Princeton’s arts and transit complex on track for Fall 2017 deadline

 Construction of the Arts and Transit complex at Princeton University. (Anna Windemuth/for NewsWorks)

Construction of the Arts and Transit complex at Princeton University. (Anna Windemuth/for NewsWorks)

Of Princeton’s many construction projects in the past few years, none has been as controversial and high budget as the $330 million arts and transit neighborhood. 

Since the fall of 2013, Princeton University has built a roundabout on Alexander Road, created new parking lots, relocated the town’s historic Dinky train station and forged new facilities for the arts. 

The project had a rough start when then Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman discussed plans with local officials in 2011.  Town representatives initially declined to approve the requisite zoning changes for the project. Community members also filed six lawsuits against the University to prevent the relocation of the Dinky station, notably arguing that such a move would reduce ridership.  

The project is still a hot topic of debate between town and gown. However, the development is now in its final phase of construction and on track to open in the fall of 2017, according to Princeton University Director of community and regional affairs Kristin Appelget. 

“The vast majority of the comments that I have received about the project as the construction has proceeded have been positive,” Appelget said.

 Bar and Bistro

The University announced most recently that it has partnered with Fenway Hospitality Group, the owners of local eatery Agricola, to operate a new bistro and bar. 

Located in the former north Dinky station building at University Place, the bar will accommodate 60 indoor and 30 outdoor seats. The menu will include cocktails, wine, beer and light lunch and dinner fare. 

The neighboring south station building will house the bistro, serving breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner with a French-influenced menu. Indoor seating will accommodate 125 people, with an additional 50 seats outside. 

The bar is slated to open in the spring of 2016, and the bistro in the spring of 2017.  

The New Dinky Station

The Dinky train is operated by NJ Transit and provides transportation between Princeton and Princeton Junction, allowing commuters to catch subsequent trains to the New Jersey corridor and New York’s Penn Station.

Although the new station is about 460 feet south of its former location, it also includes a new, temperature controlled waiting room and an outdoor plaza with seating. 

New parking lots close to both the Dinky and Princeton Junction have served commuters well, Princeton councilwoman Jo Butler said. However, current construction on the new arts center makes it harder for residents in Princeton’s most populated areas to reach the station and adjacent parking, Butler said. 

A renovated WaWa convenience store is now close to the platform, allowing commuters easy access to food and drink on the go.

Butler said that community members are still concerned about the Dinky’s ridership, noting that recent construction has led many commuters to use their cars rather than relying on the train. 

One of Princeton University’s residential colleges, Forbes College, has a view of the construction site. Freshman and Forbes resident Emmanuel Udotong said the construction is annoying to walk through, but that he looks forward to the project’s final result.

“The WaWa is also super convenient, almost too convenient,” Udotong said. “Like my money is disappearing.”

Both the WaWa and the Dinky station were designed by architect Rick Joy. The buildings feature angled concrete pillars and a blackened steel-paneled roof, a modern vibe that did not seem to bother most residents, Butler said. 

“It looms a little large, and it definitely changes the sense you get when you go into the town,” Butler said. “There was a little bit of knifing early on, but I think people care more about convenience.”

Local residents have commented that the new parking spaces and parking meter technology are convenient and user friendly, Appelget said. 

“We also receive many positive comments about the reduction in traffic congestion in the Alexander Corridor now that the roundabout has replaced the traffic light that was once at the intersection of University Place and Alexander Street,” she added. 

The Arts at Princeton

One of the reasons then Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman launched the arts and transit project was to upgrade its arts facilities. Tilghman noted in 2001 that excellent students had decided not to attend the University because they did not believe that it provided adequate opportunities in the arts. 

Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts will have a new home close to McCarter Theater. The complex will include classrooms, a black box theater, an experimental media studio, a dance studio, a large music rehearsal room and a performance hall with a fly loft and orchestra pit.

Princeton junior Marni Morse said that it can be difficult to book rehearsal space for student performance groups using current facilities. 

“Most of the spaces are black boxes with limited technology in terms of lighting and sound,” Morse said. A board member of Princeton’s student-led Theater Intime, Morse said that Princeton’s arts facilities did not motivate her to attend the school.

Freshman Changshuo Liu said he sometimes resorted to practicing in other department buildings or in residential college study rooms.  

“I really hope the new buildings will provide better rehearsal space,” Liu said.

Members of the faculty and staff from the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Department of Music have been involved with the project since it was conceived, Appelget said.

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