Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 22
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
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Planning Group Delivers a Rare Look at the "Athens of Mercer County"

Matthew Hersh

Looking out from the second floor of 179 Nassau Street at 182 Nassau Street, home of Carousel Restaurant on the first floor, two floors of office space, and a penthouse level of residences, you can see through the stucco facing to the good planning.

The elevation of 182 Nassau isn't great, and there are some inexpensive ways to make the building more visually appealing, but by and large, the building is ideal for any downtown: a mixed-use structure featuring retail and office space, and residences.

And surely anything's better than the surface parking lot that was crammed between Cox's Market and Sovereign Bank up until the mid-1980s.

This view of smart town planning is from the new offices of the New Jersey branch of the Regional Plan Association, or RPA, the tri-state group that works with municipalities in implementing development plans, as well as creating and researching planning policy initiatives with the aim of producing land use planning, economic development, transportation investments, and environmental conservation.

It makes sense, however, that the oldest independent planning organization in the country is in Princeton, whose downtown is considered a reasonably successful model of smart town planning, as well as one that is near both residential neighborhoods and mass transit.

But before we become too self-congratulatory, it's important to note that a good deal of thought and vision went in to creating downtown — a dialogue that continues today as various substantial developmental projects get underway.

"I think RPA provides a certain perspective that I'm not sure anybody else does," said Carlos Rodrigues, an architect and professional planner who is an RPA vice president as well as New Jersey director. "The local work that's done has to fit within a certain vision.

"We won't do any project that's available: it has to be consistent with our vision for the region. Anything that comes to us or that we go after starts by measuring up against the regional blueprint."

That blueprint, Mr. Rodrigues said, provides that basis for how these projects are approached. "If conservation is the most prominent consideration, then development wouldn't make sense. There's a framework that provides starting points."

Mr. Rodrigues is no stranger to Princeton either. A Township resident, he chairs the Township's Zoning Board of Adjustment, and was, prior to coming to RPA, Director of Planning for the Princeton office of Looney Ricks Kiss Architects — coincidentally located right across the street at 182 Nassau. RPA's small, two-room Princeton office is shared with New Jersey project manager Rebecca Hersh and RPA executive vice president Thomas K. Wright, also a Princeton Township resident.

The new office is a sort of homecoming for RPA's New Jersey office, which was located in downtown New Brunswick until two months ago, when the Woodrow Wilson School's Policy Research Institute for the Region offered RPA a piece of prime downtown office space. It made sense. RPA hosts its annual New Jersey Mayors' Institute on Community Design at Woodrow Wilson, and has created close ties with the school. "They reached out and made this connection," said Mr. Wright. "As a regional organization, we have to cover a lot of ground, and the fact that RPA extends out throughout the region, it's important for us to be on the train line." In fact, RPA has a close alliance with New Jersey Transit, hosting design charrettes in transit-oriented towns like Netcong, Eatontown, and Somerville, to name a few.

In fact, the Somerville project, where RPA has been working with the town to take 114 acres of municipal landfill near the Somerville transit station, with an eye toward housing and commerce, is RPA-NJ's most recent crowning achievement. In 2005, Somerville Borough approached RPA seeking a pedestrian and transit oriented approach toward redeveloping its unused lands. Now, in 2007, those plans are in motion in the Somerville's planning department, and RPA, along with New Jersey Transit, the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the New Jersey Office of Smart Growth, and the Somerset County Planning Board, is receiving New Jersey Future's Smart Growth Award for participatory community vision.

That project, the Somerville Station Area and Landfill Vision Plan, is a good model to be used in a larger context, Mr. Rodrigues said, as a sort of guideline for similar planning projects in other municipalities.

"There's the opportunity to learn from other towns to do the kind of planning technology that makes sense — and you don't always need to reinvent the wheel."

Founded in 1922 to address the demands of developing cities, RPA holds offices in Long Island, Manhattan, Connecticut, and, now, Princeton. Ms. Hersh, a Princeton native, credits a sort of "perfect storm" in allowing the three to converge in one new office, and Mr. Wright, also a Princeton native, points to a bit planning folklore in illustrating the RPA move south on Kings Highway to Princeton.

Charles McKim Norton, a longtime Princeton resident who was also a longtime president and chair of RPA is largely credited with keeping the organization afloat from the 1930s to the 1970s. Known in larger circles for, among other things, his battles with New York developer Robert Moses, Mr. Norton lived in Princeton and knew Princeton during grittier times, when the space that houses Hamilton Jewelers was a smoky bus depot, and Palmer Square was a failed development project.

In the 1970s, Mr. Wright said, Mr. Norton was troubled by Princeton's state, along with the potential siphoning of business as Route 1 malls sprouted out of nearby cornfields. What would happen, Mr. Norton asked, to the "Athens of Mercer County?"

"I've always loved that quote," Mr. Wright said, "because there's always been a sort of Princeton tradition at RPA."

A homecoming indeed — will some RPA wisdom come in handy with those pesky Princeton development projects? Time will tell.

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