June 8, 2016

Bank Street Infrastructure Challenges Confront Residents and Town Officials

TT Bank Street

REPAIRS NEEDED: Bank Street needs street repairs and underground power lines, a subject of controversy between residents and town officials. Undergrounding electrical, telephone and cable lines could cost each property owner about $70,000, but the mayor and city engineers are seeking less expensive alternatives. (Photo by Donald Gilpin)

Tucked away off Nassau Street, between Bayard Lane and Chambers Street, Bank Street could be mistaken for an alley. The narrow, single-block street of modest Victorian homes, all close to the street and close to one another, has always seemed out of place in the midst of the bustle of Nassau Street and the grandeur of much of the rest of the town С and now Bank Street finds itself a subject of controversy.

Though many of the houses have obviously been carefully maintained or renovated, the street itself is suffering from neglect and disrepair. Residents and municipal officials agree on the problem. “The street needs to be repaired,” Mayor Liz Lempert stated. “It’s on the list. It’s a priority.”

The problem — “an issue, not a problem,” according to Assistant Municipal Engineer Deanna Stockton — is the cost for putting the overhead utility wires — electric, cable and telephone lines — underground: about $1.9 million or about $70,000 per owner, as quoted by PSE&G, Verizon, and Comcast.

NJ Board of Public Utilities says that the property owners are responsible for that expense, and other Bank Street improvements continue to be delayed as municipal officials and residents seek options for dealing with the power line issue.

“It’s a very expensive project,” Ms. Lempert stated. She and her staff have been meeting with contacts at utility companies in trying to bring the price down to make it more manageable for property owners. “We will continue to see if there are any other options, any flexibility in terms of the work needed to be done.”

The mayor emphasized that she and her staff had spent considerable time on this issue. “We know it’s an important project,” she stated, “one of our historic streets in desperate need of repair.” Wires are underground at the top and bottom of the street, but numerous overhead wires, many right outside of residents’ windows, clutter the rest of the street.

Ms. Stockton added that the town had held many discussions concerning Bank Street improvements, most recently a neighborhood meeting last month, and that Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker had been enlisted to help seek less expensive options and flexibility from the Board of Public Utilities and the power companies in resolving the issues.

Noting that Bank Street poses additional challenges because of its narrowness (“a tight work area”), Ms. Stockton mentioned that plans were mostly in place for sewer replacements, new water lines, storm sewers and repair of sidewalks and curbs and that she hoped to see a decision on the power lines this summer.

For Tony Nelessen, Bank Street property owner for the past 38 years, the decision to proceed with improvements cannot come soon enough. In a letter to Town Topics last week, Mr. Nelessen described Bank Street as a “ghetto street” and decried “the poles and the gaggle of wires with the radiation from EMFs literally feet in front of people’s windows,” with an accompanying degradation of property values, despite continuing high taxes.

“There is no other street like it in Princeton,” he said, “and it could be a real architectural and historic gem that could enhance the character and quality of downtown and increase revenues from taxes and potential improvements.”

In a subsequent telephone interview he stated that Bank Street had been the victim of “benign neglect for 40 years. It’s in deplorable condition with dangling wires and trees overgrown and falling on my roof.” Mr. Nelessen, a professor of urban planning and design at Rutgers’ Bloustein School, expressed frustration at the lack of action by the municipality and the historic commission. He mentioned numerous meetings over the years without results.

“Nobody is doing anything,” he said. “And I’m afraid that because it is a complicated issue, nothing will be done again.”

Municipal officials seemed to share Mr. Nelessen’s frustrations with the delays in upgrading Bank Street and they expressed a determination to come to a decision and make needed improvements to the street.

“It’s one of the most unique streets in Princeton,” Mr. Nelessen stated. “It has a unique character and they should take advantage of it.”