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(Photo by George Vogel)

FENCED IN: Shop the World at the Salty Dog, whose main entrance is on Spring Street, has always benefitted from the store's rear access from the former parking lot, now the plaza. But in recent months, the store's rear access has been blocked as construction of a $125,000 pergola lining the shops along the plaza has stalled.

Mending Fences Might Not Be an Option As Merchant, Borough Spar Over Access

Matthew Hersh

For Jill Carpe, owner of Shop the World at the Salty Dog, something as simple as access to her store has always been an uphill battle.

That's because since opening in 1992, her store has occupied one of the more curious, perhaps confounding, spaces downtown: a small alleyway nestled between the rear of Village Silver and the Frame Shoppe.

Until earlier this year, her store, a specialty trade shop offering incense, candles, and jewelry from around the world enjoyed both front and rear access.

According to Ms. Carpe, nearly 75 percent of her customer base entered her store at the rear entrance that once faced the parking lot next to the library that is now the public plaza.

While Spring Street is the official entrance, Ms. Carpe said, it is easy for the casual passer-by to miss. She had hoped that the foot traffic from the new plaza would generate high visibility from the rear of the store.

But that changed in February as the plaza began to take shape and footings for a planned $125,000 pergola were put into place.

Nassau HKT, the developer of the Borough's downtown development project, fenced off the area that they and the Borough claim is a liability risk because the pergola footings are still exposed and overgrown plantings could get caught underfoot. There is also a small ditch.

Caught in the middle is Ms. Carpe, whose store has lost rear access, and, she added, much of its business.

Ms. Carpe has appeared three times before Borough Council since April and all three times, she has received sympathy from the members of Council, but in Ms. Carpe's' view, the sympathy vote has done little for the success of her store.

"The [Princeton Public] Library's holding events in the plaza and I should be able to have my tables out there," she said, referring to the library's recent outdoor chess tournament. "75 percent of my business comes through the back door, and we've almost gone out of business."

"If I were the Gap or Banana Republic, they would have done something."

But the Borough's hands are tied, said Robert Bruschi, Borough Administrator.

"She's got to be frustrated over this thing not getting done – had it gotten done when we thought it would in June – this wouldn't be an issue, but it keeps lingering.

"We have looked at alternatives such as putting gravel down, but we don't want to do it, and neither does Bob," Mr. Bruschi added, referring to NHKT principal Robert Powell.

Since 1988, Princeton Borough has incurred close to $309,000 in damage -expenses from so-called "trip-and-fall" incidents.

"We don't want to put gravel down," Mr. Bruschi said, "because then you start having accidents." Mr. Bruschi added that the Borough agreed to place a sign on the fence indicating that the main entrance to Ms. Carpe's shop is located on Spring Street.

"It only takes one time for her customer base to figure out that the entrance is on Spring."

However, even when the pergola is up, Ms. Carpe worries that the plantings will block the sign at the rear of her store: a sign she was unable to hang until she received a hardship variance from the Borough. According to the original pergola plans, she said, her sign would not be blocked.

The entire plaza and pergola project are temporarily stalled as the Borough works through making payments to various contractors who are owed money by Trost, the former developer of the general contractor, NHKT, and some sub-contractors.

The Borough, Mr. Bruschi said, has agreements with two of the three contractors who are owed and "are trying to get the third on board."

And in the meantime, "We don't want gravel where you're not supposed to be walking. We don't want to lead people to problem areas."

"There's no way I would have rented this store with a wall here," Ms. Carpe said.

"I just don't want to be talking in December about how this killed my holiday business.

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