November 16, 2022

Princeton Future Engages the Public, Urges: “Speak Up! Have Your Say!”

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE: Chris Knigge, left, along with Princeton Councilmembers David Cohen and Michelle Pirone Lambros, worked on issues of traffic, transit, pedestrians, bicycles, and parking as one of nine teams at a November 12 workshop and listening session sponsored by Princeton Future. (Photo courtesy of Princeton Future)

By Donald Gilpin

The topic was circulation and mobility in the town of Princeton, and the discussion was lively on Saturday, November 12 in Erdman Hall of the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Cooper Center in a three-hour open public meeting sponsored by Princeton Future.

One in a series of Princeton Future’s listening sessions “to inform and engage residents as the town prepares its new Community Master Plan,” the work of the group is “intended to complement the official master planning process by the Princeton Planning Board.”

“It’s really about listening to what the people in town have to say, and the more we can do to help the town make the decisions that are the most appropriate the better off we’ll be,” said Tony Nelessen, Rutgers University professor emeritus of urban design and a member of the Council of Princeton Future.

Nelessen, who led Saturday’s workshop, continued, “We’re saying this is what people told us. You should consider this in some form or another and allow it to help you make these decisions that have to be made in order to keep the town the kind of town everybody wants now, and into the future.”

Saturday’s participants divided into nine teams, and each team focused on a large map of a particular section of town. Colored markers and symbols were provided to designate what streets and routes participants thought needed various types of improvements, and where bus stops and parking should be. 

As Nelessen led the group through a series of 92 PowerPoint slides, the groups responded to 11 different questions about traffic congestion and noise, the location of dangerous intersections, where transit loops should go, where pedestrian spaces should be located, what streets should be prioritized for bicycle improvements, and where parking and mixed-use parking structures might be situated. 

“People were really very thoughtful,” said Nelessen. “There was a tremendous amount of discussion in all of the nine groups, and the teams gave us very serious input.”

Nelessen and his Princeton Future colleagues will be synthesizing and processing the responses in the coming weeks. “I saw a lot of things that I think we’re going to find that all nine teams have in common, things that we’ll explore in the next step in the process,” he said.

Princeton Future is eager to pass along the ideas and responses from these sessions to the town’s decision-makers on Princeton Council, the Planning Board, and elsewhere. A number of those leaders participate in Princeton Future workshops and listening sessions.

“The discussions and debate that have happened at Princeton Future events give rise to good ideas and even great ones. Looking forward to hearing some of those today,” said Municipal Planning Board Chair Louise Wilson at a March 5 Princeton Future meeting.  “I also want to emphasize that the board understands and appreciates and values Princeton Future’s intense interest in the process and the outcome. We are eager to hear all ideas and insights — all the hopes, dreams, desires, and concerns that are shared here today.”

Princeton Councilman David Cohen, who participated in Saturday’s meeting, described it as “a great session,” and he learned about something called “on-demand transit.” Cohen explained, “I have heard it alluded to in concept, but had no idea that there are towns which have actually implemented such systems.”

He continued, “It is a variation on Uber, but much less expensive because it is not door-to-door, but rather point-to-point. You call to request a ride and then walk to your nearest ‘station.’ Stations are located all over town. The van is then routed to your destination while also picking up other passengers along the way who have also requested rides — much more efficient than regular Ubers because the vehicle is more often shared, spreading the cost burden. This is not a replacement for more traditional mass transit, but rather a means for covering portions of town which lack the density of riders to support traditional mass transit.”

Nelessen, who has presented urban design workshops in about 300 other towns over the past decades, noted that participants on Saturday were particularly impressed with the idea of mixed-use parking structures, which have the possibility of retail properties down below, parking in the middle, and housing up above. “I showed them several examples of that, and then I told them that these would have to be temporary because over time, as the transportation system got developed and Princeton became more sustainable, these parking structures would be used for housing or farming or some other use, so they would have to be temporary,” he said. “Everybody got into that idea.” 

Another manifestation of Princeton Future at work is currently on display in Dohm Alley off Nassau Street, where four large posters illustrate the results of listening sessions that took place earlier this year. The exhibit is titled “What Areas of Princeton Are Susceptible to Change?” and the photos, color-coded maps, and text show potential land use for certain areas in town based on recommendations from participants engaged in April and September workshops.

“I have always been of the belief in all this work that people here know this town better than anybody,” said Nelessen. “You shouldn’t be telling people what they want their town to be. You should let them make some decisions, and I have found through the 40, almost 50, years that I’ve done this that if you ask people the question, they’ll give a pretty good answer, and that’s what happened Saturday. I have a lot of faith that what people told us is the right thing.”