Princeton Council candidates shared their views during forum

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In a wide-ranging forum sponsored by the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association, the four candidates for two Princeton Council seats explained their stance on smart growth, preserving the neighborhood and negotiations with Princeton University.

Incumbent Princeton Councilman Tim Quinn, Michelle Pirone Lambros, Mia Sacks – all Democrats – and Adam Bierman, who is running as an Independent, spent the morning answering questions during the May 4 forum that was held at the First Baptist Church on John Street.

The three Democratic Party candidates are competing in the June 4 Democratic Party primary. The two winners and Bierman will face off in the Nov. 5 general election. The Republican Party is not fielding candidates for the two open seats on Princeton Council.

Asked about smart growth and how it applies to Princeton, the candidates agreed that it is being able to create a “walk-able” town – developing housing close to Nassau Street, if possible, and in nodes around town.

Bierman said he would encourage ride-sharing for those who work in town but who do not live here. Children should walk or ride their bicycles to school, because school buses contribute to traffic congestion.

Pirone Lambros said affordable housing should be built near the Princeton Shopping Center and in close-to-town neighborhoods, such as the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. The town should leverage its ability to work with developers, she said.

Quinn said “we have to accept” that not all housing can be built within walking distance of Nassau Street. Housing will be built in nodes, he said, pointing to the affordable housing development proposed for sites on Mount Lucas Road.

Sacks said smart growth is growing in a smart way. New housing should be compact and developed so that people can live near their jobs and shopping. It should be designed to have the least impact on the environment.

Focusing on the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, the candidates were asked how they would prevent the continued out-flow of minority residents from the neighborhood and whether they would support a neighborhood economic development plan.

There was agreement by all the candidates that rising property taxes are driving long-time residents out of the neighborhood.

The four candidates agreed that constructing duplex houses, triplex houses and accessory apartments and cottages – which would provide less expensive housing and rental income units for homeowners – may be the only way to help the residents to be able to afford to stay in the neighborhood.

Pirone Lambros said she would support a neighborhood economic development plan – “Yes, yes, yes.” The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood needs an urgent care medical facility, a grocery store, a laundromat and a pharmacy. The neighborhood had supported many small businesses, owned by local residents, in the past.

“I will do all that I can to (ensure) this is a vibrant community,” Quinn said. He would like to return the business base to the neighborhood, but it will take “getting zone right to match the reality on the ground.”

Sacks said that part of what makes a neighborhood vibrant is the ability to live and work and play nearby. The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood is developing its vision for the area, she said, adding that if she is elected to Princeton Council, the leaders should “let me know how the council can support you.”

When the conversation turned to Princeton University and the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement between the university and the town, Sacks said the two are practically inseparable and that a “divorce” is not in the cards. The town would not be the same without the university, she said.

Sacks said the two sides are going to negotiate a new PILOT, and the best way to reach an agreement is not to vilify the university. Nevertheless, the university places a burden on the town’s services, its roads and its municipal staff, and there is a “tremendous amount more that they could do,” she said. That is part of the negotiations process, she said.

Bierman said Princeton University does “a lot” for the town, such as allowing its employees to volunteer with the Princeton Fire Department during the day.

On the PILOT agreement and the money it gives to the town, Princeton University doesn’t always trust what the town does with the money, Bierman said. The town representatives who are negotiating with the university must have a good financial background, he said.

Pirone Lambros, who has owned and started small businesses, said she has a financial background. She said she can be “tenacious” in negotiations, and that Princeton University is getting the better deal with the PILOT.

Quinn said Princeton University is ready to begin negotiations in late 2019 or early 2020, and each side needs to have a clear understanding of how they benefit each other. The current agreement is just a floor, and “we need to see how high we can go.”