PRINCETON: Developer readies proposal to put restaurant in old Post Office

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The former post office was constructed in 1932

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
A developer is on track to go before the Princeton Planning Board next month with a proposal to put a restaurant in the old Post Office in Palmer Square, in reusing a 1930s building in the heart of an upscale shopping and dining district.
David Eichler, a California-based real estate businessman, was the winning bidder to obtain the parcel by beating out other suitors, including Palmer Square Management, although his winning amount was not disclosed. But he has had to navigate through more than three years of red tape to where he finally can seek approval for his plans to put Triumph Brewery, now on Nassau Street, into the building.
“It’s been a little bit of a frustrating ride,” he said this week.
His plan calls for, among other things, taking the rear of the building, the erstwhile loading area, and making a glass box enclosure to serve as the main entrance to the restaurant. Eichler, appearing Wednesday before the municipal Site Plan Review Advisory Board, said it “important to do away with” the “dead side of the building.”
The old main lobby will become a dining room, where the historic mural hangs. In addition, a brewery will be on site, as Triumph leaves Nassau Street, its home for 22 years.
At Wednesday’s review, some SPRAB board members raised concerns about parking for the 300-seat restaurant. Town land use engineer Jack West, at Wednesday’s SPRAB meeting, said municipal staff shared those concerns.
“Parking in this area is tight,” he said.
But Eichler’s lawyer, Richard S. Goldman, noted Triumph will be closer to three parking garages than where it is today on Nassau Street.
The planning board, at its meeting July 13, will have to sift through those and other aspects of the project.
Eichler has not had an easy time trying to develop the site.
He discovered easements for small sections of the building, including window wells and a handicapped ramp, that encroach on municipal property. Those easements would have lapsed once the building was sold, a scenario requiring the Postal Service to reach a deal, in 2015, with the town to extend the easements. Otherwise, it could not sell the property until that was cleared up.
But that was not the final word.
The state Department of Environmental Protection got involved and raised red flags. The town-owned land around the Post Office is listed on an inventory of recreation and open space – mainly because of the large green in front of the building – and thus subject to state regulations.
The state was contending that some of those tiny sections of the building were on protected park land and, letting them be used for a restaurant, amounted to a “diversion.”
The municipality has spent a year trying to resolve the matter, with Mayor Liz Lempert and others meeting in recent weeks with DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.
“There had been a lot of back and forth between different sets of lawyers,” Mayor Lempert said this week. “I think everybody agreed that we were all on the same page in wanting to clear up the matter and finding a solution that would allow the sale of the property.”
She has called the Post Office site “a very important property for the town,” this at a time with vacancies in the downtown raising concern.
“That’s a big anchor property that I think, if it’s filled, it will help bring energy and life and ratables and everything else back into the center of town. And we need that,” she said.
The sale of the Post Office property has not closed yet, Goldman said.