December 23, 2020

Council Vote Finalizes One-Way Traffic on Witherspoon

By Anne Levin

Princeton Council voted unanimously at a public hearing Monday night in favor of an ordinance that makes permanent what was a temporary change on a portion of Witherspoon Street. Traffic will now be one-way going north from Nassau to Spring streets, as it has for the past several months.

The ordinance was introduced at a Council meeting two weeks ago. The stretch of Witherspoon Street had been operating one-way to accommodate outdoor dining and encourage patronage of local businesses suffering during the pandemic. Three options were considered for the future of the street: returning it to two-way, keeping it one-way, or closing it to vehicular traffic. Traffic consultants McMahon Associates recommended maintaining the one-way scenario after running a study based on pre-COVID conditions, when traffic was heavier and flowed in both directions. As part of the plan, South Tulane Street will be changed from one-way going north to south to one-way south to north. Making turns onto Nassau Street from Tulane and Chambers streets will only be permitted to the right.

Some people spoke in favor of the ordinance, while others objected. David Newton, who owns the Hamilton Jewelers building at 92 Nassau Street and the building at 16 Chambers Street, said that several of the retailers in town were not in favor of the ordinance. “We are living in a time of terrible vacancy in the retail business,” he said. “They are living in appallingly stressful conditions.” Of particular concern to Newton is traffic that will be diverted to Chambers Street, which will likely become extremely congested during the construction phase of a hotel planned for the building at Nassau and Chambers Street, should it be approved.

“Between stressing these retailers out, whom one has to admit have to be considered a great asset to this community, and also during the construction process of Graduate [the hotel] creating enormous congestion on Chambers Street, I request at the very least from Council a delay on this project until, hopefully, the retail situation levels off, we find more retailers to fill our stores, and Graduate is up and running.”

Jessica Durrie, co-owner of the Small World Coffee shops on Witherspoon Street and Nassau Street, stressed that each business in town has specific needs. “Whatever plan is in place must make it easier for customers to get in or out of town,” she said in an emailed comment read by Mayor Liz Lempert. “I urge Council to look further into the impacts of this, and lean on the local businesses to help refine the details of this plan.”

Lempert said part of the impetus to take action now was because without it, the town would not be able to access funding that has been made available. “Delaying it would mean we’d lose the grant funding for this project,” she said.

Also at the meeting, there was considerable discussion about the possibility of creating an ordinance that would curtail the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, which emit loud noise and chemicals that endanger landscape workers. Anthony Lunn, co-founder of the group Quiet Princeton, said the need for change is becoming increasingly important. “Some people have a fear that hard-working landscape workers will lose their jobs if we change the conditions,” he said. “Jobs will not be lost. Lawns and gardens will still need to be maintained. We at Quiet Princeton now advocate a dual strategy, and the first is an educational program to facilitate a transition. Sustainable Princeton has developed an outstanding leading program.”

Resident Robert Wright, who works from home, said the noise from leaf blowers is especially annoying. Most people he talks to, even those who don’t work from home, are in favor of an ordinance because leaf blowers worsen climate change and damage the ears and lungs of the landscape workers. “But a major source of opposition comes from the landscaping companies,” he said. “I’m a little skeptical when they say it would cost a lot. There would be new logistical challenges, but they’d work something out. It seems this is a classic case where a worthwhile policy encounters resistance from a small but influential interest group. Princeton is exactly the kind of town that should be leading the way.”

Sophie Glovier spoke on behalf of the Princeton Environmental Commission, saying a record 45 people attended a meeting on the issue last week. Over the next few months, more meetings will be held. Eunice Wong presented a petition with over 375 signers from Princeton, and 1,900 globally. “This is a global issue and a civil rights issue,” she said.

Councilwoman Eve Niedergang said the ordinance will be a model of using social justice, racial equity, and other tools to construct a policy. “And it will be a model throughout the state and around the country,” she said.

Councilman Dwaine Williamson asked how much power the town would have to act on the issue. Municipal attorney Trishka Cecil said she would look into the question, starting with the state noise ordinance. Councilwoman Mia Sacks said there are a number of towns that have already enacted ordinances on the issue. “My understanding is that the Princeton Environmental Commission is working to come up with an ordinance that maybe builds on this and expands,” she said.

Lempert reminded those interested in an ordinance that enacting one is the very last step in the process following community outreach, debate, and probably a work session for Council.

Updating Council on the pandemic, Lempert said the case count in Princeton is currently at its highest level. “That is largely coming off of Thanksgiving, and now we’re heading into a new set of holidays,” she said. “I just can’t plead enough with everybody. Princeton has been doing an amazing job, but getting together in an indoor space for a party is so dangerous, endangering our community and our medical system. This is a personal plea. If you have plans that are not in line with the CDC guidance, please cancel them and explain that this is not the year to push the envelope on this.”