Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 20
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
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Herban Garden Seeks Greener Pastures as Palmer Square Gets Ready to Build

Matthew Hersh

Princeton Borough's Palmer Square is, in regional circles, known for the shops and restaurants that provide a draw for in- and out-of-town patrons. But for lovers of art and gardening, it may be best known for the vacant land that faces Paul Robeson Place.

And while that space has been mired for decades in the planning process as Palmer Square Management has ironed out details and municipal conflicts related to the development of 97 town houses, it has served as the locale for some of the most creative development in town history, namely the architecturally-fused installations Writers' Block and Quark Park, and the garden-cum-Zen den, the Herban Garden, near the corner of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place.

Writers Block and Quark Park only lasted a few months each, but the Herban Garden, evolving from an idea from local restaurateurs Carlo and Raoul Momo, lasted six full years thanks to an agreement with Palmer Square where the Momos, owners of the adjacent Witherspoon Bread Company, were able to lease the half-acre property for a dollar a year — not a bad deal considering what the future housing units are expected to go for.

But now, it's getting close to construction time, and garden organizers are looking to relocate — something that might be easier said than done in spatially challenged Princeton Borough.

"They're paving paradise for a parking lot," said landscape architect Peter Soderman, loosely quoting Joni Mitchell with tongue in cheek. Mr. Soderman, whose guidance was sought by the Momos at the garden's inception, was involved in the design of the Writers Block and Quark Park, and frequently espouses the philosophy that vacant land can be developed in more imaginative ways than as lots to build on. It should be noted that owners of vacant plots, particularly in urban settings, largely disagree. But Palmer Square did agree that as long as the space was not being developed, it would be better served by being put to good use.

"I think everyone in the community was happy about the garden, I don't think anyone really disapproved," Mr. Soderman said. "In a town that's relatively sedated, you need grit and you need people to do something to perpetuate that."

Carlo Momo, whose firm, Terra Momo, also owns Teresa Caffe and Mediterra, echoed Mr. Soderman in saying that projects like the Herban Garden are movable, and that finding a new piece of land would effectively be the final piece in solving the relocation puzzle.

"People think it's got to be a permanent installation, and it really doesn't," Mr. Momo said. "But we need someone to adopt the Herban Garden." Mr. Momo and Mr. Soderman both indicated that they are set to start pitching the idea to the Borough, as well as other land-heavy outfits like Princeton University.

What started off as an ostensible "kitchen garden," Mr. Momo said, with tomatoes and some greens, quickly became an in-town landmark, with 75 tomato plants, Robert Cannon sculptures, and assorted varieties of beans, herbs, peppers, and flowers. "It took on a life of its own, and it really amazed me," Mr. Momo said. "It really became a focal point," he added, emphasizing a time after the old Princeton Public Library was demolished, and pre-Hinds Plaza. "That part of town was a real black eye, and it really hurt business at Witherspoon Bread, but through that, the Herban Garden continued to draw people and hold its own."

In a 2003 New York Times story on the garden, David Newton, vice president of Palmer Square Management, indicated that even early on, the "temporariness" of the garden was known from the outset, but that awareness, in 2007, does not seem to make the now inevitable dismantling of the garden any less painful. "When that construction trailer heads in, that's when this whole thing will hit home," Mr. Soderman said.

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