Expert WW panel urges plan for Junction train station

Mayor says session is a kickoff for further discussions; transit village concept discussed.

By: Shanay Cadette
   WEST WINDSOR — There’s enough nonresidential land in the township to build the equivalent of about 10 Quaker Bridge Malls.
   Although that translates into more than 10 million square feet of nonresidential space, just because that land is available doesn’t mean it ought to be developed, said several transportation, architectural and planning experts at a Thursday panel discussion.
   What West Windsor should do, along with communities across the state, is come up with more efficient and compact ways to create new development, panel members said.
   "When you see all these statistics and you see all the land gobbled up, you realize we really have to do something," said J. Robert Hillier, founder and chairman of the board of the Hillier Group, a West Windsor-based architectural firm.
   Hosted by Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, the Thursday discussion gave residents an opportunity to hear experts offer advice on ways to develop the Princeton Junction train station, a prominent area of West Windsor that many have said cries out for renovation.
   "This is going to be a starting point, a kickoff meeting for all of us to talk about Princeton Junction," said Mayor Hsueh to a packed room of residents gathered at the municipal building.
   While the discussion centered on what can be done at the station, one of the busiest in the state, it also served as a lesson on the best way to marry transportation with a more efficient use of land. The panelists cautioned that developers are consuming land at such an alarming rate there will be no new developable areas in New Jersey if that pace continues during the next 30 to 50 years.
   "We’re going to be the first state to build out in this century," predicted Barbara Lawrence, executive director of New Jersey Future, a nonprofit group advocating sustainable development. "There’s not going to be any real land to develop in New Jersey."
   One solution to that problem is for communities to embrace the idea of mixed-used developments. The panelists said communities should consider more clustered forms of development that reduce land consumption, lessen the demand for automobiles and promote the creation of common public spaces like plazas and parks, including sidewalks on both sides of streets. This approach is commonly called "center-based development" or "smart growth." The experts also explained West Windsor might consider turning the Princeton Junction train station into a "transit village."
   A transit village promotes mixed-use developments that include housing, shopping, jobs and various modes of transportation. Transit villages or center-based developments in a sense become the focal points of a municipality.
   The three terms are the latest buzz words in the planning field that envisions communities rebuilding older areas rather that usurping open space, protecting open spaces and farmlands, offering alternative housing choices and reducing traffic.
   "West Windsor is a wonderful place that doesn’t have a sense of community," Mr. Hillier said.
   The transit village concept could provide that sense of community and identity for West Windsor, along with beautifying the area and providing much-needed parking, the panelists said.
   Think Palmer Square in Princeton, Piazza Navona in Rome or Faneuil Hall in Boston, where a marketplace is successfully combined with housing, parking and varying modes of transportation, Mr. Hillier said. That could easily happen at the train station, yet not take up much space. There’s also an added benefit of getting priority for state and federal funding by becoming a state-designated transit village.
   That idea won’t become a reality, however, unless it has the support of the community and the backing of zoning ordinances, said Jack Kanarek, a senior director at NJ Transit. West Windsor has a Master Plan that envisions transforming the area around Route 571 into a village-scale development, but the township doesn’t currently have zoning requirements in place.
   Residents and some officials raised concerns about a mixed-use development producing excessive traffic and more school-age children — which could, in turn, lead to higher property taxes. They also worried about the feasibility of a rapid bus transit route now that a proposed east-side connector route linking Route 571 to Route 1 near Harrison Street was cut out of the DOT’s Penns Neck area roadway plan.
   The experts responded single people and seniors are more likely to be attracted to a transit village, adding the township could ask the Sarnoff Corp. to allow a bus route on its property.
   Residents who live in Berrien City, a community near the train station, say they are particularly worried about building a transit village, since many of their houses are historic and the roadways there are already congested with traffic several times a day.
   Mr. Hillier said concerns about sidewalks and traffic can be resolved in the design phase and through zoning. Berrien City could be designated a historical site to protect it from developers, traffic could be shifted elsewhere and pedestrian traffic could be separated from vehicular traffic, he added.
   The panelists and Mayor Hsueh cautioned the audience against doing nothing because that won’t stop development from growing out of control.
   "To leave the station the way it is is definitely not reasonable. It’s not acceptable," Mayor Hsueh said. "Even if we do nothing, there will be changes around us."
   "I think there’s more at risk in West Windsor to let it build out — that’s what’s going to happen," Ms. Lawrence said. "That’s what’s going to make West Windsor less attractive. If you look back 10 years, there’s been a lot of change in West Windsor. … Don’t imagine you will hold that in place by doing nothing at the train station."