Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 52
 
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
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A Sustainable Review of 2007

Linda Arntzenius, Matthew Hersh

A look back at 2007 reveals a number of notable events that will impact the coming years: from the failure of the public schools budget, to the opening of the Harriet Bryan House at Elm Court; from the political rancor resulting from the Borough’s stalled downtown development project, to an an amplified dialogue over senior housing.

But no one issue, as far as we can tell, has been as far-reaching as Princeton’s sustainability movement. In 2007, both Princeton governments, as well as the school district, made a commitment to greener living and building, as well as to a long-term goal of sustainable financial practices, including building up a municipal surplus in the face of state caps on local budget increases.

While it can be argued that embarking on the sustainable movement is a matter of necessity in the face of environmental and fiscal pressures, the enthusiasm we have witnessed is notable to say the least, making 2007 a year to look back upon when looking ahead.

Sustainable Princeton

Princeton Borough and Township formally enacted resolutions that took sustainability out of academics and put it into everyday society when a municipal sanction was put into place in March, that essentially signed off on forward thinking policy. The move came about at the same time Princeton University hired a full-time sustainability manager to implement sustainable practices in its campus-wide rethinking of its developmental future — largely regarded by University officials as a necessity, rather than an environmental luxury.

Using about a third of a $60,000 grant from the College of New Jersey’s Municipal Land Use Center given to the Sustainable Princeton initiative, the Princetons contracted with the Rutgers-based New Jersey Sustainable State Institute as part of a comprehensive effort to employ sustainable practices through education, physical development, and energy output. The initiative quickly caught on.

Perhaps by coincidence, there were examples of “green building” and “reusable living” all over Princeton, and while “sustainability” had slowly become a fashionable buzzword (think “organic,”) sustainable practices started to become increasingly visible throughout New Jersey, with towns looking not only to enhance the efficacy of municipal buildings and infrastructure by reducing energy and long-term environmental effects, but also through citizen involvement and education.

That involvement came to a head in October when hundreds of residents came out on a dreary night to do some long-term thinking about how to change their current ways of living. As a head start, Sustainable Princeton and NJSSI handed out free compact fluorescent light bulbs, and offered delicacies from local eateries that employ the services of local farmers. It was the first of three workshops with a series of “green challenges” devised to encourage residents to respect the environment, live healthier lifestyles, and create a more sustainable community. It can be expected that this challenge will stretch far beyond 2008.

Green Building

Suddenly, several stakeholders were accepting the green challenge. The Whole Earth Center announced that it would build the first U.S. Green Building Council LEED-certified retail space in Princeton in what used to be Judy’s Flower Shop. The project is still under construction, but should be open in 2008.

Sustainable Princeton also launched its Green Home and Garden Tour, which sought to promote green building practices throughout town. Local retailers began to take part in the Greening Princeton farmers market on the Princeton University campus, and Triumph Brewery humbly disclosed that its French fries were fried in oil that will soon be converted to bio-diesel fuel.

Senior Housing

However, even a proposed LEED-certified senior housing development has yet to quell the concerns expressed over a senior living community proposed for an undeveloped tract on Bunn Drive, near Hilltop Park.

The 15-year dialogue over the need for market rate, age restricted housing and developing the environmentally sensitive Princeton Ridge was back in center court in August after architect J. Robert Hillier, a Town Topics shareholder, made a pitch to Princeton Township Committee to alter the zoning of the Bunn Drive tract to relax the age mandate from 62 and over to 55 and over, as well as to loosen the density restrictions, while promising to leave a majority of the 17-acre tract undisturbed. The proposal immediately sparked a debate echoing that of 2001, when the Township established a residential senior community overlay zone there, looking to fulfill a long-stated goal of providing market-rate housing for seniors looking to downsize their homes, while staying within municipal borders.

While the Township is expected to entertain a possible ordinance introduction in January, offering various changes in zoning, it appears likely that this debate will continue beyond the coming months.

Library Parking

A hot topic for many residents was the removal of the municipal subsidy that, prior to February 1, allowed library patrons to use the Borough-owned Spring Street parking garage for up to two hours for free.

In May, members of the library board read a report from Director Leslie Burger that showed a steady decline in the number of patrons visiting the library since the subsidy was removed. The decline has continued throughout the year and stands in sharp contrast to the steady increase in use of the state-of-the-art facility from its opening until January of 2007, when it was announced that the subsidy would be withdrawn and free parking reduced to one half-hour, just enough time for patrons to return or pick up books but not enough for them to linger, browse, and spend dollars in DVD rentals and in the library store.

The board has continued to discuss the subsidy’s effect on the library experience. It is hoped that talks in the New Year can resolve the issue that has prompted numerous letters to the editor and repeated citizen complaints to the library and to Borough and Township representatives.

Two areas in which the library has been able to celebrate increases are in sales of donated books and in funds raised from the Friends of the Public Library annual fundraising gala dinner held in November.

Princeton Regional Schools

The year began with a difficult issue for the Board of Education: what to do about a state-negotiated school/police policy that residents and members of the board opposed after an incident at the high school in September 2006 led to a civil rights investigation. Noting that only the Attorney General and the state Commissioner of the Department of Education have the power to amend the document, the board voted unanimously to “acknowledge” rather than endorse the memo of agreement while pushing for revision from the Attorney General’s office.

The issue of revising the Memorandum of Agreement continues to be problematic and will be the topic of the Board’s first meeting in January 2008.

In the April elections Mulberry Row resident JoAnn Cunningham and Prospect Avenue resident Dorothy Bedford were elected to represent the Township on the School Board. Longtime board member Charlotte Bialek stepped down.

Accountability and professionalism seemed to be the buzz words of the year as the Board heard from parents and teachers on issues affecting their students, from grading practices to lesson-planning requirements stemming from the Department of Education’s new monitoring and evaluation systems for public school districts.

Elm Court II

Despite current obstacles facing housing development on the Ridge, Princeton Community Housing in May successfully turned a little piece of undesirable land in a remote corner of Princeton Borough into new homes for low- and moderate-income seniors with the opening of the Elm Court’s Harriet Bryan House, named after Elm Court II Committee chairperson and Princeton Community Housing trustee.

The 66,000-square-foot building, $10 million building (when factoring in the price tags associated with land acquisition and construction) benefited from a more than $7 million in a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which PCH received in January 2004. Mercer County contributed about $540,000 to the project and private monies were donated as well. The 67-unit subsidized housing facility serves as the sister building to Elm Court, Princeton Borough’s 88-unit senior housing outfit built in 1985. PCH, a non-profit organization that manages over 460 affordable housing units in Princeton, also received a $1.3 million commitment, formally approved by HUD in April 2007, for Project Rental Assistance. That portion of the grant will subsidize rents for low-income seniors who qualify under HUD’s Section 202 Supportive Housing Program.

Budget and Taxes

The unprecedented failure of the 2007-08 Princeton Regional Schools’ budget at the polls in April came as a a shock to some voters, but was largely viewed as a signal for voter anger over rising taxes. Princeton voters rejected the tax levy of $56,185,268 toward the schools’ $76.1 million budget by a margin of 69 votes.

While the budget was accepted by a margin of 31 in the Township, it was rejected in the Borough, where the tally was 169 for and 269 against. The $76.1 million budget would have had an impact on the property taxes paid by Princeton homeowners in both the Borough and the Township, with an increased rate of $1.89 per $100 of assessed value in the Borough (16 cents more than last year) and an increased rate of $1.72 for every $100 of assessed value in the Township (10 cents more than last year).

After the defeat, officials from the municipalities worked with the Board of Education to cut $1,050,000 from the tax levy. Tax rates increased by 14.5 cents in Princeton Borough and 9 cents in Princeton Township.

Princeton Public Library

In June Library Director Burger addressed the issue of free speech after two films shot in Cuba and shown during the third annual Human Rights Film Festival sparked controversy. After the library received criticism from those who viewed the films as pro-Castro as well as from defenders of free speech who felt the library had not responded strongly enough to anti-Castroite protesters, Ms. Burger defended the library’s position of neutrality by citing the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, Freedom to Read, and Freedom to View Statements when she spoke of her responsibility to uphold the freedom of people to read, view and listen to what they want.

Right from the start of the year, the library had its finger on Princeton’s pulse with the town’s first Environmental Film Festival, which brought scientists, activists, and high schoolers together for documentaries and lectures. The second Environmental Film Festival is scheduled to take place in January.

Whitman College

From out of the canyon that was once home to some aging tennis courts on the Princeton University campus, grew the school’s Whitman College, the residential dormitory that formally opened its doors in September, in time for the 2007-2008 academic year.

Now that the area has benefited from fall and winter weathering, it’s virtually impossible to think that the monolithic, Collegiate Gothic-styled dorm was not always there, right in line with the University’s long-term developmental philosophy of building a denser, more pedestrian-friendly campus.

Named after eBay CEO and University alumna Meg Whitman following a $30 million donation, Whitman College is now part of the campus fabric featuring dormitories, social and academic spaces, as well as a cafeteria. School administrators are banking that Whitman will help mitigate an anticipated 500-student increase in the University’s undergraduate population. That increase, now being phased in, is expected to be fulfilled by 2012, but in the meantime, the eight buildings and three greens seem coherent with the campus scheme.

Congo’s Law

The media world descended on Princeton Township in November as animal rights activists stood outside Princeton Township Hall protesting municipal court Judge Russell Annich Jr. decision to uphold a previous ruling that declared a 2-year old German Shepherd named Congo as “vicious” and would have had the dog euthanized for attacking a landscaper at the dog’s owners’ Township home in June.

But following a Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office directive ordering Congo to be sent home while the case pended appeal, a bill called “Congo’s Law”was introduced in late November in the state Assembly as part of a direct response to that case, addressing perceived faults in state laws regarding vicious or potentially dangerous dogs. A vote in the full legislature has yet to be set.

Arts Council

The dark blue bricks on the rotunda of the Arts Council of Princeton’s new Paul Robeson Center for the Arts are a promising sign of progress. Members of the press were invited to tour the Michael Graves-designed renovation and extension in July. The tour offered a sneak preview of the facility that was supposed to open this year but which has been delayed until sometime in 2008. The end result promises to be worth the wait. There will be a Communiversity Room, named in recognition of the University’s contribution and symbolic of the town and gown partnership, on the second floor of the rotunda with a view of the library.

Cottage Club

Princeton Borough suffered a near fiscal nightmare in late May when an appellate division of the state Supreme Court ruled that a privately owned eating club serving members of Princeton University’s student and alumni population could receive more than $320,000 in county, school, and municipal back taxes. The club, the University Cottage Club, at 51 Prospect Avenue, should be classified as a certified historic site, the decision stated, allowing for the facility to qualify for tax-exempt status. The ruling effectively required Princeton Borough to return the $320,760 in county, school, and municipal taxes it has collected since 2001 — about $50,000 per year. The total sum was commensurate with roughly three cents in the municipal tax rate.

Less than a month later, following swift action from Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton Borough) and Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Ewing), the Legislature voted in favor of a bill that requires that any buildings approved under the historic site certification label since 1999 not only offer public access at least 96 days a year, but also maintain a primary mission geared toward historic preservation. Creating such specific regulatory mandates on state-designated historic buildings had little or no impact on the state’s current 42 certified historic sites, but would ostensibly keep the Cottage Club from being tax exempt and from collecting back taxes because it would have the club retool its mission to the preservation of historic property, and be open to the public for 96 days a year. Cottage Club is expected to challenge the decision

Princeton Education Foundation

The Princeton Education Foundation (PEF) saw results from its “Take a Seat” fundraising campaign when Princeton High School’s Spectacle Theatre Company staged a high-fashion-inspired “Wizard of Oz” in the Princeton Performing Arts Center in March. The staging of the beloved family classic was intended as a big “thank you” to the Princeton Regional Schools community — the PTO, Princeton Education Foundation, and Board of Education.

Following the “Take a Seat” success, PEF turned its attention to raising $100,000 for equipment for the high school’s Fitness Center, which opened in the school’s old 1958 gym. The center is being used not only by the school’s 1300-plus student body but by the district’s staff. It is also hoped that is will open for use by the community-at-large during after school hours in the near future.

Princeton High School

It was a year of accolades for Princeton High School. In February, the School Report Card from the New Jersey Department of Education showed PHS maintaining its position as one of the state’s best performing high schools. It ranked in second place, behind Millburn Senior High in Essex County, with a total SAT score of 1770 out of a possible 2400 points. Millburn had a score of 1864. The statewide average was 1478 points.

Similar good news followed in November when PHS received gold medal status in the US News and World Report’s first ever ranking of America’s Best High Schools. The school was also recognized for excellence by the Wall Street Journal in its review of the top high schools sending students to a selection of Ivy League Colleges.

Town Topics Moves

This was a milestone year for Town Topics, which moved from the University-owned building it had occupied at 4 Mercer Street for 57 of its 61 years to new quarters in a renovated building at 305 Witherspoon Street. Past and present employees — including former editor and publisher Jeb Stuart — gathered in May with friends, advertisers, and new neighbors, to share memories from the newspaper’s history. The move coincided and to some extent precipitated the shift from the by-hand method of pasting up camera-ready-copy for delivery to the printer, to computer generated pages that are now sent digitally. The new building has its own place in Princeton History. Formerly the home of Robert W. Sinkler, his wife Phyllis, and their three daughters: Joyce, Carol, and Ellen, the building has seen extensive renovations to turn it into a professional workspace for writers, editors, and advertising personnel.

Town Topics staff participated in this year’s Festival of Trees at Morven, decorating a seven-foot tree in the library of the former Governor’s mansion with “topics” snipped from the paper’s six decades in Princeton. The festival continues through January 6.

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