Zoning approval for drugstore held up by design debate

Consultant criticizes appearance of Eckerd building.

By: Shanay Cadette
   WEST WINDSOR — The decision to build a proposed Eckerd drugstore on Princeton-Hightstown Road is still up in the air, but some township officials clearly don’t like its design.
   After hours of discussion Thursday, the Zoning Board of Adjustment was no closer to approving the request to allow more floor space for the project.
   Midland Development Group has proposed to raze Al’s Auto Repair, located at the corner of Route 571 and Cranbury Road. In its place would be the more than 13,000-square-foot drugstore, complete with a drive-through window. The plan includes creating a shared parking lot with existing businesses and improving the landscaping.
   Township consultants told board members Thursday an increase in the floor-area ratio above the permitted 18 percent would not be detrimental at that location. Many of the proposed changes would benefit the community and would not significantly affect traffic flow, according to the consultants.
   But the consultants asserted there is another issue to consider: The proposed architectural design is not visually pleasing. In short, it doesn’t honor the township’s Master Plan to create a village-scale development or traditional downtown area along Princeton-Hightstown Road — although adherence to that plan is not a zoning requirement.
   Since the corner of Cranbury Road and Route 571 serves as a gateway to Princeton Junction, many officials as well as residents say whatever ends up there should live up to the prominence of the site.
   "This is the first thing you see when you come over the bridge," said township planning consultant John Madden. "I think the building needs to be a statement here."
   "This is the prime spot and we’ve got to do it right," added zoning board member John Roeder.
   Officials said they would like the developer to consider a design that would move the proposed store closer to the curb and the parking toward the rear to make the design look more like a downtown area — not a strip mall.
   Pushing for a better design, however, is not the responsibility of the zoning board.
   The board’s review powers center on the size of the project and if it will be a detriment to the community. It is then up to the township Planning Board to review the developer’s site plan, which has not been submitted.
   Residents who spoke about the proposal Thursday appeared to be straddling the fence.
   Some like the convenience a drive-through pharmacy would provide and the idea of breathing new life into the area.
   "This could be the beginning of a wonderful revitalization," said former Mayor Carole Carson. "There are few buyers looking to take a chance on downtown revitalization."
   Others said the design is not pedestrian-friendly and could cause safety issues if left turns are allowed out of the property.
   Because the proposed floor-area ratio is not 22 percent as the applicant initially indicated, but closer to 26 percent, the discussion on the project is expected to continue next month. The initial application didn’t include building dimensions that factored in the exterior walls.