The town of Princeton is in advanced negotiations with Rider University to make the parking lots at the Westminster Choir College site available for local residents and employees. The agenda for the regular Princeton Council meeting on Monday, September 27 included “Resolution 21-309: Approving a Temporary Revocable License Agreement with Rider University for Public Parking“. This resolution was pulled from the final agenda, because the town has not yet come to a final agreement with Rider University about the terms, but it became clear during the meeting that Council is actively pursuing the idea, and the resolution is likely to return to the agenda of another Council meeting in the near future.
Located off Franklin Ave near Linden Lane (map), the Westminster Choir College parking lots were well used before the COVID pandemic began in early 2020. Since then, Rider University, which operates the Westminster Choir College, has shut down operations at the Choir College campus in Princeton and moved all the activities to their main campus in Lawrence Township. Rider University had hoped to sell the site to a Chinese consortium, which would continue the Choir College’s mission in Princeton, but objections from neighbors and regulatory hurdles led to the collapse of the deal. The future of the abandoned site is now in limbo, as Rider University fights a passel of court cases lodged by angry Princeton residents and Choir College faculty. This is all happening against a background of serious financial woes for Rider.
Just as Rider University desperately needs money, merchants in Princeton are crying out for more parking for cars. Earlier this year, Princeton Council seemed close to enacting a new, expanded Permit Parking Program, which would give residents of close-in neighborhoods the right to park their cars on the street for an insignificant sum of money. Controversially, the scheme would also enable downtown businesses to obtain permits to allow their employees to park for free in local neighborhoods. While some neighbors welcomed the initiative, others came out forcefully against it. Western Section neighbors have hired attorneys to oppose the plan, while a petition going around the Princeton High School neighborhood aims to block changes to parking arrangements on those streets.
The Council meeting on Monday provided more evidence of the kind of opposition that the permit parking proposal faces. Hawthorne Ave resident Alice Artzt advised Council that her husband is “about ready to shoot himself” over concerns with the parking proposal. Harris Road resident Anita Garoniak expressed serious concerns about the proposal, and commented that she had heard that Council was no longer considering extending the program to the Western Section (one of the most affluent parts of town), because of opposition from the residents’ attorneys. Ms. Garniak suggested that the pursuit of the new permit parking program in the High School neighborhood should also be abandoned.
Council members Leticia Fraga and David Cohen, who serve on the Permit Parking Task Force, advised that the Western Section was still under consideration for the new permit program. Cohen also commented that residents that he had spoken to in the High School neighborhood were supportive of the new parking plan. Nevertheless, Council sees the availability of large surface parking lots in the abandoned Westminster Choir College site as at least part of the solution for providing parking for downtown employees and high school students without annoying nearby neighbors.
The proposed deal was expected to cost the town $2,000 per month, and provide 193 parking spaces. Located just a block away from Princeton High School, the Westminster parking lots would be ideal for students or staff there who drive cars to school. It’s not as obvious that it would be a popular choice for downtown employees. It is about a 12-minute walk to businesses on East Nassau Street, or about 20 mins on foot to Palmer Square. However, Council sees any deal with Rider as a model for other deals that could be struck with other business owners who have spare capacity at their parking lots. Consultants retained by the town recommended that Princeton should try to lease parking lots at local churches and businesses when they are not open, to provide parking for other activities in the town. So far no businesses have been interested in this. Rider might change that.