By Philip Sean Curran
The Princeton Council begins 2019 responding to a backlash to a new parking system municipal officials introduced in the fall.
The backlash is a result of high-tech equipment not working properly, prices increases in most areas and regulations that have the business community fuming.
To park for two hours on Nassau Street in front of Henry Landau’s clothing store, the price jumped from $2.50 to $4.50, an amount that has customers “appalled,” according to Landau, a resident of Princeton.
“They want to put any shortfall in the local budget against the people who are coming into town,” Landau said of Princeton’s elected officials. “All they are doing is chasing customers out of town.”
“There are people who are saying they are not going to come downtown and shop in downtown,” said Ron Menapace, the owner of Homestead Princeton on Hulfish Street.
“We’re having … customers regularly coming in and they are outraged,” said Dean Smith, the owner of JaZams, a toy store in Palmer Square. “It’s surprising to me that some of the folks who have complained to us, people who are completely dedicated to being downtown and shopping downtown, and their response has been, ‘We’re just not going to do it.’ ”
Municipal officials spent about $1 million for new parking meters and other equipment, raised most on-street parking fees and changed regulations that include prohibiting motorists from re-parking on the same block for two hours after reaching the maximum time limit.
“Now nobody is going to pile their kids back in the car and figure out where the hell another (parking) zone is and then try to get parking somewhere else and then return to whatever they were doing in Princeton,” said Dorothea von Moltke, a co-owner of Labyrinth Books, Nassau Street. “It’s simply a vast disincentive to come downtown and to shop and support local business, and our customers are feeling it. Our customers are saying as much.”
Officials also decided to enforce parking meters on Sundays, something that had not been done before.
Princeton officials have also heard concerns about the hardware that has been installed on the streets. A councilman issued a public letter in December to say he shared “the frustrations of those having problems with our new parking infrastructure … ”
Councilman Tim Quinn wrote on Facebook that the council would vote “to implement changes” at its Jan. 14 meeting, but he did not specify, then or now, what those changes would be.
“I’m reluctant to state publicly the substance of the change during this time of transition,” Quinn said on Dec. 24. “We know there are software problems and there have been reports of multiple hardware problems.”
Councilman David Cohen said on Dec. 24 that in some cases, the meters do not light up when they are supposed to or the messages that display on the screen are too large and scroll off the screen.
“It seems like the meters were really hard for people to use and people didn’t like them much more than we expected,” council President Jenny Crumiller said on Dec. 24.
Through most of the town, the cost of parking on the street went up. The central business district, where Landau’s store is located, saw the price jump by $1 per hour, with a two-hour-limit.
“We knew there was going to be unhappiness about the rate increase,” Cohen said.
Council members also changed regulations that present challenges to merchants, who compete for employees with the Princeton Shopping Center or a shopping mall, where employees do not have to pay for parking, Menapace said.
“The challenge for merchants is that (municipal officials) have reduced some parking spaces and moved full-day parking spaces further away for our employees,” he said. “If my employees have to pay additional parking, that means I have to pay them more to encourage them to work downtown.”
Princeton relies mostly on people from out town for its workforce, the overwhelming majority of whom take a car to work. A 2014 report done for the local group Princeton Future found that more than 23,600 workers drive to their jobs in Princeton each day.
“If there’s any extra charge for working in Princeton by not having free parking or very inexpensive parking in walking distance, it’s really serious,” von Moltke said.
Municipal officials have said they relied upon data and used expert advice to guide their thinking about the parking changes the council made.
Quinn has said officials needed to make the changes. The older parking meters were failing, he said.
“The new system was developed by nationally respected professionals and policy decisions were based on locally collected data and best practices,” he wrote in his open letter.
A representative for Dixon Resource Unlimited, the town’s parking consultant, did not respond to a request for comment.
“We absolutely are willing to acknowledge any mistakes we made in implementing the system and that we want to rectify any mistakes we did make in the process,” Cohen said. “This system is supposed to be good for the community as a whole.
“The case we’ve been making, from day one, is that there are benefits or supposed benefits to every feature of the program the way it was adopted, but I think some of them are theoretical and the way they are playing out in reality doesn’t align with what we expected,” he said.
Cohen said the price increase was primarily intended to manage the demand for parking by freeing up spots. The thinking was that some people would be unwilling to pay the increased rate in the center of town and pay at less expensive meters, farther away, and walk to where they needed to go.
But so far, Cohen said, “we’re not seeing any serious decline in the number of parking spaces that are open. We’ve got a lot data that shows parking hasn’t decreased.”
Higher parking fees are expected to bring an additional $1 million to Princeton’s finances, based on an analysis by the Citizens Finance Advisory Committee, a volunteer group that advises the council on financial matters. The rate hikes were the first since 2007.
Merchants said they believe municipal officials raised the parking rates to have a revenue stream, a step they oppose.
“If we look at parking and being able to increase revenue streams through parking, it might be a bit shortsighted, because you might see less and less merchants downtown and that affects the overall economy of the town,” Menapace said.
Smith, the owner of JaZams, and his wife took part in meetings officials held about parking ahead of the changes. He said they are “deeply, deeply disappointed with the outcome.”
“I feel like that is what was being said through this whole process, ‘I hear you, I hear you,’ ” Smith said. “And in the end it’s like, I don’t just want to be heard. I want somebody to respond in a constructive way to what I’m saying.”
He said one solution would be to use some residential streets to allow employees of businesses to have permitted parking, in an arrangement that would make money for the town and “eliminate some of the parking pressure in the downtown.”
“You wouldn’t have to radically adjust rates or the amount of time people are allowed to stay in as a drastic a manner as they did if you alleviated some of the pressure from employees parking in the downtown,” Smith said.
Cohen said there would be a second phase of parking changes, in 2019, to enable employees to park at reduced costs, but in locations farther away from the center of town and thus not compete with shoppers for prime spaces.
One possibility is for officials to expand municipal bus service to accommodate the “remote employee parking,” he said.
The timing of the parking overhaul occurred in early November, around the start of the holiday shopping season. Cohen said officials had intended to make the changes earlier in 2018, but there was a delay in getting the equipment delivered.
“We did not respond properly to those delays and say to ourselves, ‘Look if we can’t get the equipment until October, we should really wait to install it until after the new year because we know there are going to be difficulties with the installation and with the adjustment,’ ” Cohen said. “That’s the biggest mistake I think we made, but unfortunately, that’s one we can’t really fix.”
Cohen declined to point fingers at Dixon Resource Unlimited on the bad timing of the rollout.
“I think anyone could have had this insight and basically nobody did,” he said.
Merchants find themselves raising concerns of losing business at a time when retail stores in Princeton are struggling to stay open and where vacant storefronts are increasing with frequency.
Menapace said there are more vacancies on Hulfish Street, in Palmer Square, than there are merchants.
“People are coming into town for one reason, to get something, and because of the rates, they are not staying, they are not wandering,” Landau said. “We need people to wander.”
The new parking rules and other changes come in a community that is seeking to be more environmentally friendly, reduce carbon emissions, combat congestion and promote other ways of getting around.
In February 2018, Mayor Liz Lempert appeared on a cable television program dealing with “car free in Princeton,” to tout bike alternatives and public transportation options.
“We want to make it easy for people to come into town and to find a place to park,” Lempert said. “But we do hope they will leave their car where it is and go to their multiple stops on foot or by bike.”
Princeton has a bike-sharing program and officials are looking to create a network of bike paths through the municipality.
“I think there is this thought that folks on the council think they have an understanding of the car culture transforming, and the decisions they are making are always kind of rooted in this and that they are trying to implement a bike culture,” Smith said.
“Nobody who works in town can afford to live in town, so they are all going to drive here. No matter how much you want to eliminate cars, you don’t have a transportation system that is going to allow for people to come into Princeton who are living in other places,” he added.