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Princeton Weathers A Perfect Storm of Issues

This year Princeton weathered a major hurricane, opened a spanking new community park and pool, elected a mayor for the new municipality, coped with Route 1 left turn prohibitions, and prepared for consolidation, which officially takes effect on January 1. The University’s proposed Arts and Transit will become a reality, while the future of an AvalonBay development at the hospital’s former site on Witherspoon Street remains uncertain. University President Shirley Tilghman announced her retirement, effective this June, and the Township said good-bye to two retiring officials, Administrator Jim Pascale, and Police Chief Bob Buchanan.

Consolidation

Once voters approved the consolidation of Princeton Borough and Township last year, a Transition Task Force was put in place to guide the merger of two municipalities into one. This highly detailed project involved numerous subcommittees and the participation of citizen volunteers. The committees met with nearly every department in the Borough and Township to determine the most painless way to streamline operations before the new form of government is officially unveiled on January 1.

Both governing bodies named appointees to the Task Force. Led by Chairman Mark Freda, the group of 12 made recommendations on everything from office furniture to pension plans; from shade trees to trash collection. Some of the ideas they advised the governing bodies to approve must ultimately be confirmed by the new Princeton Council to be sworn in January 1. The Task Force held a public forum early this month to help inform citizens of what to expect once the new form of government goes into effect.

Hurricane Sandy

With extensive property damage and long-lasting power outages, it took a while for Princeton residents to dig out from Hurricane Sandy, a “super storm” that hit the East Coast in late October.

In an initiative that boded well for consolidation, Borough and Township police and other personnel joined forces to respond as a single entity to emergencies, issue alerts, and begin the daunting task of picking up the trees and limbs that lined — and often blocked — local streets. In his attempt to take care of a tree on his property, William Sword became the area’s only storm-related fatality.

Princeton Public Library and Princeton United Methodist Church were among the havens of light, warmth, and electricity during the first days after the storm. Opening doors to the front of the library, lobby, and community room at 7 a.m. on Thursday, November 1, the library had a record 8,028 visitors between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Princeton public school children will be attending three additional days of school in 2013 — February 15, April 1, and June 20 — to make up for days lost during the storm. Princeton University had about 50 trees come down on campus as a result of the super storm and Director of Communication Martin Mbugua noted that there were “dozens” of reports of “blocked roads, damaged vehicles, fences, and other property.” In its end-of-year commendations, Princeton Township cited the University for helping with emergency response teams, and, on election day, for making Jadwin Gym available as a polling place.

In the days following the storm, schools, businesses, churches, synagogues, and other organizations held drives that collected much-needed supplies for devastated coastal communities.

The Hospital Move

Amid much fanfare, the University Medical Center of Princeton relocated in May from its longtime headquarters on Witherspoon Street in Princeton Borough to a glittering new facility on Route 1 in Plainsboro. While only a few miles from the old location, the new, $522.7 million hospital is a world away in terms of technology and design. The 636,000-square-foot hospital is the centerpiece of a 171-acre site that includes a nursing home, day care center, a park, and additional facilities. Each of the 231-single-patient rooms have large windows and high-tech capabilities.

Nine years in the making, the new facility is closer to a large percentage of the people the hospital traditionally serves, executive director Barry Rabner said during the opening week. A special open house was held for the community in the days before the official move took place.

Jughandle Closings

Looking for ways to ease traffic congestion on Route 1, the New Jersey Department of Transportation announced in March a decision to implement a 12-week experiment that eliminated left turns for Route 1 northbound motorists at Washington Road and Harrison Street. Protestations from the public and local officials regarding timing — the trial would coincide with the opening of the new hospital near Harrison Street — led the DOT to postpone the program until August. While the trial eased some traffic flow on Route 1, motorists were getting stuck on ancillary roads, and parents in the area were fearful for their children’s safety as cars used their driveways to make U-turns in order to correct routes affected by the jughandle closings. When demonstrations were organized by West Windsor residents on Washington Road, NJDOT Commissioner James Simpson closed down the pilot program two weeks short of its projected finish date.

Arts and Transit

Thanks to a December 18 vote in favor of its $300 million Arts and Transit proposal by the Planning Board, Princeton University can now begin to put its ambitious plan for an arts complex into action. The approval came after many contentious meetings of the governing bodies, nearly all focused on the fact that the terminus of the Dinky, which connects Princeton Borough and Princeton Junction station, will be moved 460 feet south as part of the plan.

Few had problems with the design for the Lewis Center for the Arts, which will include new teaching, rehearsal, performance, and administrative spaces designed by architect Steven Holl in a cluster of village-like buildings. Landscaped open spaces and walking paths that are part of the plan have drawn almost unanimous approval from officials and the public. This year, the University hired architect Rick Joy to design the renovation of the two Dinky station buildings, which will be turned into a restaurant and cafe.

Borough Council passed a resolution in July opposing the plan to move the station stop. And Save the Dinky, a group of citizens opposed to the idea of moving the Dinky, has filed lawsuits related to the contract of sale from 1984, when the University bought the Dinky shuttle line, and to its historical significance. See the story in this issue for details.

AvalonBay

Not satisfied with the plan for a rental complex proposed by the developer AvalonBay Communities, area residents, including those in the neighborhood surrounding the former site of the University Medical Center at Princeton, waged a relentless campaign to convince the governing bodies that it was not right for the town. Their hard work was rewarded on December 19 when the Regional Planning Board voted to deny the application. It remains to be seen what the developer’s next step will be. See the story in this issue for details.

Election

Like the rest of the country, the majority of Princeton voters supported the reelection of President Obama. Democratic Congressman Rush Holt (D-12) won an easy victory over his Republican challenger, Eric A. Beck.

Locally, Princeton voters elected Democrat Liz Lempert over Republican challenger Dick Woodbridge as the new mayor of consolidated Princeton. The six Democrats running for the new Council, Bernie Miller, Patrick Simon, Heather Howard, Jo Butler. Lance Liverman, and Jenny Crumiller were all elected. The sole Republican challenger was Geoff Aton.

Princeton voters also endorsed an open space tax of 1.7 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

Historic District

A six-year dispute over whether to designate 51 properties in the town’s architecturally diverse western section remains undecided. Residents of the homes in an area bounded by portions of Library Place, Bayard Lane, and Hodge Road are divided over the question, and more than one meeting of Borough Council this year became confrontational as the residents aired their views. The Council was scheduled to vote on the issue on December 11, but an injunction filed by those opposed to the designation prevented them from doing so.

Those in favor say the designation will protect the neighborhood from tear-downs and the construction of new homes that don’t fit in with the existing architecture. Those opposed fear the restrictions that historic designation could impose on improvements and repairs to the exteriors of their homes. The question will be carried over to the newly consolidated Council.

Community Park Pool

After months of discussions about what should and should not be included, the new Community Park Pool opened on Memorial Day weekend and won kudos all summer long as record numbers of area residents signed on as members or came on a daily basis.

Improvements to the pool park included a 20 percent expansion of the diving well to accommodate more diving boards and a water slide, a fish-shaped kiddie pool, and a “family pool” adjacent to the lap pool.

Schools

As a result of consolidation, Princeton lost its “regional school district” identity and renamed itself “Princeton Public Schools.” Offered the chance to move the date for school elections to the general election in November, the School Board opted to keep it in April for this year; in December they opted to move the next election to April.

In this year’s April election, voters approved the 2012-13 Princeton Regional school budget that includes a tax levy of $63.4 million, elected new board members Martha Land and Patrick Sullivan, and reelected Rebecca Cox. Superintendent Judy Wilson acknowledged that “voter turnout was not as high as it usually is,” in the April election, but chalked it up to the fact that there was one uncontested race (Mr. Sullivan, in the Township), and a “non-controversial budget.”

In the November election, voters approved an additional infusion of $10.9 million for improvements to all of the schools’ infrastructures.

In the fall, St. Paul’s School learned that it had been awarded a 2012 “Blue Ribbon of Excellence” award, the highest prize the Department of Education can confer.

Libraries

While the Princeton Public Library’s legal status will change with consolidation, the Board of Trustees chose not to proceed with a proposal that would have merged the Friends of the Library with the Princeton Public Library Foundation. In response to board President Katharine McGavern’s suggestion that “a single organization would make more sense from an accounting point of view,” the rest of the board voted to support what former President Claire Jacobus described as “the human capital that exists in the Friends.” This year’s annual Book Sale and Children’s Book Festival were, as usual, shining events for the library.

At Firestone Library on the Princeton University campus, renovations began on a project that is expected to be completed in 2018. The estimated cost is “in the nine figures,” and is being underwritten by the University, “just as they would a new laboratory for scientists,” said University Librarian Karin Trainer.

IAS/Battlefield

It took several contentious public hearings for the Regional Planning Board to come to a decision allowing the Institute for Advanced Study to go forward with a plan for a faculty housing development this past March. In July, the Princeton Battlefield Society filed an appeal in Mercer County Superior Court challenging the approval. Along with some historians, they believe the site is involved in the historic counterattack at the Battle of Princeton during the Revolutionary War, and therefore should not be disturbed.

Despite the legal action, and the June announcement that The National Trust for Historic Preservation had named the Princeton Battlefield to its 2012 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, the IAS plan for eight townhouses and seven single-family homes on a seven-acre section of the campus is going forward. The development of 15 homes is expected to include a 200-foot buffer zone next to Battlefield Park that will be permanently preserved as open space.


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