June 24, 2020

As Restrictions Ease, Princeton Opens Up With New Look and Streets for People

By Donald Gilpin

New Jersey is moving ahead in Stage 2 of its Restart and Recovery, which began last week with outdoor dining and the resumption of indoor non-essential retail, and Princeton has acted quickly to promote a safe and vigorous reopening.

A stroll down Witherspoon Street reveals that reopening does not necessarily mean a return to normal, however, but rather a shift in the balance between people and automobiles with outdoor dining filling the street, customers safely lining up, sidewalks open for pedestrians, and an increasing presence of bicycles.

Princeton Council last week passed an ordinance to make Witherspoon Street one-way from Nassau to Spring streets, allowing more space for restaurant tables, queueing areas, and bicycle parking.  The ordinance also expanded outdoor dining areas on Hinds Plaza and relaxed certain requirements for sidewalk cafes and dining areas, parking, and pedestrian and vehicle circulation on Nassau Street, as well as Witherspoon.

The ordinance is in effect until October, at which point it will be evaluated. Many locals are hoping for permanent transformations, at least on a seasonal basis.

“I think people will get used to it,” said Princeton Bicycle Advisory Committee (PBAC) Chair Lisa Serieyssol. “And then become happy with it so that they will want it to stay. On Sunday it looked like life was happening on a street that used to be dominated by cars. We can all adapt. Some people don’t like change, but it’s inevitable, and I believe the community will embrace it over time.”

Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros commented on the large turnout of happy, smiling people and the full restaurants over the weekend. She noted that the changes have been well received by the commercial district and the businesses, and the residents are excited about being able to go out safely for dining and shopping. “It’s been a great collaborative effort between the municipality and the merchants association,” she said.  “And now we have to decorate it so that it looks nice. The Arts Council is going to paint those blocks and they’re putting up some screening and plants and other decorative designs. It’s a great way to use our wonderful artistic resources at the Arts Council to help spruce it up.”

Pirone Lambros pointed out that because of the change to one-way, Witherspoon Street might be the biggest part of the experiment but Nassau Street, Palmer Square, the Witherspoon-Jackson district, and the Princeton Shopping Center have also taken advantage of expanding spaces for dining and pedestrian use.

She emphasized the economic challenges facing local businesses. “We’re at a critical time for our business community,” she said. “The more our locals can support the business community the better. It will really help if locals come out and go to restaurants and stores. It’s really critical after being closed for three months.”

She continued, “But we still need to maintain our safe practices so we can avoid as much as possible a second wave. Wearing masks and being cautious is so important, but the more people can come out and support the businesses the better it is for everybody.”

Molly Jones, executive director of Sustainable Princeton, which has been taking a leading role in the community-wide Out and About Princeton initiative, commented on the opportunities to make improvements for all in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.  “We’ve seen our involvement as a way to carry out the Climate Action Plan, because new use of streets is like a creative place-making, a way to bring people downtown to support more local shopping so people will have a smaller footprint,” she said. “There are great community positives embedded in what’s happening.”

Slow Streets

Also approved by Council last week was the installation of “slow streets” during the pandemic,  local streets with low traffic being designated mainly for exercise, recreation, and travel by pedestrians and bicycle riders. With less automobile traffic, more pedestrians and cyclists, and increased need for social distancing, people have been eager to take over the streets.

Streets being considered for closure to through traffic and designation as slow streets are John Street, Linden Lane, Patton Avenue, Dempsey Avenue, Clay Street, part of Library Place, Ridgeview Road, Hutchinson Drive, and part of Littlebrook Road.  The municipality held a special Zoom meeting last night, June 23, to answer questions and discuss the future of slow streets in Princeton.

Implementation of the slow streets, which will be accessible to local automobile traffic only, not through traffic, will begin later this week with temporary traffic calming devices placed at the street entrances, allowing space for local traffic to enter and exit and signs posted to alert road users and explain the rules for slow streets.

“So far we have been receiving quite enthusiastic responses from the residents of the streets proposed as slow streets, with numbers of volunteers willing to help maintain the barriers and signs that will be placed to inform residents and motorists of the expectations for use of these streets,” said Princeton Council President David Cohen.   

Cohen noted that Council would soon be taking up a companion ordinance to the original reopening ordinance to allow reduction of speed limits on these roadways. He also reported that the Arts Council is ready to order signage that will be coordinated throughout town to enhance the messaging for slow streets and commercial reopening streets.

Serieyssol emphasized the flexibility of the plans and of the Council resolution, with its 120-day limit, and the intention to be adaptable. “If we need to change things here and there to improve, that’s what will happen,” she said.  The PBAC is taking a survey on slow streets and how they are perceived in different neighborhoods.  “The duration of the slow streets initiative is open to constituent feedback,” she added.  The set-ups will be reviewed every two weeks, necessary changes will be made, and possibly other streets will be given the opportunity to participate.

Jones noted that these slow streets provide children with many options for social distance opportunities and healthy interaction. “It’s a real win for our community in supporting our younger generation,” she said.

Bike Boulevards

Another important element of the Out and About Princeton and Streets for People program is the upcoming installation of Bike Boulevards, part of the Bicycle Mobility Plan network of safe cycling facilities. Bike Boulevards are roadways identified as low traffic and suitable for cyclists, part of a connected network which helps riders make their way around town to popular destinations. The intention, as Cohen explained, is that the few motorists who do traverse these roads will drive slowly and defer to cyclists.

Sign posts will designate these boulevards and enable a variety of new cycling loops around town, ranging from the 16-mile Fitness Loop around the perimeter to the 4.5 mile Town and Gown Loop in the core.

The Bike Boulevards, in conjunction with some off-road shared paths, create an almost continuous loop connecting all the public schools, a significant component of the Safe Routes to Schools network. Cohen pointed out that this will be very important when schools reopen and social distancing limits the numbers of students who can ride the buses at one time. Students who live close enough to school, Cohen hopes, will be tempted to walk or bike instead of being driven. “Helping those students feel safe on their bicycles is a crucial step toward encouraging this trend,” he said.

Emphasizing the extensive teamwork involved in all of the Out and About Princeton efforts, Jones looked beyond the weeks and months of reopening and combating the pandemic. “We’re all hopeful that some of the changes coming about in our community are ones that will stick,” she said. “So as we look forward to the future we hope that this isn’t just a time to enjoy the changes, but these are low emission, transportation options that people will want to embrace.”