WCC Parking Maze: Proposed lot stirs protests

Students at the Westminster campus who are unable to find parking in assigned spots resort to parking on the grass. Plans for a new parking lot are being stonewalled by town residents.
Students at the Westminster campus who are unable to find parking in assigned spots resort to parking on the grass. Plans for a new parking lot are being stonewalled by town residents.

By Julia Ernst
Four days a week at 11:30 a.m., all juniors, seniors and half of the graduate students at Westminster Choir College sing together in the Westminster Symphonic Choir, and all sophomores rehearse in their choir, the Westminster Schola Cantorum.

On top of remembering their music and warming up their voices, students at Westminster also spend every day worrying about whether or not they will find a parking spot, according to senior Elise Brancheau.

“[Almost] the entire student body requires parking at [11:30], and it is impossible to fit everyone into the parking lot,” she said. “Students are forced to park on local streets, sometimes several blocks away from campus. I received a $53 parking ticket from Princeton police for parking on a street that I thought I was allowed to park on. If there was adequate parking at Westminster, this kind of common problem would be avoided.”
Administrators agree. At an Oct. 15 meeting of the Regional Planning Board of Princeton, a lawyer for the university planned to ask for permission to build an additional lot on the campus.

But neighbors had other ideas.

“The planning board meeting on the proposed parking project lasted for more than three and a half hours,” Vice President of Finance Julie Karns wrote in an e-mail. “At the meeting, Rider’s attorney, civil engineer and Dean [Robert] Annis all testified about the need for parking and the university’s proposed project. Mike Reca, Rider’s associate VP for facilities and auxiliary services, also represented Rider’s Princeton campus in the meeting. Following that, campus neighbors had an opportunity to voice their concerns, and to provide testimony by their attorney and engineer.”

These concerns were many, according to Princeton residents who attended the meeting. They objected to the impact a new parking lot would have on the area, including appearance and drainage (see story below).

“I have no problems with building a parking lot, but not where the current proposal has it, because it’s 50 feet from the end of my property,” said Margaret Scott, who lives at 112 Linden Lane. “One hundred or 150 feet is reasonable, but 50 feet is just too close. We’ll have flooding in our basements, air pollution, noise and lights. It will reduce our property values as well.”

Because of residents’ concerns, Karns said in her e-mail, the planning board did not vote on the project, instead holding the application for its Dec. 3 meeting, at which Rider is preparing to present additional information in response to the questions.

Despite the concerns raised by Princeton residents, many students at Westminster feel that the underlying issue — the college’s need for more parking spaces — is not understood.

“Over 250 commuting students and resident students share one parking lot, comprised of less than 200 spaces, with hundreds of conservatory students, parents and teachers, as well as part-time staff,” said senior Thom Snell. “It has gotten to the point where many students don’t bother looking for parking spaces on campus anymore. The first thing that visitors to our campus experience is the lack of parking, whether they are on campus for a performance, college tour or audition.”

According to senior Sara Ward, the lack of parking leads students to less-than-ideal second options.

“On a day-to-day basis, people constantly struggle to find parking spots in their own parking lot,” Ward said. “A vast majority of students are forced to park on side streets, which is greatly discouraged by Princeton residents, or we have no choice but to park on the grass of the parking lot, which we get ticketed for.”

Despite the university’s unsuccessful first trip to have the plans approved, Karns wants students to know that Westminster will continue to seek board approval at the next meeting.

“The university’s team is working to respond to the questions and concerns presented in the meeting,” Karns said. “Our work includes additional engineering studies to evaluate the alternatives proposed by community members and evaluation of other ways to modify our request that both meet our campus needs and are responsive to our neighbors’ concerns. We are committed to adding the needed parking and have allocated funding for the first phase of the project once the issues have been resolved.”

Westminster SGA President Ryan LaBoy voiced similar thoughts, both from a student perspective and as a member of the team that was present at the board meeting.

“We have to take into consideration that, as students, most of us are only here for four years,” LaBoy said. “Some of the neighbors on Linden Lane have resided in Princeton for 25 to 30 years. The idea of seeing a parking lot in their back yard is not a pleasant one. That being said, it is unfair for the neighbors to try and prevent us from building on that land. At the choir college, we only have a limited amount of space to grow our school.”

In addition to the university’s ongoing efforts to gain approval from Princeton, Karns also wants students to know that it will be difficult, for the time being, to determine when, exactly, new parking space will be added.

“Given the necessary permitting and construction time lines after approval, it seems unlikely new parking would be available by the end of the spring semester 2010,” she said. “We are working hard to address the issues that were raised in the meeting and will do everything we can to pursue the proposal in the best interests of Westminster and the community. The plan the university initially submitted complies with the zoning and other regulatory requirements, so we are hopeful we will ultimately receive approval to move ahead.”

According to many Westminster students, the parking problem is an issue that cannot wait any longer.

“The parking lot has been an issue for so long that I cannot imagine we would go this long without finding another solution if one existed,” LaBoy said. “Parking at Westminster is a necessity, absolutely. Our inability to park on campus poses a threat to our safety, our education and our community, Princeton included.”

Other students remain both frustrated by the reaction of Princeton residents and adamant in their stance that more parking is needed at Westminster.

“It’s not their property we’re building on,” said junior Matthew Kennedy. “Parking garages and buildings are being built in downtown Princeton, so why can’t we have a simple addition to our parking lot? It’s better than us taking parking spots on those streets of the people in Princeton. I’m irritated by the fact that this proposal was not even voted on because the public reacted so negatively to the idea.”

Professor’s YouTube videos highlight neighbors’ concerns about parking lot

One of the leaders of the neighbors’ protest against new parking at Westminster is a professor from the Lawrenceville campus who happens to live next door to the Choir College.

Dr. Kenneth Fields, an associate professor of mathematics at Rider, has put together a series of five YouTube videos that total about half an hour. He does not appear onscreen but discusses the problems he feels have been caused by parking structures on the campus, such as the loss of trees over several years’ time and flooding in the basements of some Linden Lane homes. In addition, Fields discusses the negative impact that buildings and parking lots on the campus have on the view of the neighborhood as shown by satellite views and still photos.

“For 20 years, the Westminster Choir College, located in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Princeton, New Jersey, but a part of Rider University, has been a neighborhood nightmare, tormenting the nearby residents with lights, noise, dumpsters and illegal paving,” the user “kbaakbaa” said in a posting under one of the videos. “Their most recent outrage is to propose building a 93-car parking lot abutting the backyards of these people. It would be located in the middle of an area, which now floods due to all of the illegal paving. This is a video that the neighbors made to show to the Princeton Regional Planning Board. The parking lot is still being fought.”

Though “kbaakbaa” does not specifically identify himself as Fields, the Linden Lane home that he points out as his own correlates to Fields’ address. Fields did not respond to any requests for comment.

But comments on YouTube respond to him.

“I’m sorry about your trees,” said one user. “I hope they are ok. As for me, I have, like, hundreds of dollars in fines because I have nowhere to park at my $40,000 a year school and sometimes I have to park in fire lanes and that’s a pretty big fine, but I can’t be late for class, you know? Because then my grades would suffer. Anyway, I’m sorry about your trees. I really wish I knew how me getting more fines because there’s no parking lot is going to help the trees get better.”

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