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2013: Consolidation Heads a Year of Changes

The biggest story of 2013 unfolded on the first day of the year as Princeton Borough and Township made their consolidation into one community official. A standing-room-only celebration, held in what was formerly the Municipal Building and is now known as Witherspoon Hall, marked the beginning of a new era for the town.

Town Topics asked Anton Lahnston, who chaired the Princeton Consolidation and Shared Services Study Commission, how he would rate Year One of the long-awaited merger. While acknowledging bumps along the way, he is generally encouraged by how the process had gone, giving much credit to the municipal staff. “On a scale of one to ten, I’d give it a seven or eight,” he said. “It’s not easy, and we never said it was going to be.”

Mr. Lahnston cited services to the community, the merger of the police force, and savings as key to consolidation’s success. Public works and responsiveness have improved, the police force has melded together despite unrest involving the departure of chief David Dudeck, and savings are on the right track. Allowing for those “bumps along the way,” he said he is encouraged by developments in all three areas. What concerns him the most is a “lack of harmony” among members of the governing body.

“The most comments I get from people are about the functioning of the Council,” he said. “There has been some time lost because of this. Some things need to be handled by the governing body prior to Council meetings, and some of the debates have gone on much too long. But the mayor has done a fabulous job in trying to keep things moving. I think there are some real opportunities for improvements as we move into the next year.”

AvalonBay

After the Planning Board rejected its plan for a 280-unit rental community at the former site of Princeton’s hospital on Witherspoon Street, the developer AvalonBay filed a lawsuit challenging the decision, naming the town, the Planning Board, Mayor Liz Lempert, and the Council as defendants. The defendants and the developer then entered into a series of quiet meetings and finally came to a compromise.

With even-tempered Jon Vogel as representative instead of the more combative Ron Ladell, AvalonBay revised its plans and brought them before the Planning Board at the end of June. Promising greater permeability, five buildings instead of one large edifice, a scaled-down swimming pool and other adjustments, the plan was approved in July.

The group Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods withdrew its opposition to the proposal despite continuing concerns about scale, sustainability, and the effect on the character of the neighborhood. But as a result of the group’s efforts, AvalonBay agreed to donate $70,000 to the Arts Council of Princeton toward the inclusion of public art in the project.

No date has been set for demolition of the old hospital building.

Princeton University

Between a new president, a major bomb threat that remained just that, and an epidemic of meningitis, the ivied institution on Nassau Street was the subject of widespread news coverage this year.

Christopher L. Eisgruber, the University’s former provost, formally succeeded president Shirley M. Tilghman at a ceremony on September 22 on the front lawn of Nassau Hall. Mr. Eisgruber graduated from Princeton and first joined the faculty in 2001 as a Constitutional scholar. Since taking office, he has stressed his commitment to diversity and inclusivity of the University community, particularly with the endorsement of a study on the subject by a trustee committee.

Helicopters circled overhead and television news trucks were parked outside the campus June 10 during a daylong search for explosives after a bomb threat was called in for multiple buildings. The University evacuated students, faculty and staff to different sites including the Princeton Public Library, the Nassau Inn, and the Arts Council buildings, telling them to stay away from campus until otherwise advised. But by 6:30 p.m., the campus was reopened and all returned to normal. The University’s Department of Public Safety investigated the threat with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. But no bomb was found and no culprit was named.

The first case of meningitis B on the campus was reported in March. By early December, eight cases had been diagnosed. In November, the State of New Jersey had declared an outbreak of the disease, which is spread through sharing drinking glasses and utensils, smoking materials, and kissing. The Centers for Disease Control was brought in, and recommended that all Princeton undergraduates, graduate students living on campus, and other members of the community with medical conditions be vaccinated.

Though the vaccine has yet to be formally approved in the United States, special permission was given for it to be dispensed. More than 5,200 received the shots this month. A second round will be available in February. Those who were infected with meningitis B, which can be fatal, are recovering.

Arts & Transit

Princeton University began construction on its $330 million Arts & Transit project during the summer. The complex of performing arts and education buildings, public plazas, a new Dinky train station and new Wawa market has been the source of controversy among those opposed to moving the train terminus 460 feet to the south.

A temporary train platform was installed some 1,200 feet south of the original train buildings, which are to be turned into a restaurant and cafe managed by Princeton’s Terra Momo Group. Save the Dinky Inc. has filed lawsuits and an emergency appeal to try and stop the move. As recently as this month, residents opposed to the relocation of the station asked University President Eisgruber, at a meeting of Princeton Council, to change the course of the construction project.

[Another source of sadness for preservation-minded citizens was the demolition of a string of 19th century houses on Alexander Street to make room for construction. The white clapboard buildings, owned by the University, were not considered historically significant. But they formed a gateway, valued by many, into town. Though the University ended up offering the homes free to anyone willing to move them -- a costly prospect -- there were no takers].[above para could be cut, if need be]

All has not gone smoothly during construction of the arts campus. In October, a 200-foot section of the canopy collapsed at the station. While no one was injured, the accident led members of Council to request a close look at what caused the collapse, which was blamed on a faulty support structure, and whether proper permits were used. The University initiated its own peer review of the accident.

One aspect of the construction that has gone more smoothly than expected is the rerouting of traffic on Alexander Street and University Place. For the most part, motorists driving between Route One and downtown Princeton have been able to snake through without significant delay. Construction is proceeding in stages and completion of the entire project is targeted for fall 2017.

Sustainability

Although Princeton has been certified bronze by the organization Sustainable Jersey, the town wants to be upgraded to silver. With that effort in mind, a “municipal green team” was announced in October to include Mayor Liz Lempert, local officials, and Diane Landis of Sustainable Princeton. The idea is to score 350 points by improving efforts toward a greener town. Helping to get the effort off the ground was a $10,000 grant from Princeton University’s Office of Community and Regional Affairs.

Pipeline

When the Oklahoma-based Williams Company announced its plans to install a new, 1.2-mile natural gas pipeline through a section of the Princeton Ridge last February, a red flag went up among residents of the Ridge. How would the work, which would involve blasting and considerable construction, affect this environmentally sensitive area?

In a big way, it turns out. Citizens who formed a group called The Princeton Ridge Coalition did their homework and raised their concerns with Williams in a series of meetings. The company listened, and recently responded by saying they may possibly turn off an existing pipeline during the project, if it is approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

As a result of efforts by the citizens’ group and the municipality, FERC has also asked Williams to explore a plan that would take the new pipeline to a location west of the route currently being pursued. Princeton Council voted in October to file for “intervenor” status, which gives the town the option to request a new hearing by FERC and a chance to appeal decisions. Construction on the pipeline, which is part of the Leidy Southeast Expansion Project bringing Marcellus shale gas from Pennsylvania, could start in the spring of 2015.

[“Metergate”

In October, the website Planet Princeton revealed that two parking meter enforcement officers were allegedly allowing some downtown businesses to park at expired meters in exchange for free food and drink. Both attendants were suspended without pay the day after the story was broken. An investigation was quickly conducted by the town, resulting in the firing of officer Chris Boutote and the reassignment of colleague John Hughes. No criminal charges were filed.[this paragraph could go as well; if left in, it should be part of the police section] \]

Election

There were no major surprises in Princeton’s General Election this year. Council members Patrick Simon and Jenny Crumiller, both Democrats, were re-elected over newcomer Fausta Rodriguez, running as a Republican.

Princeton Police Department

On January 1, 2013, David Dudeck was appointed as Chief of the newly consolidated Princeton Police Department. The following month, after he had announced that the department would conduct a door-to-door survey of Princeton residents and businesses as to what they expected of the police, Chief Dudeck was absent from his post amid allegations of administrative misconduct. An agreement between Mr. Dudeck and the police union, in which the former agreed to retire, obviated an investigation into the chief’s conduct by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. After a long leave of absence, he retired September 1. Meanwhile, the daily operation of the Department was in the hands of Captain Nick Sutter.

In August, seven officers filed a lawsuit against Mr. Dudeck, the Princeton Police Department and the municipality of Princeton. The suit alleged that the officers, all of whom were members of the former Borough police department before consolidation, were “discriminated against and harassed” based upon “their gender, sexual orientation and disability.”

The municipality hired the Rodgers Group to report on the police force and considered alternative leadership models, such as having a civilian administrator to be the statutory “appropriate authority” for oversight of the force. In September, Council gave “appropriate authority” to the town’s administrator, Robert Bruschi, as opposed to the governing body of mayor and Council. Mayor Liz Lempert was called upon to cast the tie-breaking vote in the decision. The question of police oversight was a hot-button topic this year for residents and council members, especially in the context of the chief’s forced retirement and lawsuits.

Earlier this month, the 83-page Rodgers Report recommended, as a priority, the appointment of a new chief from within the department rather than a civilian public safety director. Acting Chief Captain Nick Sutter was singled out for praise. Council hopes to make a decision about the appointment in the New Year.

This year, in May, Princeton Police and Princeton University’s department of public safety updated an agreement that clarifies who does what. Accordingly, unarmed campus police will take all routine service calls for incidents on University property. In a situation that threatens public safety, a critical incident in progress, say a kidnapping or a threat with a deadly weapon, then the armed Princeton Police would respond until the situation is under control.

Princeton Public Schools

As a result of consolidation, what had been the Princeton Regional School District became Princeton Public Schools (PPS). The Board of Education began 2013 by completing a bond sale in January. The Chicago-based investment firm Hutchinson, Shockey, Erley & Co. beat out competitors for the $10,980,000 bond at a net interest rate of 1.43 percent. According to Stephanie Kennedy, business administrator for Princeton Public Schools, the “historically low lending rate” was lower than-anticipated, yielding substantial savings to Princeton taxpayers. The debt service was more than half a million dollars less than originally projected. One factor leading to the lower interest rate was Moody’s rating of PPS as Aaa, a rating held by only a handful of school districts in New Jersey.

[In February, Newark Mayor Cory Booker visited John Witherspoon Middle School, at the invitation of principal Jason Burr, to address the eighth grade assembly as part of a school-wide celebration of community, student service, and kindness. Mr. Booker was welcomed as a “champion of social change and educational reform” and received rousing applause from the audience that included members of the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education, Mayor Liz Lempert, and past JWMS Principal William Johnson. [above paragraph could be dropped]]

In November, voters elected three new members of the Princeton Board of Education: Molly Chrein, Thomas Hagedorn, and Andrea Spalla. Ms. Chrein and Ms. Spalla have been on the Board since 2010. Mr. Hagadorn filled the seat made vacant when Dorothy Bedford stepped down earlier in the year. It had been filled in the interim by former Board President Anne Burns.

New PRISMS School

In January, after the American Boychoir School had relocated to Mapleton Road, its old home at 19 Lambert Drive, was purchased by the Bairong Education Foundation for a new Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science (PRISMS). The new private coeducational boarding school for 9th through 12th grades, with some day students, opened with a pilot program this fall and expects to be fully operational by the fall 2014. Former Illinois Secretary of Education Dr. Glenn W. “Max” McGee was appointed as Head of School in August.

Princeton Public Library

Consolidation meant a name change for the Princeton Public Library. When six new trustees took their seats on the board a the start of the year one of their first duties was to sign a document that formally changed the library to “The Free Public Library,” from “Joint Free Public Library of Princeton,” “joint’” indicating that it served both the Borough and the Township. The six new board appointees were Mayor Liz Lempert, Audrey Gould, Ruth Miller, Kevin Royer, Pamela Wakefield, and Barak Bar-Cohen.

After holding the line on budget for the last four years. the Library asked for an increase this year, citing increased costs for health benefits, unemployment and disability insurance, and pension contributions.

Once again the Library brought top authors to town, including Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize winning Indian American author of The Namesake and Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook. The latter was chosen for Princeton Reads, the town-wide literary celebration held every other year. Local Authors Day in April featured Admissions author Jean Hanff Korelitz, along with more than 40 other local writers. The Friends of the Library’s annual benefit in October, featured Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Remnick in conversation with Princeton’s own John McPhee and Paul Muldoon.

Filmmakers also found a place at the Library with Superstorm Sandy and its legacy much on the minds of participants at the Seventh Annual Princeton Environmental Film Festival in January. [In February, the 105th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was celebrated when Looking for Lincoln, the documentary written by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was screened. A second documentary, based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II was also shown. bracketed part could be dropped]

Some 86 authors and illustrators in children’s literature took part in the Library’s annual Children’s Book Festival on Hinds Plaza in September. According to librarian and festival director Allison Santos, the event is now one of the largest of its kind in the country. It featured Princeton-born authors Ann M. Martin, famed for her Baby Sitters Club series, and award-winning author and illustrator Brian Lies whose New York Times bestselling bat series includes Bats at the Beach, Bats at the Ballgame, and, appropriately enough, Bats at the Library.

Valley Road Building

In March, Princeton Public Schools Board of Education rejected a plan to turn part of its Valley Road building into a Community Center that would be a hub for area non-profits. In a seven-page resolution they rejected the 208-page proposal from the Valley Road School Adaptive Reuse Committee (VRS-ARC). The resolution said that their proposal failed to provide “credible, documented assurances that it has or can secure funding adequate for the extremely extensive building renovations.” According to a consultant hired by the district, some $10.8 million would be required to renovate the building. Nonetheless, advocates of the community center, John Clearwater and Kip Cherry, said they would not give up. The building’s last two tenants Corner House and TV30 moved to Monument Hall.

In May, Preservation New Jersey included the Valley Road School on its annual list of the Ten Most Endangered Historic Places in New Jersey and the VRS-ARC launched a campaign to put the question of saving the building on November’s General Election ballot. The campaign failed when municipal attorney Edwin Schmierer advised the municipality that the question could not be on the ballot because the building is not owned by the municipality but by the Princeton Public Schools, which bought the building for $1 from Princeton Township in 2002.

Princeton Borough and Princeton Township had submitted a proposal for the building in 2011 that would demolish the school and build a new complex to house the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad and an expanded fire station. With the Board of Education voting this month to appropriate funds for a future demolition project (see story, page X), the long saga of Valley Road Building may be coming to an end.

Princeton Future

The grassroots non-profit organization, Princeton Future, formed to protect and enhance Princeton’s unique community and share concerns about future growth and development provided three opportunities for residents to join in discussions this year. Its 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.”

Focusing 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?” the group, brought in planning experts to discuss what, why, and how to effect change. In March, some 50 residents turned out to learn about a new information tool created by regional planner Ralph Widner who unveiled a database culled from U.S. census information that will be valuable for future decision-making and planning purposes. The issue of traffic loomed large.

In November, Mr. Widner and others listened to the findings of a joint Princeton University and Princeton Municipality task force, which presented a report on the Alexander Street corridor.

The Alexander Street/University Place (ASUP) Traffic and Transit Task Force looked at problems and potential solutions, including transit options along the Dinky line between Princeton Junction.

IAS/Battlefield

It took several contentious public hearings this past March 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. But it wasn’t long before the Princeton Battlefield Society, which opposes the plan, took action to stall the project. In July, the Battlefield Society filed an appeal in Mercer County Superior Court challenging the approval. Along with some historians, they believe the site is the center of 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 TheКNational Trust for Historic PreservationКhad named the Princeton Battlefield to its 2012 list ofКAmerica’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.

So far, the Princeton Battlefield Society and its attorney Bruce Afran have brought three suits that could stall the Institute’s plans.

Other Changes

Downtown Princeton saw some changes this year with new eateries Agricola and Mistral, a new Jack Wills store on Nassau Street, the addition of the Lambertville coffee roastery, Rojo’s, and a renovation that allowed Hamilton Jewelers to expand its range of merchandise when it closed its Lawrenceville store early in the year. The new Jack Wills is the first such store in New Jersey for the British brand of home goods, clothing and accessories for men and women. The Princeton Theological Seminary finished its new library, and the Princeton Family YMCA opened its renovated athletic facility, named in honor of Jim and Nancye Fitzpatrick with new cardio equipment, strength training, and free weights. The University began renovating the Old Town Topics Building. Corner House and TV 30 moved from the old Valley Road Building to Monument Hall and the Post Office on Palmer Square (see story on page 1) found a new owner.

 

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