Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 36
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
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Handful of Mayors Flock to Princeton, Acquiring Tools for Developmental Savvy

Matthew Hersh

A roving elected official would typically be involved in imparting some kind of wisdom to an eager audience, perhaps getting paid handsomely in the process.

But this week, a handful of New Jersey mayors will make the trek to Princeton, acting as students in an effort to develop, preserve, and grow their respective communities, and perhaps share a story or two with each other along the way — all free of charge, of course.

This week, as the tenth annual New Jersey Mayors' Institute on Community Design comes to Princeton University, a group of elected officials will look to use their positions to promote ideals of smart growth, redevelopment, and open space.

"Mayors have a lot of influence, but they don't necessarily have the tools to implement developmental change," said Thomas K. Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association, whose New Jersey chapter is in Princeton, and is organizing the event with the Office of Smart Growth at the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association, and Princeton University.

The concept is simple, the three-day workshop is strenuous, but the results, Mr. Wright said, can produce priceless results for a community.

This year's institute focuses on towns in the state's Highlands region, using the constructs put forth in the Highlands Regional Master Plan. Mayors from Chester Township, Oakland Borough, Boonton Borough, Mt. Arlington, Washington Borough-Warren County, and Washington Township-Warren County, will each present a case study focusing on a particular planning concern in their respective communities. A resource team assembled by RPA consisting of planning experts, architects, and environmental scholars will help point the mayors in the right direction.

Kevin Wilkes, a Princeton Borough resident who runs a Belle Meade-based architectural firm, was chosen to be a resource team member, and said even without an ironclad knowledge of a particular town, the ideas formulated in the three-day workshop can have innumerable effects on a town's vision process.

"Here are people who have focused their skills and research, and it looks like we could give the mayors a chance to bounce some ideas around and figure out what makes sense for them and what doesn't," Mr. Wilkes said.

Mr. Wilkes pointed to the approval process as a vital when it comes to convincing a governing body that something is a good idea: "There are strategies to that, but it depends on the situation. There's not really any global bullet."

Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand, who represented Princeton Township in the fall 2003 Mayors' Institute, said her experience helped her come back to Township Committee, as well as the Regional Planning Board of Princeton, with a fresher perspective. The Township sought to get guidance in potentially encouraging a redevelopment of the Princeton Shopping Center. While nothing so drastic has taken place, certain elements from the institute, like pedestrian and bicycle access, have since been implemented.

"The program was very intense and very academic, but I think I learned a whole array of planning strategies," she said. "Overall, there was a camaraderie between the mayors that was terrific. It was like going to school and being a student again."

Ms. Marchand said she would attend the public portion of the presentation this year, which includes a keynote address, "Open Space is Not Empty Space: Eco-structure, Infrastructure, and Regional Planning," by Armando Carbonell, the chairman of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass.

The mayor said that while the specific subject matter of this year's institute was not geared toward Princeton Township, she said she could still learn by being a spectator, pointing to the residual effect of her 2003 experience: "I think we were all really pleased to have been selected."


Mr. Carbonell's keynote address, which is free and open to the public, will take place Thursday, September 6, at 6 p.m. at Robertson Hall (at the Woodrow Wilson School) at the corner of Washington Road and Prospect Avenue on the Princeton University campus. For information, call (609) 228-7080.

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