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Students' Shopping Center Alternatives Are Met With Resistance From Residents

Matthew Hersh

A Rutgers University landscape architecture undergraduate class appeared before the Princeton Regional Planning Board last Thursday to offer site alternatives to the Princeton Shopping Center layout which is often perceived as antiquated. Many residents, however, expressed support for the facility's current design, contending that the "problems" the studio outlined simply do not exist.

As part of a term project, eight Rutgers undergraduate students submitted their ideas to the Planning Board for ways to improve the shopping center site. Ideas put forth in the presentation included parking restructuring, the addition of "mixed-use" buildings that contain both housing and commercial spaces, the use of the undeveloped six acres of land between the facility and Terhune Road, improved access to Grover Park, and more comprehensive pedestrian and bicycle corridors.

Also included in the presentation were ideas to reduce the width of both Harrison Street and Terhune Road. According to presenters, the roads are unnecessarily wide, and facilitate speeding along the corridors.

Another recommendation was that a third entrance be installed so the shopping center is accessible from Terhune Road.

Opportunities for civic uses were also put forth for consideration. The studio presenters said there is room for a "real" post office, library, and senior center.

The informal discussion was not billed as an application submission, or even an official advisory session, but it was treated as such by vocal residents of the Princeton Shopping Center neighborhood, who often punctuated the students' presentations with hostile remarks.

"Obviously, it was embarrassing," said Carlos Rodrigues, who teaches the course along with Steve Strom, the chairman of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Rutgers. "The hissing and comment-making was rude."

However, Mr. Rodrigues, who is manager of Plan Implementation at the Office of Smart Growth at New Jersey's Department of Community Affairs, observed that the students remained unfazed and were able to press through a presentation that, although provoking enmity from some residents, presented ideas designed to improve the space. Mr. Rodrigues is also a Princeton Township resident and is the chairman of the Township Zoning Board of Adjustment.

"There's a lot of pressure there, [the students] are young, they felt the hostility, and they handled themselves remarkably well," Mr. Rodrigues said.

However, he underlined the benefit of hearing negative feedback to the students' findings. He said he felt the dissenting group presented the adversity that planners experience when presenting ideas for change, although he did not offer much credence to the negative comments.

"It's good for [negative feedback] to come out because it allows the public officials to come to terms with it and deal with it appropriately," he said. But, he questioned whether residents offered educated objections, or simply inveighed against change in general.

The one obstacle hindering any change, Mr. Rodrigues said, was zoning. "The community needs to reconsider zoning if there are ever going to be changes to this area," he said.

Several residents suggested that changes should respect current zoning restrictions, but Mr. Rodrigues pointed out that every community changes zoning when faced with development and progression.

Princeton Borough Mayor and Planning Board member Joe O'Neill chimed in with Mr. Rodrigues' assertion that as a community evolves, so must the zoning. He cited the current downtown development in the Borough. "Every change in the Borough violates zoning code, but we change [the code] accordingly," he said. He added that the shopping center is different than downtown redevelopment projects, because it changes everything at once rather than gradually.

Mr. Rodrigues said owners of the privately-owned Princeton Shopping Center had expressed interest in seeing the results of the study. The shopping center is currently in the design phase of its own resurfacing project, but none as dramatic as the plans the Rutgers group had outlined.

Dana Comfort, executive vice president of George Comfort & Sons, the Manhattan-based management agent of the shopping center, said the presentation was "interesting," and would discuss the ideas with the shopping center's owners.

As for dissenting residents, Mr. Comfort said all resident feedback would be taken into consideration if there are to be changes to the facility.

A development proposal by the Princeton Shopping Center, which included the addition of 150 units of senior housing, 48 apartments, and about 100,000 square feet of office space, along with structured parking has been in the works, but in a public forum held in October that involved residents from the shopping center area, concerns were raised about the scale and intensity of the development proposal.

Ultimately, Mr. Rodrigues said, the shopping center needs to be redesigned to stay competitive, utilize the full potential of its space, and to better serve the Princeton regional area. He observed that while the "quasi, 1950s downtown" serves the community, its specialty shops ensure a wider scope of clientele.

"It may feel like a neighborhood place, but it functions like a regional center," he said.

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