thought doing a study of the corridor was a good idea, but added one caveat.
“I think that one of the concerns that we’ve had all along with the idea of trolleys or streetcars is just making sure that whatever is used is sufficient to transport commuters back and forth between Princeton Junction and Princeton,” Durkee says. “Figuring out some way to, in the future, take some kind of a vehicle over to Alexander and up University Place is an attractive idea, but it has to have enough capacity to serve as a connector between Princeton and the Junction.”
In an E-mail, Constantine responds to Durkee’s concerns about efficiently moving large numbers of people during rush hour. “The new ‘made in the USA’ streetcars from United Streetcar in Oregon have a capacity of 170 persons vs. 102-130 persons on the Arrow III cars used by the Dinky. In addition to having greater capacity, the streetcars can be linked in two car trains to double their capacity during peak periods, just as occurs now with the Dinky. But unlike the Dinky, streetcars would not have to run two cars (with one closed off from occupancy) on a regular basis.”
Durkee is also concerned that the plan of the urban design studio would put a station on Alexander, which he worried would encourage cars to pick up passengers on the main roadway. He suggested that the university’s plan for a new Dinky station is a better way to handle drop off and pick up.
Wilkes has heard many concerns within the community about the draft memorandum, and he is not sure whether the borough will give its mayor the power to sign it. Some people feel that any study authorized by the memorandum would be happening too late in the game, triggered only after the university gets approval for its arts and transit project. Others were uncomfortable accepting as a precondition that the university was not going to adjust its design regardless, and any study would have to accept that design and work around it. Says Wilkes: “The university is saying ‘Let’s do this plan and then discuss the future.’ Our constituents are saying, ‘Let’s not invest in something so quickly that we might decide should be done differently.’”
At this point Wilkes is not clear that there are three votes on Borough Council to approve the memo of understanding, and he suggests that following the path set out in the memo would mostly benefit the university, with the benefits to the community less clear. (Borough Council was meeting Tuesday, May 24, as this issue was going to press to address “Princeton University negotiations” in a closed session.)
Wilkes looks at decisions about light rail from a 10 to 20-year timeframe. A critical issue for him is weighing potential ridership against necessary capacity. If ridership is largely during rush hour, then likely the venture would be too expensive and not support itself.
“We need to be rational about assumptions we make for potential capacity,” he says. If the new growth expected on Alexander Street materializes, then improving service to Nassau Street may be the way to go.
Wilkes sets the transit issue in the larger context of how a community plans for growth, and he asks, “How can we use transit to assist future growth instead of having future growth trigger negative automobile impacts, as has been the case until now?”
The most serious obstacle to advance planning, Wilkes adds, is that the borough’s budget has allotted no funds to do so. “Our biggest failure as a governing body is that we don’t look ahead to lay out the future we imagine.”
In the old days, he says, communities laid out streets and lots and people came out and filled in neighborhoods. But now developers tell the community what it can have and what they are willing to pay for. “We would be much happier if we could plan for our future proactively rather than waiting for an applicant to show up with their idea and we say yes or no,” he says.
This absence of planning can lead to conflicts like those involving the arts and transit neighborhood. “Some feel benefited, and others feel that they suffer,” he says. “In truly progressive planning, everyone feels they have experienced gains, not only for themselves and their private purses, but for the community.”
Constantine, who loved trains as a child, grew up in North Jersey. His father worked in advertising for CBS. “I was a child of the suburbs and lived for that driver’s license,” says Constantine. But that changed at age 20, when he spent a School of Design, staying with his aunt and uncle in a streetcar suburb and commuting in by train every day.
Before he decided on city planning as a career, Constantine had planned to go into hotel management. But while he was at Rutgers University, he took a course in planning and changed course midstream. “I discovered that I really loved helping to envision how people could live and move about,” he says.
After he graduated in 1982 with a degree in urban studies, Constantine took a job with planner Tony Nelessen, who was also the founder of the urban design studio at Rutgers.
Constantine spent more than 10 years with Nelessen, had his own firm for a few years, and then in 1998 became a partner at Looney Ricks Kiss, where he deals with planning projects ranging from transit-oriented development to the redevelopment of suburban highway corridors. “The whole point in a lot of the work we do is trying to integrate transportation and land use with a vision that has more opportunities for people to move in different ways,” he says.
Jensen grew up in Sayreville and now lives in Metuchen. His mother teaches special physical education in Sayreville, and his father works in the seafood department of Whole Foods in Princeton.
After getting a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Rutgers in 2004, Jensen spent four years with JP Morgan Chase as a software developer in New York and Ohio.
Having grown up in the suburbs, gone to college in New Brunswick, and then worked in both Manhattan and Columbus, Ohio, a medium-sized city, he started to ponder these different living environments. “I got to wondering why I liked some areas more than others and what made different areas function differently,” he says. When he started reading to find some answers to his questions, he enjoyed it so much that he decided to return to Rutgers to get a master’s degree.
Novak is originally from Pompton Lakes. His mother works as an office assistant for a family affairs office, while his stepfather has been a tool and die maker for more than 30 years.
At the College of New Jersey he majored in sociology with a concentration in urban and ethnic studies and had minors in political science and anthropology. He graduated in 2009 and went straight to graduate school, and he has just finished his master’s degree in city and regional planning. While an undergraduate, he worked for a nonprofit in Paterson, did a research project in Trenton for Habitat for Humanity where he analyzed the interaction of home ownership and crime rates, and for a senior seminar he did an internship at the Municipal Land Use Center at the College of New Jersey.
Constantine suggests that his students’ design offers a new vision for life in Princeton. “There are people who would want to live in Princeton, take an elevator, and be within a two-minute walk of a transit stop,” he says. “You don’t choose Princeton today for transit convenience. What the studio has tried to do was to provide a vision that looks out with binoculars to the future, versus a rearview mirror approach that would look at the way things have been and keep it that way.”
Looney Ricks Kiss Architects Inc., 182 Nassau Street, Suite 302, Princeton 08542; 609-683-3600; fax, 609-683-0054. James Constantine, principal. www.lrk.com.
Princeton Future, 42 Cameron Court, Princeton 08542; 609-921-6100. www.princetonfuture.org.