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Witherspoon Street Under Scrutiny

Matthew Hersh

Witherspoon Street, the neighborly roadway stretching from the once-aptly named Valley Road to the main gates of Princeton University, has suddenly been the subject of intense scrutiny.

It is under so much scrutiny, in fact, that an informal group of residents has sought help from Rutgers University to devise a plan for the future of the street similar to the Princeton Community Master Plan's goals aiming to preserve neighborhood character.

Organized under the informal umbrella of the "Witherspoon Alliance," several residents have reached out to Rutgers University's Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy for outside help that offers a more objective perspective than Princeton Future.

In a letter posted on the Bloustein School's list-serve by a school administrator, the group specifically referred to the preservation of neighborhood character and concerns, suggesting that Princeton Future, a community group studying in-town development, does not "represent the neighborhood" and is "interested in promoting a superficial agenda." The letter went on to say that Princeton Future is focusing on "sidewalk, street, street lighting, and landscape improvement" to provide a "smokescreen for gentrifying and commercializing the area." The letter did not offer specific speculation on the alleged Princeton Future agenda.

Sheldon Sturges, co-chair of Princeton Future, said all the group is trying to establish is a dialogue and that there is, in fact, no hidden agenda.

"The goal is that all members of the community, whether it's the Concerned Citizens, the Chamber of Commerce, the merchants, people calling themselves the Witherspoon Alliance, and the Witherspoon Jackson Neighborhood Association, come to Princeton Future meetings. "It is a real, genuine, open process with a public record that is published. We are keeping an honest open record of what people think."

Princeton Future has neither endorsed nor put forth a plan for the Witherspoon Corridor. And despite the strong language issued in the Rutgers letter, representatives said that they are "only looking" for discussions in this process beyond those Princeton Future has moderated so far.

"What do we think is the right way we want to express our view?" said Heidi Fichtenbaum of Carnahan Place and one of 15 members of the community group she said is loosely called the "Witherspoon Alliance." The group, she added, does not have an official leader, nor does it have legal representation like the Concerned Citizens of Princeton, a community group formed to combat Princeton Future's role in the downtown development process.

Ms. Fichtenbaum expressed her desire to preserve Witherspoon Street as a "town commons," referring to the various institutions like the library, the Arts Council, several churches, the Township's "town hall," and schools, including Community Park and the University.

"In general, there are people in the community who have concerns that Princeton Future may not represent our interests, but I don't really understand what it is they want to do," she said.

Mr. Sturges said the aim of the Princeton Future meetings is to not put forth prefabricated developmental ideas, but to cull ideas from neighborhood discussions. "Each person is entitled to their point of view, but what matters here is that we form a consensus," he said.

"If we can't, then we keep the status quo."

At the same time, recent meetings held by Princeton Future, have suggested that Witherspoon Street's problems include not only the possible expansion/relocation of the University Medical Center at Princeton but a consideration of how that neighborhood, which ranges from commercial to residential to mixed-use, will take shape for generations to come.

On Saturday, Princeton Future conducted the first of three weekly community meetings as part of the group's Witherspoon Street Corridor Study. The first installment looked at the northern end of Witherspoon, at the junction of Valley Road and Route 206, near the Township Municipal Complex. The session broke into three smaller groups, allowing residents to brainstorm how they would ideally like to see that area. Princeton Future has stated in its goals that a plan for that stretch of roadway is needed for the Princeton community at large since it serves as the "spine" of Princeton.

While residents and Princeton Future representatives alike have expressed worry about the impact development in town will have on the nearby residential neighborhoods, it seems clear now that not all residents are comfortable with Princeton Future's role in spearheading the discussion process.

Princeton Future will hold its next Witherspoon Street meeting in the community room of the Princeton Public Library this Saturday, December 11, at 9 a.m.

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