Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 25
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
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Development Issues Raise Concern, Gripes, and Brainstorming at Library

Matthew Hersh

Princeton Public Library's community room lived up to its name Saturday as a community-based group got together to discuss all things related to development — from pie-in-the-sky projects, to massive developmental undertakings currently in motion, to projects so modest they could only upset a next-door neighbor. Nonetheless, dozens showed, and everyone had something to say.

The meeting, sponsored by Princeton Future, the organization founded in 2000 on the platform of general concern for future development, and the related impacts, both socially and economically, that can ensue, was essentially designed to get a handle on the future of a changing community.

"We want to look 10, 20, 50 years down the road and see how we can start to plan intelligently to address the issues that have really been going on for a very long time," said Kevin Wilkes, a Borough resident and a Princeton Future member.

While the workshop solicited community comment ranging from the variety of stores in the Borough's downtown district to the role that Princeton University plays in the community, to preserving neighborhood character, its mission, organizers said, was to begin a town-wide dialogue that will extend into the fall. In the meantime, however, the workshop served as a venue for concerns, complaints, and analysis.

"There's tremendous pressure on properties downtown," Mr. Wilkes said in introductory comments. That pressure, he said, comprises retail, office, residential, and institutional angles. "Everyone has an interest in various parcels of property," Mr. Wilkes said. "Should it only go to the person with the largest purse? Should the interest of that person be the predominant interest of the entire community? What can we say as a group of citizens?"

"I'm starting to feel the urban pressure in downtown Princeton," said Raoul Momo, principal of TerraMomo, which manages Teresa Caffe, Mediterra, and Witherspoon Bread Company. "Princeton is the model for smart planning, but we need more," he said. Mr. Momo referred to physical development but also emphasized a need for a local government accommodating the needs of the local retailer.

The cost of rent for downtown retailers, as well as the changing retail landscape, was a source of concern for some: "I miss Woolworth's," said Polly Burlingham, a Borough resident who cited CVS as most closely resembling an all-purpose store downtown. "There is a need here for general merchandise."

Ms. Burlingham also described a waning community feel in the Borough's Central Business District, pointing to the Princeton Shopping Center as a place where one might find neighbors. Mr. Momo, a Princeton Future member, said the changing retail landscape is due, in part, to pressure from national stores opening in town. Specifically, Mr. Momo singled out Davidson's, the former downtown supermarket. "Davidson's would have stayed if we had been listened to — but it's corporate America that's listened to."

Mr. Momo also called for a more sympathetic local government in confronting the challenges of local business. He specifically referred to his own Witherspoon Bread Company at 74 Witherspooon Street, and the reduction of foot traffic during the construction of the Princeton Public Library, located directly across the street. "If we only owned Witherspoon Bread when they built the library, we would have closed. The sidewalks were closed and our cries seemed to fall upon deaf ears."

Marvin Bressler, a sociology professor at Princeton University, as well as a Princeton Future member, questioned whether it were possible to sustain both a "village and be economically rational."

Frances Treves, an architect who participated in the 2006 Princeton Future-sponsored architectural charrette examining future development of the Merwick Tract on Bayard Lane, worried that current parking infrastructure will not be able to sustain increased residential development.

"We need to change people's habits, and to fight the impulse of getting in the car to go shopping," he said.

Princeton Future is expected to process the minutes of Saturday's meeting and compile information gathered for an October 6 follow-up meeting.

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