In 2000, several far-sighted residents of Princeton became concerned about the lack of community input on plans for development of the downtown. Worried how those plans, if carried out, might adversely affect the quality of life, they talked about the need for an organization that would encourage citizens and their elected representatives to work together so Princeton would remain a diverse, livable, and enjoyable place. Meetings with other residents and with borough and township officials and members of the business and university communities soon led to the creation of the citizens group Princeton Future. Its founders were Robert Geddes, Robert Goheen, and Sheldon Sturges.
Since its launching in September 2000 and incorporation as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, Princeton Future has fostered a dialogue — within and between neighborhoods, and between citizens and local government. This ongoing discussion has heightened Princeton’s sense of community and is forging a community-based vision for the future of Princeton. At least as important, Princeton Future has created a structure for continued discussions which will help the community grapple with planning issues whose outcome may determine Princeton’s character and vitality for generations. These issues include the future of the Medical Center and the Arts Council; the renovation of Witherspoon Street; and the development of Hulfish North and the area fronting Route 206/Bayard Lane between the YM/YWCA and Merwick Hospital.
From the outset, Princeton Future stressed the need for input in planning from all elements of the community — residents, merchants, and members of the university — and the importance of planning that integrated the downtown core with adjoining neighborhoods and other parts of the borough and township. It recognized the importance of creating and sustaining a community based on diversity — economic, physical, and social — and anchored by a downtown with shops, services, building types, and green spaces appealing to residents and visitors from across the income spectrum.
LISTENING TO THE NEIGHBORHOODS
Princeton Future believed that any physical plan had to be grounded in a social plan, and one of its first and highest priorities was generating a “social vision” to determine the kind of community Princetonians wanted. Recalls Sturges, “We realized that the key would be listening to people in small groups to find out what they liked and disliked about today’s Princeton and what they would like it to be in the future.”
With funding from businesses, foundations, the university, the borough council, and individuals, Princeton Future went to work. Co-chaired by Geddes and Sturges, its steering committee set up five task forces concerned with finance, legal matters, development and construction, planning and design, and neighborhood preservation. Beginning in the fall of 2000, the Neighborhood Task Force arranged a series of meetings in homes and churches with neighborhood groups and the business community. “Residents told us they liked the small-town feel of Princeton and wanted to keep it that way to the extent possible,” recalls Yina Moore, a lifelong Princeton resident and urban planner who chairs the Neighborhood Task Force. “They were concerned about increasing traffic congestion and about growth and its threat to the neighborhoods.”
Residents’ concerns were recorded, categorized, and presented to the borough and township governments and to the Regional Planning Board. They also informed the work of the Planning and Design Task Force, which marshaled Princeton’s considerable talents in architecture and urban planning for a review of the borough’s plans for a multi-story garage to relieve the downtown’s chronic parking problems. Coordinated by architects Michael Mostoller and Alan Chimacoff, the effort led to a revised plan, eventually adopted by the borough with some modifications, calling for a structure that integrated parking with residential and retail units. The proposed mixed-use building would be part of a new tree-lined public square that would incorporate existing plans for the new and greatly expanded Princeton Public Library at the corner of Witherspoon and Wiggins streets.
“The borough’s piecemeal solution to its parking problems was an R.F.P. [request for proposals] from contractors to build a parking garage,” says Mostoller. “We tried to look at the problem in a broader way. What we were hearing from the neighborhoods made it clear that we needed something more — a public square with housing, retail, and open space that people could enjoy.” According to Geddes, “Neighborhood input was key to this planning process. It worked because the community spoke out on what it wanted.” The new and as yet unnamed square (Sturges opts for calling it Madison Square, after Princeton graduate James Madison, while others have suggested Princeton Square and Einstein Square) is on track for completion this spring.
THE BROWN & KEENER PLAN
Princeton Future realized that other areas besides the downtown were ripe for commercial and residential development and needed attention. Geddes, a former dean of the university’s School of Architecture, recommended that planning focus on five contiguous zones: the “Downtown Core” (designated Zone 1); Paul Robeson Place (Zone 2); “Green Hill,” the east side of Bayard Lane/Route 206 between the YM/YWCA and Merwick Hospital (Zone 3); Witherspoon Street (Zone 4); and “the East End,” Nassau Street from Washington Road to Maple Street (Zone 5).
In the fall of 2001, Princeton Future hired the Philadelphia firm of Brown & Keener Urban Design to produce a plan for central Princeton based on this five-zone concept. The plan built on the initial efforts of Princeton Future, particularly the comments gathered by the Neighborhood Task Force, and incorporated the views of residents and officials at other public gatherings held throughout 2002. Robert Brown, the principal in Brown & Keener who directed the project, remarked on the degree of citizen participation and its positive impact on planning. As he told The Princeton Packet, when residents are invited to air their views “early on, way before an application for a specific project takes shape, others present, including our public officials, listen.”
Submitted to the planning board in February 2003, the Brown & Keener document amounted to a vision statement for Princeton’s future. It addressed, in a remarkably inclusive and holistic way, issues of land use, housing, circulation, utilities, open space and recreation, and historic preservation for the downtown and surrounding area. The plan listed a number of principles to guide decision makers. It stressed the need to preserve racial and economic diversity and the character of neighborhoods. The plan also emphasized the importance of maintaining the downtown’s scale and density while encouraging construction that would increase the borough’s tax revenues. It suggested that any new residential properties built downtown include affordable units and reserve their ground floors for retail, and it called for new walking and bike paths to connect the downtown and neighborhoods.
HELPING LOCAL RETAIL
The Brown & Keener plan encouraged efforts to enhance the diversity of retail outlets. This has been a concern of Princeton Future from the beginning — one of its initial recommendations was creating a Special Improvement District, or SID, which would enable locally owned shops and services to band together for coordinating functions such as advertising, parking, cleaning, lighting, garbage pickup, and recycling. Among other benefits, a SID for downtown Princeton would make it easier for merchants to compete with malls and the high-end chain stores that have displaced many local retailers.
Mitch Forest, the owner of Forest Jewelers, joined Princeton Future’s steering committee last year and is spearheading a drive to create a downtown SID. Forest says that the need for a downtown SID has long been clear but that merchants’ attempts to establish one were hampered by the demands of running their businesses. Princeton Future has moved the process forward by bringing in experts and enlisting university students to do some of the basic research needed to set up a SID. In these and other ways, says Forest, “Princeton Future has kept us focused. It’s been a great facilitator.”
Along with pushing the SID initiative, Princeton Future aided local merchants last fall by declaring October “Buy Local Month.” It printed and circulated 10,000 copies of a downtown retail guide publicizing discounts and other special offers at many shops and restaurants. Related festivities included a student art exhibit and a scavenger hunt.
Princeton Future has also designed and distributed a pocket-sized, foldout shopper’s guide whose costs were underwritten by steering committee member John Reed, and in league with the borough it has established three parking lots for use by employees of retail businesses. “Before, store clerks would park on the street, taking up parking spots that would otherwise have been used by shoppers,” says Sturges. “Now for $35 a month they can park in outlying lots in reasonable walking distance to where they work.”
All of the above is part of a broader effort by Princeton Future in behalf of local merchants. The Community-Based Neighborhood Retail Initiative, as it’s called, is premised on the belief that citizens pay a real, if hidden, cost shopping at the big malls on U.S. 1 — in the expenditure of gas and time lost in traffic and in missed opportunities to connect with friends and neighbors on the sidewalks of Princeton.
“Princeton Future is in the business of listening to the neighborhoods, and there’s a business neighborhood that needs to be heard too,” says Sturges. “We’re doing everything we can to encourage collaboration among the independent merchants and between the merchants and the rest of the community.”
NEW PLANNING CHALLENGES
During the last few months, four planning issues have come to the fore with huge potential impact on Princeton’s future:
The Medical Center launched a strategic review to determine whether to renovate and expand its aging complex at the north end of Witherspoon Street or move to a new location, probably on U.S. 1. Whichever option it elects to follow will significantly affect Witherspoon Street and the Medical Center’s neighbors.
Discussions began about the disposition of the three main properties constituting Green Hill: Merwick Hospital, the Medical Center’s off-site rehabilitation unit; the university’s Stanworth Apartments; and the YM/YWCA. The extensive grounds of Green Hill are the borough’s largest remaining undeveloped space. The options in this zone are wide open for the present, but the Brown & Keener plan suggests, there are opportunities for change that could link what is now a relatively isolated part of town to its surrounding neighborhoods.
In December, borough officials announced they had reached a compromise with the owners of Palmer Square over the number of affordable-housing units to be included in the apartment complex to be built above the Hulfish North garage. The breakthrough in the 12-year-long impasse opens the possibility of redesigning Paul Robeson Place, immediately north of the garage, along lines recommended by the Brown & Keener plan. Changes could include reconfiguring this busy thoroughfare in ways that would slow traffic, create a friendlier environment for pedestrians and bicyclists, and allow construction of affordable townhouses on the north side of Paul Robeson Place.
A long-running disagreement between the Arts Council, located on the northwest corner of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place, and residents of the adjacent John-Witherspoon Neighborhood is finally coming to a head. The dispute centers on how a proposed expansion of the Arts Council’s building would affect parking and traffic in the neighborhood. Princeton Future has taken no sides in the issue, but through steering-committee member Nicholas Katzenbach and others it continues to work at brokering a compromise that would satisfy both parties.
Whatever happens to the Medical Center cite, the lessons of Princeton Future make clear that development can’t go forward without input from the surrounding neighborhoods. It will also be important to consider the impact on Witherspoon Street. As Geddes notes, “More and more we’re thinking of Princeton as a T-shaped town,” with Witherspoon Street as the vertical axis. If the Medical Center moves, it opens the possibility of developing the vacated property as a mixed-use cite combining housing and retail space. Witherspoon Street would then link two commercial-residential hubs whose existence would influence commercial and residential development along the Witherspoon axis — development that in turn could affect the adjacent John-Witherspoon Neighborhood, home to the majority of Princeton’s African-Americans and Hispanics. Upgrading Witherspoon Street while preserving its character and that of the John-Witherspoon Neighborhood, which is increasingly threatened by gentrification, will require what Mostoller calls “creativity and comprehensive analysis.”
Issues surrounding Merwick are also in flux. The Medical Center may decide to renovate and expand the facility or to sell it, perhaps to a commercial developer. Or the university and the YM/YMCA might join forces and purchase it as part of a comprehensive redevelopment of Green Hill that would involve the expansion of Y facilities and the construction of new university housing to replace the Stanworth Apartments. Any such development would probably incorporate recommendations from the Brown & Keener study to improve the site for pedestrians and bicyclists. These include installing another intersection with traffic light on Bayard Lane, extending Chambers Street north into Green Hill, and creating foot and bike paths linking the area to adjacent neighborhoods and the downtown.
New Y or university facilities might also accommodate a new home for the Arts Council, allowing it to vacate its existing building while remaining in the downtown area.
In the view of Robert Durkee, a university vice-president who sits on Princeton Future’s steering committee, “Whether Merwick stays and expands or the property is sold, thanks to Princeton Future, discussions have taken place that already are shaping how we think about these site-related issues. We are much farther along in the process than we would have been otherwise.”
PRINCETON FUTURE’S LEGACY
More generally, adds Durkee, “Princeton Future has brought people together to talk in ways that aren’t limited by the procedural constraints of the borough council and planning board — it has demonstrated there’s an appetite in the community for meaningful dialogue on issues of planning and priorities. Both citizens and officials think differently about planning than they did before. The discussion has been healthy and useful.”
Yina Moore believes that Princeton Future’s “community-up approach” has given people a voice they didn’t have before. “It’s allowed them to talk in an unstructured way about design and the character of neighborhoods, and it has sharpened our sense of community. People have come to our forums who never took part in public discussions before, and they’ve gotten to know each other and to care about the issues.”
This public dialogue, she adds, has also increased awareness that Princeton is a regional center and that what happens here affects a surrounding area twenty times its size — and vice versa. “We need to keep in mind the relationship between the center and the region and the appropriateness of each to certain kinds of development, while also recognizing that conditions change over time. When it was a lot smaller, Educational Testing Service used to be in downtown Princeton, but who would want it there now? Ultimately, choices about downtown Princeton will be determined by limitations of traffic and parking.”
Steering committee member Jim Floyd thinks of Princeton Future as the keeper of a “broader vision” for the good of the whole community — citizens, institutions, and businesses — and the stability of neighborhoods. He credits it for raising awareness about the damage done by past urban-renewal schemes to Princeton’s historically black neighborhood.
Robert Goheen, one of Princeton Future’s co-founders and a former president of Princeton University, has lived in the borough for most of the last seven decades. The borough government, he says, “seems much more open to public dialogue than at any period in my lifetime — I think because Princeton Future has pushed it in that direction.”
Marvin Reed, who retired in December after thirteen years as borough mayor, says, “Princeton Future has proved to be very useful in generating interest in development plans for the downtown and other areas and getting people involved in decisions. The discussions it’s generated have helped us a great deal.”
Robert Geddes observes that while Princeton Future’s overall intentions and priorities remain unchanged, “in our three-plus years we’ve moved from the abstract to the specific — from emphasizing principles of affordability and balance to dealing with concrete issues relating, for example, to how the Medical Center’s decisions regarding its main facility and Merwick will impact Witherspoon Street and Green Hill.”
Princeton Future, he adds, has led to what Town Topics has called a community self-examination. “People are aware now that we’re a community of neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods have a better understanding of each other. There’s also a greater understanding of the need to preserve the small-town feel of Princeton and to deal effectively and creatively with parking, traffic, and all the other planning issues affecting quality of life. One of the most startling statistics in the Brown & Keener study is that 40 percent of people employed downtown and at the university walk to work — we’re still very much a pedestrian town. We need to think about creating off-site parking and establishing some kind of shuttle-bus system, perhaps by encouraging a merger of existing shuttle systems run by the university, the Institute for Advanced Study, and several of the nearby retirement communities.”
In Geddes’s view, Princeton Future must ensure that all these issues stay on the public agenda and that people remain involved in the process. “There is so much happening and about to happen. The decisions we make now and in the immediate future will determine the kind of town that future generations will inherit. Princeton Future has to hold on to its vision while staying focused on particulars. Both God and the Devil are in the details.”