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2011: A Year of Battles and Decisions

Chris Christie

Just days after Borough and Township residents voted to consolidate, Governor Chris Christie spoke to a standing room only audience in the Princeton Public Library’s Community Room. He lauded the fiscal prudence of the municipalities’ decision and answered questions about consolidation and other topics (Photo by Anne Levin)

The year 2011 will be remembered as one of hard-fought battles and fraught decision-making about polarizing issues in Princeton. Some of these have been resolved, and some are awaiting resolution. Consolidation has been achieved — the Community Park complex will get a new pool, the school board and the teachers have not resolved their contract dispute, and decisions on the disposition of the Valley Road Building were postponed yet again. Princeton University’s arts and transit project, which involves moving the Dinky station, is almost a certainty. Not one, but two, out-of-control vehicles ended up crashing into buildings; and the verdict is still out on whether or not the Institute for Advanced Study will be able to build new faculty housing on a tract of a land that some claim should be preserved as a historic site. Oh, and there was an earthquake in October.

Consolidation

The breakdown in the consolidation vote was 1,238 for and 828 against in the Borough and 3,542 for and 604 against in the Township. Members of the Joint Consolidation/Shared Services Study Commission had put their names to a final version of their report recommending consolidation (see www.cgr.org/princeton), and by unanimously accepting the report Borough Council and Township Committee members ensured that the question of consolidation appeared on the ballot in the November election. Having set the stage, conversations in the coming year will focus on the composition of the “transition team” and the difficulties of turning two municipalities into one.

Recreation Department

The selection of a Myrtha pool for a refurbished Community Park complex on Witherspoon Street came after reassurances about the ability of the municipalities and the Recreation Department to pay for additional costs that have been incurred in the years-long planning process for the pool complex. It was largely agreed that, although a Myrtha pool will cost about $500,000 more than a concrete pool up front, over the years its relatively low maintenance requirements would make the investment worthwhile. Timing was another factor in favor of Myrtha; opting for a concrete pool would probably mean a delayed opening of next year’s pool season, while construction of a Myrtha pool could be accomplished by Memorial Day, 2012. Myrtha pools represent the latest technology in pool construction, using a patented pre-engineered modular system, based on the use of laminated stainless steel panels and a buttress system. In the meantime, the recreation department responded to record-breaking temperatures in July by keeping the pool open extra hours.

On September 14, a sign on the door of the Princeton Recreation Department office that read “New pool project approved. Construction begins 9/12” made the much-discussed, years-long project a reality. The most immediate impact of the construction has been the cordoning off of the first several rows of parking spaces in the municipal parking lots off both Witherspoon Street and Route 206. As a result, the remaining parking spaces are now limited for use by Township employees. The pool complex is scheduled to open on Memorial Day, 2012.

Amid many words of praise, Jack Roberts retired at the beginning of the year as the recreation department’s executive director. Ben Stentz was named executive director and Theodore Ernst became the department’s director of finance and maintenance.

Site plans for the new pool environment are available on the Recreation Department’s website; go to www.princetontwp.org, click on “municipal departments,” and select “Recreation Department.”

Princeton Schools

In April, Borough and Township voters approved the Princeton Regional School’s (PRS) proposed operating budget of $73,830,765 for the 2011-12 academic year. The amount marked a 1.98 percent increase over last year’s budget and, because the budget is supported primarily by local taxes, it made it necessary to raise the tax levy, “even though,” PRS’s website summary of the budget notes, “a conservative budget [was] proposed.” In the Township, the new budget has generated an estimated tax increase of $103. In the Borough, the tax increase will be approximately $98. The average assessed value of homes in the Princetons dropped below the 2010 average, with the average assessed value of a Borough home now at $747,795, and Township homes averaging $827,065. Two School Board members who ran unopposed, Tim Quinn of the Borough and Township resident Dan Haughton, were re-elected to second terms. The Township also elected Afsheen Shamsi, who also ran unopposed, to fill the seat being vacated by retiring three-term Board member Walter Bliss.

In the meantime, the Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA), under the leadership of Littlebrook second-grade teacher Joann Ryan, and the school board, led by president Rebecca Cox, have continued to share dissimilar views of the status of their negotiations to replace a contract that expired on June 30. While PREA maintains that it is working without a contract, Ms. Cox recently pointed out that teachers are actually enjoying “all the protections and benefits” of the last contract, while foregoing, for now, salary increases.

Valley Road Building

Several days in advance of the August 30 meeting at which the Board of Education was supposed to announce which of two proposals it had chosen for the disposition of the Valley Road Building, the Board announced that it was postponing the decision until the autumn, after a decision on consolidation had been reached. The building is owned by the school district, which occupies offices on the first floor facing Valley Road. The rest of the building has fallen into serious disrepair in recent years, and the district is eager to have a new entity assume responsibility for it. Two competing visions for the future use of the building had been presented to the Board. VRS-ARC is a grassroots effort “to prevent the demolition of the Valley Road School Building in the belief that it has the potential to become a valuable resource for the Princeton community.” The alternative, based on a municipal “Analysis of Fire Department Operations,” would entail razing the older part of the building, now occupied by Corner House counseling center, TV30, and the Affordable Housing Department, and creating a centralized hub for fire and rescue services. If this plan is adopted, the Affordable Housing office would move across the street to the Township’s municipal building; the fates of Corner House and TV30 are less clear. “I do not have a sense of which way the decision will go,” said School Superintendent Judy Wilson at one point. “There’s much deliberation and some information gaps that still need to be addressed.”

Princeton Public Library

Princeton Public Library was among the 262 libraries identified in the November issue of Library Journal as a “star library.” Cartoonist Roz Chast added to the glitter with an appearance at the Friends’ annual fund raiser, and the annual end-of-October book sale set a new record by surpassing sales in 2010. Daily rounds of story-telling to all ages in several languages, after-school tutoring, film series, distinguished speakers, updated technology, and first-rate reference service ensured that the Library’s nickname as “Princeton’s living room” is well-deserved.

Township Government

Chad Goerner and Sue Nemeth were sworn in as mayor and deputy mayor at Township Committee’s reorganization meeting on Sunday, January 2. Mr. Goerner replaced Bernie Miller, who stepped down after serving a two-year term, and Ms. Nemeth took Mr. Goerner’s place as deputy mayor. They were voted into office by their colleagues on Township Committee, including Liz Lempert and Lance Liverman who were re-elected in the November 2010 election. In the spring, the committee approved a $36.6 million budget for the calendar year 2011. The new budget represented a zero percent increase in taxes, and, according to Administrator Jim Pascale, “no reduction in services.” At the time, Citizens’ Finance Advisor Committee (CFAC) chair Scott Sillars noted that 2011 marked the third consecutive year of a flat tax rate, which he described as “good and bad” news. The good news, he said, was the Township’s apparent ability to manage costs; the bad news was the evidence of a soft property market that needs to be watched.

Earthquake!

On August 23, Princetonians experienced what the Earthquake Hazards Program of the United States Geological Survey reported as a magnitude 5.9 earthquake that had occurred at 1:51 p.m. in Virginia. Borough and Township Police said there were no injuries or damage. “You probably shake more when a truck goes by,” someone commented.

Arts and Transit

Early in 2011, Princeton University presented details about its intention to move the Dinky transit station 460 feet south of its current location to make way for construction of an ambitious $300 million arts complex designed by architect Steven Holl. This resulted in an outcry from many members of the public who did not want the station moved, and the University decided to change its plans and look for an alternate site.

But by February, the Borough and Township were pursuing a dialogue with the University about reconsidering a redesign of the originally proposed site at the intersection of Alexander Road and University Place. A plan for rezoning the area was proposed by the University for Arts, Education, and Transit uses (AET), which would allow the construction of the complex. Once New Jersey Transit announced it had no objection to the University’s interest in moving the Dinky, it became evident that the University would relocate the station whether or not their rezoning proposals were approved.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) resulting from closed-door negotiations between the University and the governing bodies was made public in May. It took until October for Borough Council and Township Committee to approve the MOU, which began to clear the way for the University to move the Dinky. At the same time, a lawsuit was filed by members of the citizen group Save the Dinky to halt the move.

Despite widespread reservations from the public and members of the governing bodies about moving the Dinky, Township Committee and Borough Council approved the rezoning ordinances this month. Final approval from the Planning Board is needed for the University to begin putting its plans into action.

Borough

In early May, Borough Council unanimously passed a $25.7 million budget, representing a zero percent tax increase from the previous year. Changes in the budget that were passed prior to the final adoption scaled it back from the initially proposed amount of nearly $26 million.

Borough Mayor, Mildred Trotman announced she would retire after 26 years as an elected official and six years as mayor. That announcement led to a vigorous campaign for the office between Democrat Yina Moore and Republican Jill Jachera, the first of that party to run for Borough mayor in 12 years. Ms. Moore won by approximately 100 votes.

Barbara Trelstad was elected to another term on the Council, and Heather Howard was elected to take the place of David Goldfarb, who is leaving his longtime post on Council at the end of the year.

The United States Postal Service (USPS) announced in October that it will move from its facility on Palmer Square, where only 2,000 of the 11,000 square feet are currently in use. The USPS wants to sell the historic 1934 building and move to a much smaller location in town. A representative of the postal service attended a meeting of Borough Council this month and gave an update and asked for suggestions from the community about where to relocate.

Princeton University

In what may be the most selective admission process in the University’s history, Princeton announced last March that it had accepted 2,282 of the 27,189 students who had applied. On December 15, the University offered admission to 726 students from a pool of 3,443 candidates who applied through single-choice early action for the Class of 2016. This is the first year since 2006 that the University has offered an early application round for those for whom Princeton is first choice.

The University’s endowment earned a 21.9 percent annual return on its investments and was valued at $17.1 billion in the fiscal year that ended June 30. That is up from $14.4 billion in the previous year. Construction on campus included replacement of the Lenz Tennis Center and work on several ongoing projects including the renovation of Jadwin Hall and Firestone Library.

The Class of 2011 celebrated the University’s 264th Commencement at the beginning of June. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was among the speakers to the 1,202 undergraduate and 815 graduate students in the class.

Hospital

The University Medical Center at Princeton is preparing for its move this coming spring to its new facility located on Route 1 in Plainsboro. The hospital announced in August that AvalonBay Communities, a New Jersey based developer, was under contract to purchase the 9.8-acre property on Witherspoon Street. In November, AvalonBay presented its plans for a 324-unit rental apartment complex to Borough Council. The existing hospital building will be torn down to make way for construction of the complex. The remainder of the property, which includes nine rental homes on Harris Road, a medical office building, and parking garage, will be maintained.

Institute for Advanced Study

A proposal to build faculty housing on property owned by the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) ran into strong objections from members of the Princeton Battlefield Society. Two standing-room-only meetings of the Regional Planning Board this month failed to settle the issue. The IAS, which first applied for approval of the project in 2003, wants to build 15 homes behind a buffer zone between existing buildings and the Princeton Battlefield State Park. Those opposed to the development say it would be on land that was the site of General George Washington’s counterattack and the first victory against the British during the American Revolution. The matter will be taken up again by the planning board in January.

The Weather

The howling winds and soaking rains of hurricane Irene resulted in the death of an emergency worker on August 28. The storm caused downed wires, flooded basements, clogged roadways, and a mess for residents and rescue personnel.

Michael Kenwood, a 39-year old computer consultant who volunteered with the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, died in the early hours of August 28 from injuries sustained during an attempted rescue of a person from what turned out to be an empty car that was caught in swiftly moving water. Mr. Kenwood was swept away by the current of Stony Brook on Rosedale road as he tried to reach the stranded vehicle.

An unusual pre-Halloween snowstorm left its mark on local roads, homes and businesses. Since branches still had most of their leaves intact, the four inches of heavy snow caused several trees to fall and many tree limbs to break. Many residents lost power and driving was hazardous. However, Princeton got off relatively easy compared to areas in northern New Jersey where power was out for days and flooding ruined homes.

Development

Discussions continued this year about the East Nassau Street site of the former Olive May and West Coast Video stores. Formerly known as “gasoline alley,” the neighborhood has been the subject of discussions, surveys, and studies. Princeton Future has held special sessions on the area, presenting ideas from architect/planner Jim Constantine and graduate students from Rutgers University.

A proposal to develop the vacant site was submitted to the planning board by a representative of the two families that own the property, which is bisected by a driveway owned by Princeton University. Strong objections from neighborhood residents about the size and scope of the project sent the owners back to the drawing board.

The property owners would like to rezone the area from Service Business to Neighborhood Business. The issue will be taken up by Borough Council in the coming year.

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