June 30, 2021

Witherspoon Street Redesign and Sustainable Landscaping Dominate Council Meeting

By Anne Levin

A work session on the first phase of the plan to redesign part of Witherspoon Street and a presentation on sustainable landscaping were the focus of Princeton Council’s June 28 meeting. While no formal actions were taken, both initiatives were given support to proceed.

A public meeting will be held Wednesday, July 14 for further discussion of the recommendations put forth by Sustainable Princeton, the Princeton Environmental Commission, Quiet Princeton, and others involved in a project to make local landscaping practices more sustainable. Princeton was one of nine cities to receive a $55,000 Partners for Places grant last December, to work toward adopting practices that protect the health of both landscapers and the environment.

Efforts are being made to ensure that the voices of landscapers and residents are heard in coming up with recommendations to amend current ordinances. The Princeton Civil Rights Commission’s Racial Equity Toolkit has been used in the process. The goal is to recommend solutions that are environmentally and socially equitable.

Gas-powered leaf blowers are a major area of interest. “They expose workers and the public to very significant health and daily life problems,” said Tony Lunn of Quiet Princeton, adding that hundreds of residents have said they want a total ban on the machinery, which would involve converting to alternative equipment. Currently, the recommendation is for a seasonal ban.

“The first all-electric landscaping companies are now operating in Princeton,” Lunn said. “We have two on our webpage that use commercial grade equipment. It is not cripplingly expensive, and the operating costs are actually lower, so once you get over the hurdle, you are actually saving.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, resident and subcommittee member John Heilner said it is important to recognize that small landscaping company owners are concerned about the costs of converting from gas-powered to more sustainable equipment. “This has to be a very careful balancing act,” he said. “Owners are very worried about regulations. They are not opposed to them, but
their livelihoods depend on this. “

Christine Symington of Sustainable Princeton said surveys and focus groups have been held with landscaping company owners and crew members. “It was important to have them separately to get honest feedback,” she said, adding that the Partners for Places grant will help provide a workshop by the American Green Zone Alliance in August for landscape company owners and crew to learn about new technologies.

Tammy Sands, chair of the Princeton Environmental Commission, said that a public outcry about gas-powered leaf blowers was voiced at the commission’s most widely attended meeting to date. She detailed several recommendations, including making sure the ordinance is amended in a way that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations are followed; leaf, branch, and log collection is re-evaluated; and making sure the registration process differentiates a sole proprietor from an owner of a commercial or small landscaping business.

Council members praised the team for their work. Councilwoman Eve Niedergang, who is liaison to the Princeton Environmental Commission, said efforts are being made to provide some financial assistance to landscapers transitioning from gas-powered to more sustainable equipment.

The work session on the Witherspoon Street design plan included a report on guiding design principles, improving stormwater management, safety improvements, and enhancing the economic vitality of the downtown business district, Municipal Engineer Deanna Stockton told Council.

The roadway between Nassau and Spring streets was made one-way going north last summer to allow for outdoor dining during the pandemic, and it was decided to keep it that way. Some members of the public have expressed hope that it can be closed to vehicular traffic on occasion. Others, particularly from the business community, have urged Council to turn it back to two-way.

Stockton said designing for one-way but considering how to accommodate two-way if necessary, designing for the ability to close off the street for pedestrian use, providing parking and loading zones, and providing green infrastructure were among the priorities taken away from the last meeting.

“We see this as very pedestrian-friendly,” Stockton said of revisions to the plan. “If a second lane of roadway is needed, there is accommodation. But we are looking to maintain as much as we can in terms of the linearity and gateway to FitzRandolph Gate [at Princeton University],” adding that there is more sidewalk on one side of the street than the other because of this effort.

Municipal Planner Michael LaPlace and members of Council praised the staff for their work. “I’m really pleased that so much that we requested at the last Council meeting has shown up here, and thank you for that,” said Councilman David Cohen, adding that he hoped there will be permanent parking for bicycles as part of the plan.

Several members of the business community signed a letter asking for certain accommodations. “Witherspoon Street requires beautification and a full redesign,” the letter, read by Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros, said. “We all love outdoor dining and encourage the new design to include outdoor seating. We also require loading and parking areas on the street. There must be a way to maintain some parking spots in strategic locations on the street.” Keeping the road one-way “is creating hardship for businesses and customers alike,” the letter continued.

Jessica Durrie, owner of Small World Coffee, and Kathy Klockenbrink, owner of Jammin’ Crepes, expressed particular concerns about the design. ”I know you’re trying your very best to address all the needs,” said Durrie. “But it feels like the design is more beneficial to the nighttime and the weekend, but not Monday to Friday, 9 to 5.”

“I’m concerned not only as a business owner, but as a resident,” said Klockenbrink. “This is not about being against a dining area. It’s about advocating for flexibility in the space. If there’s a compromise to be able to have that flow when appropriate, I’m just asking for that strong consideration.”