LOOSE ENDS: Reinventing Princeton’s plans for the future

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Jim Constantine of the architecture firm Looney Ricks Kiss says Princeton's planning process needs a revolution and a reinvention.

By Pam Hersh
Saturday, May 20, was my birthday. I am officially old, and I celebrated my oldness by participating in an old Princeton ritual. I attended a community information-and-input session on the topic of Princeton planning and development — Princeton Future’s forum: “Where will Princeton be in 20 years?”, I have lost count, but my old brain figures that since the dawn of the 21st century, I have attended at least 20 community sessions on transportation, several development proposals, parking, housing, rateables, property taxes, sustainability, downtown retail, Princeton University’s relationship with the town, etc. In 2000, Princeton Future was established by several Princeton residents who were concerned about the lack of community input on plans for development of the downtown. To its credit, Princeton Future created a structure for discussions to help the community with planning issues., Princeton Planning Board Chair Wanda Gunning, also a veteran of these discussions, asked how many people in the standing-room-only crowd in the community room of the Princeton Public Library would be alive 20 years from now? My guesstimate, based on a wrinkle-and-gray-hair visual survey, was less than 10 percent of the audience members. (Princeton Future President Kevin Wilkes, architect and founding president of Princeton Design Guild, said 20 percent.) The sentiment among the oldies in the room was, “Enough with the input, are we going to live long enough to see the output?”, My birthday gift came in the form of some thoughts unwrapped and unfiltered from Jim Constantine, a planner and principal in the firm Looney Ricks Kiss, an architectural, planning, interior design, and community engagement firm based in Memphis with an office in Princeton., Constantine’s comments worked better than my giant collection of anti-wrinkle creams to make me feel young by giving me some hope for Princeton’s future — during my lifetime. In his Princeton Future presentation, he talked revolution., The conversation for the forum was based on the following statement: “Looking ahead for 20 to 30 years, Princeton Future foresees more technological changes in how we live. While protecting our traditional residential neighborhoods and commercial districts, we have identified 25 sites where the Princeton zoning code should provide for increased density, mixed use, open space, economical construction, public transit, decreased parking requirements, public-private off-street shared parking, and more variety and choice of housing, affordable to low, moderate, middle income families and individuals.”, Saying to myself that I was too old for yet another discussion, I zoned out for most of the meeting, because the comments sounded old. Audience members expressed negative, anti-change sentiments, while supporting all the socially progressive idealism articulated by the above Princeton Future statement. For some, smart planning and smart growth are desirable only if the progressive planning principles can be accomplished without changing the “character” the neighborhood, without reducing parking spaces, without putting stress on the school system, without lowering property values, without increasing taxes, without increasing traffic on neighborhood streets, and without causing random strangers to park in front their homes., My conclusion was that the residents and governing officials were stuck in a traffic jam of ideas and unable to move forward., The different ideas and opinions (negative and positive) have little to do with Princeton’s sticky planning problem, according to Constantine, who has worked with such communities as Metuchen, Highland Park, and Hightstown to define their planning vision and implement it. The problem, he said, is the lack of a well-articulated vision supported by a nimble planning process., With characteristic bluntness, Constantine called for a disruption, a revolution, a reinvention of the Princeton planning process. Without some changes, Princeton will find itself lagging in vitality and desirability behind the other New Jersey communities with whom he has worked., Princeton needs to go from being reactive to planning problems and development/redevelopment applications to being proactive by taking steps to implement a cohesive vision. The residents and officials should move from soul-searching discussions to implementing a planning process that encourages flexibility and creativity in development. And that will take the courage to take such steps as declaring portions of the town “Areas In Need of Rehabilitation” and/or implement zoning changes such as “right-sizing” (i.e., reducing) parking requirements, and instituting a policy of common-use driveways behind retail (similar to Lawrenceville’s downtown). The goal would be to eliminate the pedestrian/cyclist hazardous curb cuts and driveways in front of retail areas., “We are striving for end results that reflect consensus,” Constantine said. “But I define consensus as 70 percent of the people getting 70 percent of what they want.”, I asked him about the one major exception to the uninspired Princeton planning process — the redevelopment of Hinds Plaza/Spring Street area. He said he believed it was Bob Geddes, architect, planner, and dean emeritus of the Princeton University School of Architecture (1965-1982) “who started the effort to recognize that the process needed to change to create a downtown place not just a library project,” Constantine said., “Former Princeton Borough Mayor Marvin Reed was a leader who recognized the benefits of the ‘big idea,’ and he then responded strategically when a visioning process showed that the public did want a mixed-use downtown place,” Constantine said. “But implementing this big idea was complicated in terms of needing more than one parcel of land. Phasing that required moving the library twice, and needing a process to select a qualified redeveloper. Marv was committed and willing to fight through the opposition that never let up, and fought him in lawsuits that were ultimately decided after everything was built., “How was this process different? What usually happens in Princeton is that the town just writes or rewrites zoning as the applicant comes up with a plan, the review process commences and the public engages at hearings. At Hinds Plaza, first came the ‘big idea,’ then a vision with public consensus, then a concept plan and selection of a developer with public review, and finally the detailed plan.”, Reed, who now lives in Montgomery Township at Stone Bridge where Bob Geddes also now resides, came to the Princeton Future meeting, because intellectually he always will be a Princeton resident with an unending commitment to the well being of his friends and neighbors. He helped Princeton Future come up with the list of 25 potential redevelopment sites., Constantine emphasized that at this point in Princeton’s history, the town needs not only a leader, but also one equipped with the right tools to make things happen. “We need to shake things up.”, I look forward to my next birthday where I hope Happy Birthday to you will be replaced by “Shake it up, baby, come on and twist and shout.”