March 29, 2023

Meetings Related to Open Space Focus on Two Separate Issues

By Anne Levin

Two upcoming public meetings at Witherspoon Hall have some residents confused about their purposes.

On Thursday, March 30 from 4 to 7 p.m., a community engagement open house will focus on future plans for Community Park South. On Monday, April 3 at 7 p.m., a scoping hearing is being held to gather public comment on a “diversion request,” which — contrary to what some believe — will create additional open space at a location in Princeton, rather than taking any away.

It seems that in 2002, the municipal building on Witherspoon Street was mistakenly constructed on land designated for open space. The diversion is an effort to correct the error. Confusion about the purposes of the meetings likely stems from signage for the scoping hearing, placed around Community Park South, leading some to assume that it is related to plans for the park, and might turn some of the existing open space into a parking lot.

At Princeton Council’s Monday evening meeting, Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros tried to clarify the situation. “This [the March 30 open house] is not the same thing as what’s happening with the diversion,” she said. “They are two separate things.”

Since the error that allowed Witherspoon Hall to be built on designated open space was recently noticed, the town notified the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection about the oversight. To make up for it, new open space is to be identified at a location to be decided. That’s where the public comes in. The municipality wants to hear from the community, at the scoping hearing, on where that three acres might be located.

“So the building, the parking lots, and the parking lot on John Street that is used by the DPW (Department of Public Works), which is about three acres, will be diverted,” said Cindy Taylor, Princeton’s open space manager. “That means the parkland designation will be removed. We have to compensate and create more open space somewhere else. We’ll present our draft at the scoping meeting.”

“As part of the diversion process, Princeton will create a compensation plan to replace this parkland elsewhere within the municipality,” reads the signage. “Completing a diversion will result in increased open space and ensure the municipality is eligible for recreation and open space state funding in the future.”

Regarding the future of Community Park South, the municipality has retained Suburban Consulting Engineers to help work on developing plans. The consultants are “working collaboratively with the municipality’s team, stakeholders, user groups, Princeton residents, and community partners to help ensure diverse needs and priorities are considered in the overall park planning,” reads a notice on the meeting. “A steering committee comprised of residents, staff, and elected officials is also working with the consultant throughout the process to understand the community’s desire for the park, and how to accommodate them in the final concept plan.”

A survey asking for priorities was issued, results of which will be considered at the open house. Final concept plans will be presented at a meeting of the Recreation Commission in late spring or early fall before it is presented to Council for endorsement.

“This is long overdue,” Lambros said on Tuesday. “Investing in that park has been talked about for years. There is a lot of land there that is in bad shape, and we want to do these community meetings — this is the first of many — to get input from the whole community. We won’t be able to put everything there that everybody wants, but we want to know what the needs are.”
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