January 25, 2012

Merchants Explore Transportation SID

Early last December, Princeton Borough Council proposed the formation of a Transportation Corridor Special Improvement District [SID] in the area extending from Nassau Street down University Place to the Township border. Concerned about how this measure would affect local businesses, the Princeton Mechants Association [PMA] wrote letters to local newspapers requesting that the discussion be tabled until they had an opportunity to examine the issue more closely.

Members of PMA had a chance to learn more about the proposal and share their views on the subject at a meeting yesterday, January 24, in the Princeton Public Library’s Community Room. Borough Councilman Kevin Wilkes and Princeton University Director of Regional and Community Affairs Kristin Appelget were among those to informally address the more than 50 PMA members in attendance about how the SID would work.

“The purpose of today’s meeting is to share information,” said Mark Censits, one of PMA’s directors and the owner of Cool Vines store, at the beginning of the session. “The goal is for PMA to accurately represent the opinion of its members.”

Special Improvement Districts are organization, management, and financing tools used by local businesses to provide specialized services that complement existing municipal government services as part of a revitalization plan. Princeton Borough has looked into the formation of such districts in the past. SIDs have been established in such communities as Westfield, Newark, New Brunswick, and Jersey City. Proponents of the Princeton proposal said it would use assessments of non-residential properties to fund improvements in the new district such as crosswalks, bridges, tunnels, and light rail service.

Borough Council’s proposal for the SID was supposed to be formally introduced at a meeting last month, but was moved off the agenda and then expired at the end of the year. It is expected to be brought up again.

“The topic is back out there, and the board wants to have a position if need be,” said PMA board member and Princeton Shopping Center general manager Chris Hanington, after the meeting. “A lot of the merchants in our organization are not Princeton residents, and they might not read the local papers and know about this,” she said. “We wanted to get the information to them. That’s what PMA is all about.”

As it was first described last month, the proposed district would be managed by a seven-member district management corporation called “Princeton on the Move” [POM]. The non-profit group would be composed of the mayor, business administrator, a Borough resident, a business or property owner, a representative of the merchants’ association, and a business or property owner from Nassau Street between Vandeventer Avenue and University Place.

Nearly 36 properties, most along University Place, would be included in the district. Residential properties would be exempted. Most of the sites are owned by Princeton University. The anticipated assessment during the first year would be no more than $90,000.

Mr. Wilkes told the PMA members that a SID would not replace, but rather augment, existing services. It would be specifically focused on the potential extension of the existing Dinky transit line, with multiple stops.

Borough Council members Jenny Crumiller and Jo Butler, who attended the meeting, also commented about the issue. “You should all be concerned,” said Ms. Butler, who is opposed to the SID. “You’d have merchants on Witherspoon Street making decisions about East Nassau Street.” She added that a transit system with multiple stops could be a problem resulting in decreased ridership and inconvenience for those who currently ride the Dinky train. Ms. Crumiller commented, “The best decisions are democratic, and I don’t like adding a layer of bureaucracy.”

Mr. Censits spoke about his experiences with a SID in Westfield, where he has had a store since 2007. At the time the SID was formed, the town had a vacancy of approximately 40 percent. But it was substantially revitalized, recruiting such retailers as Trader Joe’s and holding fairs and festivals. Despite its success, Mr. Censits says he believes the SID has outlived its usefulness.

Architect Joshua Zinder asked if the SID would potentially benefit Princeton University, disproportionately to others.

Jim Sykes, president of the Princeton University Store, said he was having trouble understanding how a transit-related SID would serve the store’s interest. “We already pay $150,000 in property taxes,” he said. “Why would we be asked to pay an assessment?”

Mr. Wilkes responded that a transit stop adjacent to the store would bring more customers. Mr. Sykes countered that most of his customers are students who walk from campus. “To us, it seems this is maybe a little premature,” he said.