Transit Villages Planned

Transit Villages Planned

Graff, Sam

You can hear that train a-comin’, and developers are riding it into Mercer County. It’s easy to see, why. More than 100 passenger trains stop each day at the county’s three stations on the Northeast Corridor, plus the new light rail service to Camden, so it’s increasingly easy for people here to slip the surly bonds of traffic jams. They can hop on the train, and laugh at drivers trapped on I-95 in Philadelphia, or sneer at the miles-long backups on the New Jersey Turnpike.

There’s no doubt that a working railroad is good for business.

“The River Line has been great for us down here at the Camden Waterfront,” says Jack Willard, public information officer at the Battleship New Jersey Museum. It’s at the light rail line’s southern terminus. “On just the first weekend, 20% of our Saturday visitors were riders, and on Sunday it was even better, at 30%.”

Mercer municipalities are hoping the train will be at least as good to them, especially if people can walk to it without clogging the streets with cars. That’s why the transit village idea is building up a head of steam.

Hamilton Township is first out of the blocks, already working with NJTransit on a project to select a developer for the 100 acres or so around its three-year-old railroad station, off Sloan Avenue. To kick of development, the township has a already submitted a request for proposals through NJTransit to build a parking deck at the station.

“We took our redevelopment plan, and we put it with the vision of Mayor [Glen] Gilmore.” “We matched our plan to the vision and the mayor’s vision to the plan,” says Phil Miller, the ownships technology and economic development director. Miller, by the way, has been nominated to head the Mercer County Improvement Authority.

Integrated with this plan, or vision, is one for the 100 acres on the other side of the Northeast Corridor tracks, now occupied by the vacant Trenton plant of American Standard Corp. By the time you read this, Preferred Real Estate should have broken ground for its 450,000 squarefoot office campus on the site, Miller says. American Standard still owns another portion, and the plan calls for housing there, with a density of sixteen units an acre, or a maximum of about 700 units.

Even more ambitious is the concept for the station side of the tracks. It includes a public square, to go along with a maximum of 500,000 square feet of office space, and 125,000 square feet dedicated to retail use. Added are 300,000 square feet of residential space, plus a long-term stay suites hotel, with at least 200 rooms.

“It’s aa good balance,” says Miller. “It will be a very walkable area with a nice view potential.” The proposed village is at the edge of Bear Swamp, and is to include areas where people can commune with the wildlife that lives there.

A unique feature of the plan, Miller says, is that developers will be required to contribute $5,000 for each dwelling unit to the township’s open space program. The money can be used throughout Hamilton.

“We’re still getting calls from developers,” says Miller. What’s not to like? Just down Sloan Ave. is an Interstate 295 cloverleaf. Grounds for Sculpture, a worldclass attraction, is almost within walking distance.

The township’s real hope, though, is that the transit village will jump-start redevelopment along the East State St. Extension former industrial corridor. “We have 1,000 acres there,” Miller says, “and it’s all ready for redevelopment.”

There’s a lot of development talk in Trenton, too, where four rail lines meet.

It’s the new River Line, though, and the area between its stops for Sovereign Bank Arena and Waterfront Park that has attracted the most attention – and the most fire. The area is described variously as an ethnically diverse museum of 19th and 20th century architecture, or a drug ridden, poverty-stricken area ripe for demolition.

Apparently derailed is the muchhyped Leewood Village Center. In January, City Council unanimously gave Leewood Group exclusive rights to replace 800 homes and businesses in the area bounded by Bridge, South Broad, Lamberton, and Federal Sts., with retail shops and some 600 housing units. After residents and business owners raised a public ruckus, city officials started backpedaling faster than Wile E. Coyote at the edge of a cliff..

The other project – still chugging along – is South Broad Street Village.. It’s called an entertainment center transit village, proposed by the Mercer County Improvement Authority for the south side of the River Line, across from the county Administrition Building. Performa Entertainment Real Estate, the developer, projects nightclubs, restaurants, and about five acres of housing in the area stretching from Hudson St., west to Cass St.

There’s also vast opportunity in West Windsor Township, with its unending acres of blacktop, flanking the Northeast Corridor at Princeton Junction. With 3,800odd parking spaces, more than 100 Amtrak and NJTransit trains, plus 50 trains on the Dinky line, there are 6,000 daily train riders. Their cars clog the roads, and have almost no place within walking distance to spend their money, so it’s no wonder that Township Community Development Director Sam Surtees sees a better use than surface parking.

We’re just starting,” he says, of getting a transit village under Way. “We’re planning to ask the Township Council on April 12 to grant the Planning Board permission to set up a local redevelopment zone in Princeton Junction. If that happens, we’ll take it from there.”

He’s reluctant to provide details until elected officials hear the plan, but he does note that half the land in the potential transit village area is privately owned. That might spur opposition, and some has already been heard from residents who fear that any urban-looking development would destroy the rural feeling of their community. Still, the dominant image of West Windsor for rail travelers isn’t quiet suburban lanes or research at the Sarnoff Center. It’s sunlight glinting blindingly off the windshields of thousands of cars parked in, as the signs say, Princeton Junction at West Windsor.

Copyright Mercer County Chamber of Commerce May 01, 2004

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