A few years ago, the artsy and presumably transity Peter B. Lewis threw enough money at the University to roughly eclipse Rick Ross’ monthly champagne budget. Rather than being used to purchase “magnum bottles of that Rosé,” the money will be allocated to expanding the Lewis Center for the Arts. The Center, which is mostly located in a mostly un-airconditioned former elementary school, offers certificate programs in creative writing, dance, theater, and visual arts. The University plans to expand these programs by building an Arts & Transit Neighborhood off University Place and moving the Dinky station south by 460 feet. The tracks between the new and old stations will be removed, allowing students to walk directly between Whitman and Forbes without having to go around them. The existing station would become a café and the new station would share a roof with a relocated Wawa. This would also help create a more contiguous campus by connecting the otherwise neglected Forbes College with virtually everything else.
Though the proposal may seem innocent on the surface, some people say the neighborhood has the potential to destroy the 250 thread count fabric of Princetonian society. Save the Dinky, a non-profit organization suing the University, claims that the proposed plan will decrease accessibility, marginalize the historic qualities of the Dinky, and is straight up illegal. I will examine their claims in that order.
The organization claims that with increased distance comes decreased accessibility. Due to the fact that there is a slight grade difference between the existing and proposed termini, Save the Dinky states that the neighborhood’s topography will make the station inaccessible to the physically disabled. Of course, the Americans with Disabilities Act deals with this, and plans have included a number of wheelchair accessible paths to the station. That said, Save the Dinky’s FAQ states that “pedestrians headed north will have to go up the stairs or ramp.” Also, the University may be underreporting the distance the Dinky platform is moved. After estimating the distance with world-renowned measuring tool, Google Maps, Save the Dinky discovered that the Dinky may be moved 480 feet: based on an average stride length of 2.35 feet per stride, this 20 foot discrepancy adds up to roughly 10 additional steps per trip. I can only imagine how my flabby thighs and calves will soon become supple with the strain of walking atop glorious inclined ramps.
Returning to the issue at hand, STD cites a study that states that pedestrians are more likely to walk to and use public transportation if the station lies within 1/2 mile of a population center, which is apparently Nassau Street. For the moment, I will disregard most of the facts at hand. I will pretend that Nassau is not a commercial, but residential center. I will ignore the fact that the Dinky is the 43rd most trafficked NJTransit station (out of about 150) and is in no danger of being shut down. I will also turn a blind eye to the fact that the station is moving less than 1/11th of a mile. Also, I will assume that nobody lives on the southern side of the Dinky station, which is patently false. I will assume that the move would only benefit residents of Forbes College, and that we simply can’t hear them from this zip code. The only fair and balanced conclusion I can draw is that the Dinky is in grave danger because of the proposed move.
In its next point, Save the Dinky deviates from its primary platform and states that the Wa will also be jeopardized. Wawa is already farther from most of campus than Lindsay Lohan is from sobriety. As the only all-night food market in Princeton, Wawa has a monopoly on late night food and can frankly do whatever it wants—within reason—and get away with it. When I’m sloshed and have no concept of distance or need to eat at 4 a.m., a few hundred extra feet is not going make a difference; those sloppy Wawa hoagies are my Saturday night hook-up. Additionally, because residents of south campus no longer have to go around the Dinky tracks, the new location will be actually be closer for some.
Some background on the issue is needed to fully understand the issue of marginalizing history that Save the Dinky brings up. The Princeton Station was initially chartered in 1865 in the area that now lies between the Junior slums and Blair Arch. In 1918, the University moved the station southward by roughly 1700 feet and built the existing station and freight house buildings. Since 1984, the station has been recognized by the New Jersey Register of Historic Places on account of its architectural significance—especially its distinctive high-level platform. The Dinky is also significant as one of the last remaining shuttle lines.
Though turning a historic train station into an upscale café is a bastardization of the building’s historical significance, we do not have to look further than Old Nassau to see that historic buildings do not have to be used for their original purpose. Nassau Hall is an administrative building and no longer houses academic programs and dormitories. The “Witherspoon Street School for Colored People,” as it is called in the historic register, is now a nursing home. That said, the platform is historic is and cannot simply be ripped up. The University will probably have to work around this unless a court blatantly ignores the 1984 designation.
That contract was not the only significant document worked out in 1984. The same year, the University purchased the surrounding land and the station from NJ Transit with a number of conditions. Though the land legally belongs to the University, NJ Transit operates the shuttle train and maintains a public easement over the entirety of the purchased land for public transportation purposes. As a result, the station and its parking lot are, to a degree, public land and must be used for public transportation. The public easement expires 5 years after it is no longer used for public transportation purposes, so for Princeton to build the Arts & Transit neighborhood on the existing easement, the station must be moved. This is Save The Dinky’s core objection: that the University wants to move the Dinky in order to make the easement expire.
With the Arts & Transit Neighborhood, the University is proposing to again move the Dinky’s terminus southward. The legal debate revolves around whether the 1984 contract stipulates that the terminus can be moved only once or multiple times. NJ Transit has expressed support for the terminus move and stated that the University has the “right to move the terminus of the rail line southward so long as NJ Transit’s reservation of rights for a 170 foot platform is preserved.” Though a court could theoretically rule in favor of Save the Dinky, it’s unlikely because both parties to the contract are interpreting the contract in the same way. Save the Dinky has already justified a potential loss in court, indignantly broadcasting that Governor Chris Christie is a member of the University’s board of trustees and a sweetheart deal could be in the works. That said, every state governor has been an ex officio Trustee. Even if Save the Dinky wins such a lawsuit, the University and NJ Transit can simply amend the 1984 contract to work around the court decision.
It’s a pity that Save the Dinky’s publicly available information largely focuses on its inane and frivolous complaints about accessibility. Though STD’s other arguments—about history, especially—are valid, we can recall at least one thing from the haze of orientation week: nothing ever happens in Princeton. So if we ever really have a problem, we’ll throw Peter B. Lewis’ money at it ‘til it disappears beneath the shiny new pathways, reflecting pond, and upscale café of a growing orange bubble.