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Study Group Looks at Ways to Improve Shopping Center

Matthew Hersh

Can the Princeton Shopping Center be improved? Are issues such as traffic circulation, impact on surrounding neighborhoods, and parking logistics cause for closer scrutiny concerning the maximum efficacy of this "downtown in the Township"? A study currently underway at Rutgers University says "yes."

"We want people who use the Shopping Center to have a better experience," said Carlos Rodrigues, manager of plan implementation at the Office of Smart Growth at New Jersey's Department of Community Affairs. Along with his co-instructor Steve Strum, Mr. Rodrigues teaches an architectural landscaping seminar at Rutgers. A state-organized Mayors Institute for Community Design prompted the students in the course to look at planning inefficiencies in various municipalities.

At the two-day seminar, which is held twice a year and organized by the Regional Planning Institute and Princeton University, planners, developers, and landscape architects from around the country attend to inform mayors on issues of responsible planning.

"[Princeton Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand] signaled that she thought the Shopping Center could be more than what it is now," Mr. Rodrigues said. He subsequently asked the mayor if he could use the Shopping Center as the focal point of study at his Rutgers seminar.

George Comfort & Sons, the Manhattan-based management firm that handles real estate operations for the Shopping Center, has also expressed interest in improving the area, but has yet to be prompted with ideas from the public. Mr. Rodrigues said this study and the Township's willingness to listen would be the impetus for potential change.

"The mayor thought it would be a good idea to bring some new ideas to the discussion," he added.

Mr. Rodrigues said that approximately five final ideas from his class will be submitted to the Princeton Regional Planning Board at its February 19 meeting. Improvements explored by the class so far concern parking and circulation, bicycle and pedestrian accessibility, and prominence of the North Harrison Street commercial oasis.

Mr. Rodrigues added that while the appearance before the board is not a formal application submission, it would serve to educate board members and residents as to how to execute possible improvements.

Mr. Rodrigues stressed on the visibility of the center. "You don't want to hide or bury it, it's something the community should be proud of," he said. "It ought to be visible." Driving down Harrison Street, passers-by can easily bypass the entrances "without even knowing it," he said.

Visibility, he said, is important because the center serves not only residents of Princeton Borough and Township, but also areas of Montgomery.

"It is a community-wide asset and draws people from the entire region," he said.

Built in 1956, the open-air "California-style" Princeton Shopping Center has always served as a satellite downtown area. Residents are often inclined to use the facility over the Nassau Street commercial district because there is adequate parking, easy access to stores, and overall less hassle. However, as the needs of the two Princeton municipalities have grown, so have the demands to improve the Shopping Center to accommodate a more modern town.

Mr. Rodrigues said that because the Shopping Center functions as more than a typical strip mall, updates are required to keep the complex as effective as possible. "It already has diversified beyond the narrower scope of a conventional shopping center and delivers functions that are akin to functions served in a real town center," he said. He cited the library, doctors' offices, grocery stores, the Grover Park playing fields, and special activities held in the courtyard such as evening concerts in the summer.

However, Mr. Rodrigues emphasized the academic aspect of the study, and suggested that final decisions will ultimately arise from the will of the residents and the developer. "There's always the opportunity to do further probing," he said. "Our mission is to simply provide some ideas from a design perspective that will facilitate discussion and make people think."

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