April 24, 2013

Princeton Future Focuses on Planning, Outcomes, How to Get Things Done

Some 40 Princeton residents turned out Saturday morning at the Princeton Public Library for the last of three discussions by the aptly named non-profit Princeton Future. 

The grassroots organization, which describes itself as “diverse” and “nonpartisan” was formed to protect and enhance Princeton’s unique community and share concerns about the directions future growth and development may take. The three public sessions have focused on the question: “A United Princeton Looks at the Future: What Do We Want Our Town and Region to be in the Next 20 Years?” 

According to its web site, Princeton Future members are “wary of piecemeal, project-by-project development and, instead, seek broad community support for integrated solutions that balance the benefits of economic growth with the values of neighborhood identity, historic preservation, environmental sustainability, aesthetics, and social equity.”

Saturday’s meeting brought four experts to present their experiences and talk about effective decision-making. Robert Bzik, director of planning for Somerset County; Andy Johnson, former chair of the Haddonfield planning board; Nat Bottigheimer, former planner, -Washington D.C. Metro Authority; and Philip C. Ehlinger, Jr., deputy manager of Doylestown.

“We’ve discussed the what and the why, and now we get down to how to get things done,” said Moderator Rob Freudenberg of the Regional Plan Association at the start of the event. 

Mr. Bzik spoke on ways in which local government can guide strategic investment. Using state-defined terms such as Priority Growth Investment Areas (PGIAs) and Priority Preservation Investment Areas (PPIAs), and specifying criteria for them, he outlined a detailed investment framework for Somerset County.

As a potential model for the Princeton Junction/West Windsor area, Mr. Bottigheimer described the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) of West Hyattsville, a part of the Washington subway system, which, like Princeton Junction serves between 6,000 and 7,000 passengers a day. “I think of this as pedestrian oriented design,” he said, adding that good design can allow for increased people use without increasing automobile traffic. 

The West Hyattsville example parallels Princeton in having a university (of Maryland) and development potential, Mr. Bottigheimer suggested, and went on to describe methods for partnering with local groups. He advised Princeton Future to consider all stakeholders and to deploy planning tools that address challenges right off the bat. “Many cooks are needed,” he said, “but who is in the lead? The lead agency needs to balance goals to be effective and cede the lead to others as needed. That can be a step into the void for state agencies.” State agencies involved in local planning should be an additional resource. In the Hyattsville case, a form-based code came out of the collaboration between the state, the Department of Transport, and local communities. 

Andy Johnson of Haddonfield also spoke positively about form-based codes in describing the work done by Haddonfield planning board since 2005, when the town had no master plan and a single zoning district in its downtown. “We had zoning in a village that was a recipe for big box development,” he said. Potential development and fears of ‘bad’ development precipitated change. Mr. Johnson described the process of creating a master plan. Consultants Brown and Keener of Philadephia provided a nuanced approach to the town’s needs, he said, but it took time and lots of talking. “For the ten years I was on the planning board, my main job was crowd control and anger management,” he laughed, “but we got a master plan with recommendations for specific strategies to accomplish the goals it set.” The master plan for Haddonfield includes strategies for parking, urban design, use, and a zoning framework as well. Mr. Johnson spoke of the unusual fact that the master plan has a zoning ordinance embedded within it. “A way to manage change that reflects what is on the ground now but doesn’t expect to freeze things.” 

Described as one of the authors of the Doylestown Renaissance, Mr. Ehlinger, Jr., described a process of change that started with the creation of a downtown plan for Doylestown in the early 1990s. Today, Doylestown is an award-winning community but back in 1991, he said, the downtown vacancy rate was 52 percent; at 5 p.m. the streets were deserted; regional malls had siphoned off all the traffic and the streets were ill-maintained. Mr. Ehlinger said that to get high quality results there must be a streamlined system of approvals. “Zoning officers need to have a clear vision of what the town wants and need to feel confident and supported; if empowered by local government, they do their best work,” he said, adding that “A local zoning officer’s actions have more political impact than the federal government.” He warned of the dangers of an adversarial culture and of the value of expediency when working with developers “for whom time really is money.” 

A panel comprised of the four speakers together with architect J. Robert Hillier (a Town Topics shareholder) and Anton Lahnston responded to the talks and to questions from the audience.

The panel discussion shifted the focus to Princeton. It was suggested that a high priority is the need for a master plan. Sheldon Sturges, Princeton Future’s managing director, commented on the difficulties of getting local government to work with the community in Princeton. “We identified and published a Downtown Plan for Princeton in 2003 and delivered it to the downtown planner but it has sat there ever since.”

J. Robert Hillier pointed out the unsatisfactory situation in Princeton that necessitates so much of development being done via variances. He described Haddonfield as the Princeton of South Jersey and raised the topic of form-based codes as facilitators of change. The “perceived” parking problem in the town also came in for comment. 

Members of the audience suggested that in Princeton the community is brought in at too late a stage and that there seems to be no end to the number of nay-sayers on any attempt at change. The latter comment prompted speakers to distinguish between the development of private and public property. When public property is involved “it’s a much more complicated prospect,” said Mr. Ehlinger, Jr. “That’s democracy. It’s messy and dirty.” He recommended public notices for land development and said that local government has an obligation to get people involved and that getting them into the process early on is crucial.

At least one town official attended the meeting. Councilman Patrick Simon, who serves on the Citizens Finance Committee, the Housing Authority, Public Works, Transit Task Fund, and Transit Task Force, queried the panel on form-based codes, whether they had been tested and whether they led to too many restrictions on developers. The consensus seemed to be that form-based codes can promote discussions about architecture and can improve the interpretation of plans. 

It was clear from the morning’s discussion that in order for a community to retain what it values, architects and urban planners need to “teach the lexicon of good planning one kitchen table at a time.” As Mr. Ehlinger put it: “We need to better communicate the quality of life benefits of growth and economic development.” For more information, visit: www.princetonfuture.org.