Three months after Princeton University seemingly called off its plans to build an arts and transit village surrounding McCarter Theater, negotiations are coming to a close.

Officials from Princeton Borough, Township, and University have spent the past three months discussing what to do with the Dinky train station and the area near Alexander Road and University Place. Plans to move the station — the terminus of the line from Princeton Junction to Princeton — 460 feet back toward West Windsor in order to make room for a $100 million arts and transit center have generated as much support as ire. While some want to keep the station where it is, others want to keep train service and move the station closer to downtown Princeton. Still others advocate replacing the train with a bus service from Princeton Junction station.

Arguments over the fate of the station and the train service led university officials to announce in January that they would no longer seek to build an arts and transit center near McCarter Theater, which is across the street from the Dinky station.

Throughout February and March, however, cooler heads revisited the university’s plans for this spot and weighed their potential effects on Princeton Borough and Princeton Township. A taskforce comprising officials from both governments and the university have been working on the idea in closed-door sessions, out of the public eye.

The Borough Council and Township Committee soon are expected to publicly discuss ideas for zoning changes at the intersection of Alexander Road and University Place, otherwise known as the Arts Education and Transit zone, or AET. The area in question falls partly in the borough and partly in the township. The Borough was expected to introduce a new zoning ordinance for the area as soon as May 3 (after U.S. 1’s deadline).

Meanwhile supporters of the university’s request to move the Dinky station and those arguing that the station should remain in its present location engaged in an advertising war in the two community papers covering Princeton Borough and Township.

In a full page ad that appeared in both Town Topics and the Princeton Packet more than 250 residents signed a petition in support of the university’s plan “for an enhanced Arts Neighborhood and improved Transit District which involves moving the Dinky 460 feet. We urge the Borough Council and Township Committee to amend the existing zoning to permit this project to move forward in a timely manner.”

An opposing group, meanwhile, was planning to buy a full page ad in the May 4 edition of Town Topics.

The text of the petition: “We the undersigned urge the University and its architects to make minor alterations to its proposed campus expansion to accommodate the Dinky station in its present location.

“Convenient for Princeton residents walking from town or driving and perfectly situated to serve McCarter patrons, the current location is welcoming to the public and easily accessible. The proposed plan would change this by taking the station out of the public square and moving it to the campus garage area, away from the street and separated from the town center. The increased walking distance would include a challenging set of stairs to reach the lowered elevation of the new station.

“The Dinky station is a beloved landmark valued by generations of Princetonians. We urge the university to honor this history, tradition, and legacy. This is a prime opportunity for the university to demonstrate its respect for the residents of Princeton — and it would only take 460 feet of train track and a bit of ingenuity.”

And in an “open letter” to the community, architect David E. Cohen of DEC Architects (U.S. 1, May 16, 2007) stated the following:

“Those of us who have taken the time to study the issue have learned that Princeton University’s planned Arts Campus is not all it’s cracked up to be. By the university’s own testimony, most of the construction is classroom, rehearsal, and administrative space. Small venues are provided for student recitals and performances, which will occur once a week at most. The center will not host performances geared toward the public; space will not be made available for community use during the academic year; and the activities hosted in the center will not draw a sufficient number of visitors into Princeton from out of town to stimulate local businesses.

“Jobs related to the creation of the Arts Campus will not benefit the community in any significant way — no contractor in town can handle a project of this scale, and the workers who will be hired for it cannot afford to live here. Our governing bodies must take a clear-eyed look at the real detriments and benefits of the project rather than the gauzy vision of the Arts Campus put forward by the university.

“So what about the Dinky relocation? The Dinky averages over 2,000 rides a day, and only a small fraction of these are Princeton University students. Many of these riders would be willing to walk an extra 460 feet — no big deal. What would be a big deal is if the Dinky were to be eliminated altogether, and the research suggests that even slightly longer walking time to the station, reduced visibility of the station, and a new convoluted passenger drop-off pattern will all combine to reduce ridership.

“New Jersey Transit already threatens to halt the Dinky service due to insufficient ridership. Concerned community members fear that the university’s plan for relocating the station will be the last nail in the Dinky’s coffin. To some extent, what New Jersey Transit chooses to do is beyond our control, but the university’s casual willingness to hasten this outcome is disheartening, and a close reading of the 1984 contract to purchase the station suggests that the university’s legal right to do so is nowhere near as cut and dried as it claims.

“Let’s work this out! I am happy to let the university have its Arts Campus, but not at the expense of losing the Dinky, when the real benefits to the community are so few.”

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