August 31, 2022

Merchants Express Frustrations Over Construction

By Anne Levin

During the public comment portion of last week’s Princeton Council meeting, Andrew Siegel, president of the Princeton Merchants Association (PMA), voiced the organization’s frustrations with the way the town has managed traffic problems stemming from ongoing construction projects on Witherspoon Street and the Graduate Hotel.

With six of the central business district’s seven streets now directing motorists north and only one going south, he said, the system is not working and area businesses are suffering as a result.

At that same meeting, a campaign was announced for new signage directing drivers looking for parking to area garages and the Princeton University lots that are free during evening hours. This week, it was announced that posters, banners, and sandwich board signs are being installed along Witherspoon Street in the first phase of the “Making Witherspoon” initiative, a collaboration of the municipality and Princeton University.

The idea is “to inform residents and visitors about the construction project currently underway along Witherspoon Street between Nassau Street and Green Street, including the amenities that will be created as a result of the construction, and to provide awareness of the project schedule,” according to a press release.

While the merchants welcome those efforts, they say more needs to be done. Specifically, they want a new traffic study, since the most recent one did not include Palmer Square streets, it assumed a two-way Chambers Street, and was considered using pre-pandemic traffic data that does not represent current patterns. They have also suggested such ideas as changing the schedule of work on Witherspoon Street, making Tulane Street one way going toward Nassau Street, and providing some free parking as an incentive.

“We need to be doing everything we possibly can to make it as easy as possible to get people into, out of, and through

town, and get them to shop and dine while they’re here,” said Siegel, chief operating officer of Hamilton Jewelers. “Current traffic patterns are very difficult to navigate. I continually tell the town I look forward to working with them. A lot of work needs to be done to make it more palatable during and after the construction period.”

According to Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros, who works closely with the business community, Council’s September 12 agenda will include an ordinance to provide a free hour of parking at the Spring Street Garage, which is the town’s one municipal parking facility. But another traffic study is not likely.

“We don’t need to spend more on consultants,” she said.  “Instead, we are looking at whether or not we can change the directions [of streets], and timing at the traffic lights along Nassau Street and at Vandeventer [Avenue.]”

Merchants say they appreciate efforts of Council and municipal staff to help the situation. But there are frustrations. “Several of us have been trying to sound the alarm for months because we started talking on the [former] Economic Development Committee about the simultaneous construction projects a year ago,” said Dorothea von Moltke, owner of Labyrinth Books. “We were asking, ‘What is being done to prepare?’ So here we are.”

Both Siegel and von Moltke have overheard comments from residents and visitors to their stores — not exactly complimentary. “Certainly, we’ve heard from customers,” said Siegel. “People who live in Princeton are not coming into town. If you walk the streets, and I do, you just listen to what people are saying about what a pain it is to get here and get around.”

“It’s a disaster,” said von Moltke. “We hear conversations every day about how difficult it is, and whether it’s worth coming back. For two years, we’re supposed to wait this out? It’s not like there aren’t other nice towns to visit where you can park and walk around. There is also a safety issue. I have witnessed so many things — cars turning the wrong way, making U-turns. People get irritated and it makes them more careless.”

After the town removed Witherspoon Street’s Bradford pear trees in March when it was deemed that they were destructive, the University donated planters and crepe myrtle trees that will remain for the duration of the construction. The trees have been maintained by the town’s Department of Public Works through the dry summer months.

Many merchants were disappointed when the Council voted in June 2021 to keep Witherspoon Street one way, which it had been during the pandemic. “We understand that whether we like it or not, one way is the way it is going to be,” said Siegel. “If that is the case, Council has a duty and responsibility to understand how that affects traffic in town, and undertake a remedy.”

Some merchants had hoped the town would allow an hour of free parking at meters, and two hours free at garages, during the construction projects. “You have to have something that is a welcoming gesture, acknowledging that this is not a great situation,” said von Moltke. “I’m so worried. People don’t understand how serious this is, and how serious it will stay.”

With the ordinance for some free parking scheduled to be introduced at the next Princeton Council meeting, and an executive director being hired to head the recently formed Princeton Business Partnership (PBP) starting October 1, there is hope that the situation will improve, said PBP President Aubrey Haines. “This person is going to take a very active role to jump in on these things,” he said. “We’re looking forward to working with the merchants, who are all essentially shareholders in the PBP, to increase the vibrancy of the downtown and help their businesses to thrive.”

In the meantime, “It is getting eerie to be in the downtown because of how empty it is,” said von Moltke. “First-year students [at Princeton University] moved in this past weekend, but you’d never know it. This is a moment where we are all part of welcoming everyone back to campus and back to town. But it’s really hard right now.”