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W. Windsor envisions station as destination in its own right

Sunday, April 04, 2004

By BRIAN X. McCRONE
Staff Writer

WEST WINDSOR - On a recent Thursday night, Jonathan Bestik hunkered down inside his coat while waiting in the chill on a platform at the Princeton Junction train station.

The Princeton man had just stepped off the evening train from New York City and was waiting for his ride to arrive at the front of the station.

With no restaurant or coffee shop to seek refuge, Bestik faced the cold.

"I certainly wouldn't mind some restaurants to eat at when I get home here," Bestik said. "It would be a good idea to add some stores at the station - for my advantage anyway."

Bestik's thoughts are more like goals for West Windsor officials.

The train station, they say, is a ready-made hub for a town center. To make it complete, they want to surround the station with a few restaurants and retail stores along Wallace Road and nearby Route 571.

"We want something as charming as a Palmer Square-type center for West Windsor," said Pat Ward, township community development coordinator and a 20-year resident.

Added Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh: "Renovating the train station is very important for creating that sense of place in West Windsor."

Since taking office three years ago, the mayor's goals have focused on a commuter-friendly Princeton Junction. Hsueh likes to use the term "transit village" when he describes the future of the train station and its surroundings.

Transit villages have become a staple of smart growth in Gov. James McGreevey's plans for New Jersey.

Fourteen train stations across the state have been designated for state funds to improve surrounding roads and develop commercial and residential growth.

In West Windsor's near future, adding a couple of restaurants and shops would give commuters and residents added comforts in a downtown setting that the township now lacks, Hsueh said.

And other township officials have bought into the idea.

"No real improvements have been done to the station since 1988," township zoning officer Sam Surtees said. "There's not much left to develop in all of West Windsor. Now, builders are looking to redevelop existing areas, like the Junction."

And while redevelopment is still in a very early stage, Surtees added the people of West Windsor have a chance to control it in their neighborhood instead of waiting for developers to make choices.

"(Redevelopment) will take place in the future. It just depends on whether the township wants it done their way," he said.

To the west of the existing station are four huge parking lots with a capacity of 3,800 vehicles. On the opposite side of the depot is Berrien City, an upper-middle class neighborhood with 80- and 90-year-old homes.

Susan Conlon, president of the Berrien City Homeowners' Association, said right now the residents there are more cautious of redevelopment than opposed to it.

"Improvements to the train station are one thing," Conlon said. "We're concerned over the safety and the quality of life (for nearby residents)."

She and others have pushed the township council to improve Princeton Junction's pedestrian and bicycle pathways. In a neighborhood that features older residents and young families, there are very few sidewalks.

"It is the most walked and biked area of West Windsor, yet arguably has the worst system for pedestrians and bicycles," Conlon told the township council earlier this year.

The roads leading to the train station, like Route 571 and Alexander and Cranbury roads, are the most traveled in the township, she said.

That makes traffic a main concern for the redevelopment in Princeton Junction, just as it was about 10 years ago when township officials also wanted to develop the area around the station into a town center.

Plans at that time got a cool reception from merchants along Route 571, who feared the state wanted to expand the highway to include median strips, thus limiting traffic flow to their businesses.

About 5,900 commuters flow through the station on NJ Transit trains each week day, according to the transit agency, making it the busiest NJ Transit stop in the whole state.

"I am positive about the idea of a transit village," said Berrien City resident Meg Chicco. "But there are things that still need to be talked about. What are they going to do with the additional traffic? Is there going to be more parking?"

The roads through Berrien City and the outer reaches of Princeton Junction to the train station are mainly two-lane streets. Redeveloping the train station means redeveloping the roads and the first project on the improvement list is the construction of a new Alexander Road bridge.

Work on the new bridge, which carries vehicles over Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Line, will begin in 2005. The $8.5 million plan will be funded by the state Department of Transportation.

There also is talk of expanding the station's already-massive parking lot, run by the West Windsor Township Parking Authority.

And while many people use that station, the bustling hub for rush-hour transportation has just one small countertop business, selling mostly coffee and sandwiches.

Redeveloping train stations into commuter-friendly "transit villages" has become popular in New Jersey.

In October, the state DOT targeted six more station communities where transit villages are to be developed and awarded them $200,000 grants for road improvements, traffic calming measures, bike paths and train station improvements.

A spokeswoman for McGreevey said the governor has valued the idea of transit villages to direct commuters toward public transportation.

"Transit villages are an important smart-growth tool," spokeswoman Juliet Johnson said. "They will be an integral part of improving our quality of life and building a better New Jersey."

Hsueh would like Princeton Junction to undergo a makeover "in less than three years," but Surtees cautioned that it's a step-by-step process. The first is to designate a redevelopment zone.

"We need the planning board to look at the area first and designate boundaries for redevelopment," Surtees said. "Then, the township council will have to vote on a recommendation from the planning board."

Planning board chairman Marvin Gardner said the board has already considered the idea. He said a panel discussion last month, the first of its kind for Princeton Junction, revealed optimism on the part of residents.

"There was well over 100 people at the first meeting," Gardner said. "Residents appeared receptive to the idea. It's imperative that they stay involved."

While Gardner agrees the station could be a retail center, he also thinks there is a potential for apartments and condominiums near the station.

"There is a built-in market for retail development," Gardner said. "I envision a plan that incorporates a small, quaint, village-type center and provides for unique uses like a place for a resident to sit and enjoy a cup of cappuccino or read a book from the local bookstore."

Just down the tracks, Hamilton Township is much farther ahead with its redevelopment plan for the Hamilton station along the East State Street Extension.

About 1,000 acres adjacent to the station will be redeveloped to include homes, restaurants, a hotel and office buildings, said Phil Miller, Hamilton economic development director.

"The plan focuses on the area immediately surrounding the train station," Miller said. "We worked on (the redevelopment plan) for about a year. It should be real interesting for that area."

The busy Princeton Junction depot also is a key stop along the northeast route for Amtrak, linking Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. More than 914,000 Amtrak passengers moved through the station last year, ranking it the ninth busiest Amtrak station in the entire country, company spokesman Dan Stessel said.

"The (Princeton Junction) station is busier than Baltimore, Albany, N.Y., Sacramento, San Diego, Wilmington, Del. . . . It's pretty amazing," Stessel said. About 19 Amtrak trains run through the station every work day.

Along NJ Transit's Northeast Corridor, more than 100 trains through Princeton Junction carry passengers mostly to and from Manhattan each day, said spokeswoman Janet Hines, making it the carrier's busiest station in the Garden State.

"Metro Park is second (in volume), followed by Trenton, New Brunswick and Elizabeth," she said.

She added that nearly 900 commuters use the Princeton Dinky every day. The small shuttle train takes passengers the 3 miles from the train station to parking lots at Princeton University.

Township council member Franc Gambatese gets right to the point about his feelings toward redevelopment around the train station.

"I wish it was tomorrow. Redevelopment there is something I think that's been in the planning stages for years now. It's a total necessity," he said.

Whenever Gambatese and his wife want to go out for a bite to eat or a drink, they have to head across township borders, he said.

"I recently received an e-mail from a resident that said there's nothing to do in town. You have to go out of town to have a nice dinner," Gambatese said. "The township doesn't need to be known for the transit center, but the transit center needs to be part of the township."

The very first step in the redevelopment process is to appoint a joint committee of township officials, hired professionals and residents, Gambatese said.

"It's imperative that there be significant community input and dialogue relative to the vision that the township wishes to pursue," he said.

Once the new Alexander Road bridge is rebuilt and other safety improvements are made to neighborhood roads, Princeton Junction becomes the ideal setting for a hub, Gambatese added.

He said the community shouldn't waste time trying to prevent change. "We can either guide future development," he said, "or let it go through the town uncontrolled."

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