Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 42
 
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
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Princeton Future Considers “Big Ideas” for Town

Dilshanie Perera

Over 75 residents gathered in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library on Saturday to brainstorm new possibilities for six sections of town during an event, “What If? Designing Our Town Together,” hosted by Princeton Future.

With each discussion led by a volunteer architect, participants divided up into groups to consider the future of the Valley Road School building; the Princeton Shopping Center; the area around the Whole Earth Center and Bank of America; Griggs Corner; the space between Building C and Nassau Street; and the site comprised of the Olive May and West Coast video lots, respectively.

Calling the meeting a “big ideas” session, architect and Borough Council member Kevin Wilkes encouraged those present to think creatively about the six spaces, saying that a collective planning process could drive future development in the community.

A non-governmental organization formed in 2000, Princeton Future regularly engages with issues of development, planning, public policy, and quality of life in town.

After an almost two-hour-long discussion, the groups convened to share ideas. Common themes included the need for structured parking and increased mixed-income housing.

Of Jugtown, which includes the Whole Earth and Bank of America site, architect Kirsten Thoft reported that the positive features are quietness, accessibility to public transit, the mix of businesses in the area, and the presence of a park. “The negatives include traffic and lack of pedestrian accessibility from one side of Nassau Street to the other.”

Agreeing that the park was an asset to the community that should be retained, Ms. Thoft’s group had discussed potential stacked parking, infill of vacant spaces with residences along that corridor, moving the bank driveway further down Nassau Street to reduce traffic, better linking of the parking area to Harrison and Nassau Streets, increasing the amount of senior housing in the area, and providing an access route for residents of Queenston Commons to get to businesses via pedestrian walkways.

Regarding Griggs Corner, or the parking lot adjacent to the public library and bordered by Witherspoon and Hulfish Streets, architect Ron Berlin remarked that “though they value that convenient parking, the corner is begging to be part of the community of buildings in town.”

His group envisioned a building that would “activate that corner” by including commercial space on the ground floor, with mixed-income senior housing above.

Architect Merilee Meacock described the Valley Road School building and that section of town as “a gateway community into Princeton.” Her group proposed structured parking at the Township site, with the possibility of adding housing or retail to the streetside facade.

Reporting that the older part of the Valley Road School was built in 1927 and was deemed to be in poor condition in a study done by KSS Architects, Ms. Meacock said the newer portion, constructed in 1945, was found to be in good condition.

Advocating for a mixed-use structure, the group proposed a ‘teacher village’ that would be able to house young professionals, while also connecting to the mission of Princeton Regional Schools. Ideas to incorporate a teacher training facility, and accommodate the Recreation Department were also considered.

In discussing the Shopping Center site, architect Allan Kehrt noted that his group felt that more could be done with the excess of parking in the area. He proposed a form-based code, which would involve the community in deciding what kind of density was acceptable and what would be viable economically and visually. Such a code would provide residents more flexibility in considering the town’s future than the traditional zoning code already in place, he said.

With a portion of the Shopping Center site rezoned for senior housing, the group suggested that mixed-income housing be built, and wondered whether more pedestrian and vehicular links to the center could be added.

Mr. Wilkes’s group considered the area bounded by Witherspoon, Spring, Tulane, and Nassau Streets, with a focus on the asphalt parking lots contained in the area. Their vision was to “create an open public space” that involves a “network of pedestrian alleys and linkages,” and makes the area available for retail with residences above, he reported.

The change would improve circulation through the downtown, while “giving merchants the opportunity to expand and improve their stores,” Mr. Wilkes said. Additionally, the alleyway connecting Nassau Street to the area would become the “Poet’s Alley” and feature a sound installation involving art and literature.

Noting that the area comprising the former West Coast Video and Olive May lots is a potential interface between students and the community, architect Michael Farewell reported that his group felt that the shopping centers should “get back into that fabric somehow,” and that pedestrian mobility and safety through the area should be reinforced.

Bringing structured parking, and mixed-use retail and residential development to the area were also discussed.

Summing up the day’s event, Mr. Wilkes said that it allowed for discussion in a less confrontational manner than at formal zoning or site plan meetings, with resident Chip Crider remarking that the less-structured environment allowed for more innovative ideas.

Managing Director of Princeton Future Sheldon Sturges said that planning has to come from the grassroots, and that this was “an early step in the process of forging consensus.”

For more information about the organization, visit princetonfuture.org.

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