Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 24
 
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
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Looking Out for Princeton’s Future, Planning Experts Talk to Community

Linda Arntzenius

The third of a series of public meetings hosted by the group Princeton Future was held at the Princeton Public Library last Saturday, June 7.

Titled “A Third Conversation: Two Plans. One Opportunity,” the event examined planning issues related to Princeton University’s Master Plan and the Community Master Plan for Princeton.

Founded eight years ago by architect Robert Geddes, Sheldon B. Sturges, and the late Robert F. Goheen, Princeton Future has sponsored public discussion with the aim of identifying issues of concern to Princeton residents.

Topics have included affordable housing, historic preservation, development of the downtown district and residential neighborhoods, diversity, and sustainability. Princeton Future hopes to identify practical measures in response to goals identified in community discussion.

Before introducing two guest speakers, public planning experts Jim Constantine, and Carlos Rodrigues, Mr. Geddes summarizied the group’s goals and accomplishments to date.

He said that a distillation of the discussions had yielded six areas of importance to the people of Princeton: housing, downtown development, the question of Borough and Township consolidation, the nature of the relationship between the town and the University, and the broader issues of diversity and sustainability. All discussions had been recorded for analysis and were available on the group’s website.

“After discussions and hearings and advertisements in the local press, we come now to the most challenging ‘what if’ questions,” said Mr. Geddes. “We have a lot of information and now is the time to ask which of our problems are structural.”

Before discussing Princeton specifics, Mr. Constantine, a resident of Princeton Borough, a member of the Borough Historic Preservation Review Commission and principal of the Nassau Street firm Looney, Ricks, Kiss, gave a brief overview of the history of city planning from the influential 1893 Great Exhibition in Chicago through the turn-of-the-century birth of the City Beautiful Movement and the emergence of postmodernism in the post WWII era. While the former had given us civic monuments, the latter had replaced human-scale planning with an overzealous reliance on zoning formulae.

Mr. Constantine compared the challenges of today’s town planners with those of a century ago when local businessmen were the prime movers. “In today’s environment, the only way to do great planning is to get the community involved,” said Mr. Constantine, who went on to describe grassroots ways of engaging the community such as public forums, online questionnaires, and walk and talk focus groups.

As Princeton’s streets evolved, the process of change had moved from one that was organic to one that had become “a system of reactive and multi-layered regulation.”

“The reality is that there is a costly and unpredictable process involved in getting a single new building erected in New Jersey,” he said.

“These are exciting and frustrating times to be in the business of planning because of the link between global climate change and how we plan our communities, land use, and transportation,” said Mr. Rodrigues, a resident of Princeton Township, and chair of the Township Board of Adjustment and New Jersey Director of the Regional Plan Association.

“In the absence of clear leadership at the federal and state levels, we’re down to the local level,” he said before going on to present his analysis of “disconnects” in Princeton resulting from two sets of zoning ordinances, two governments, and two major plans affecting its future.

Citing Moore Street, one side of which is in the Borough and the other side in the Township, Mr. Rodrigues described anomalies in allowed lot size, floor/area ratio, and height as a result.

Terming the town’s master plan out of sync with zoning, he advised that the former be revised “from top to bottom” in order to address unresolved problems and ambiguities and that the latter be fine tuned.

On the subject of transportation, which he characterized as “disjointed and uncoordinated,” with numerous special purpose shuttles operated by the University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Princeton Medical Center, the Princeton Theological Seminary and others, Mr. Rodrigues suggested re-examining the University’s Art and Transit District.

“This is a cute idea that works at the Lincoln Center but may lead to the rest of the community missing out on a viable transit village option,” he said, adding that he thought the Dinky, which is creating “all sorts of problems,” should be abandoned for a new type of technology, perhaps a trolley linking downtown Princeton with Princeton Junction and West Windsor.

The topic of transportation was the focus of much of the discussion that followed.

Bank Street resident and engineer Chip Crider described his own traffic assessment, worked out as a rethinking of the Dinky and its outmoded heavy rail technology. Mr. Crider had submitted his ideas for a system of on-demand personal rapid transit to representatives of the University. He had mapped out a right-of-way and suggested to the University that it incorporate such a system as part of its Arts and Transit Village, citing a 2007 State Report “Viability of Rapid Transit in New Jersey” in support of his case.

The Question of Input

Concerns about the process for community input were raised.

“What guarantee does the community have that its input will be used?” asked Anne Neumann of the Environmental Commission and Site Plan Review Advisory Board (SPRAB). Citing public input at Borough Council meetings on the sale of Merwick as an example of successful input, Ms. Neumann said that although the University might consider that it had given the community a lot of opportunity for input on their proposal for an Arts and Transit District, the only thing that the public had really picked up on was the moving of the Dinky.

Borough resident Linda Sipprelle reiterated this concern when she asked how members of the public could really make their voices heard when, for example, the Borough’s negotiations with its developer for the downtown area had been held in closed session and there had been no public discussion on the proposal for proceeding with Phase II.

Former Borough Mayor Marvin Reed answered that the Borough had relied on Princeton Future meetings for constructive input from the public. “Council meetings can often become adversarial,” he said.

Mr. Constantine acknowledged that the sort of input-sessions recommended by planners are not always possible because of lack of funding on the part of the community.

Mary Ellen Marino expressed frustration that the drivers of change are the developers, the University, the Hospital. “People feel ineffectual compared to the insiders,” she said.

The next meeting of Princeton Future, which is comprised of local citizens Katherine Benesch, Charlotte Bialek, Marvin Bressler, Mr. Geddes, Susan Hockaday, Peter R. Kann, Katherine M. Kish, Raoul Momo, Shirley Satterfield, and Mr. Sturges, will take place on Saturday, September 20, from 9 a.m. to noon in the Robert Lockwood Solley Theater at the Arts Council of Princeton. For more information, visit www.princetonfuture.org.

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