From how to help the business community to recover from the recent economic downturn to how to create housing that is affordable for the middle class, three would-be Princeton Council candidates offered their thoughts at a June 11 candidates forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area.
Incumbent Princeton Council members David Cohen and Leticia Fraga and political newcomer Dina Shaw will square off in the July 7 Democratic Party primary to seek the party’s nod to run for two open seats on the council. The two winners will become the de facto Princeton Council members, because the Republican Party is not fielding candidates in the Nov. 3 general election.
Cohen and Fraga are completing their first terms on the Princeton Council, and Shaw is making her first run for elected office. The term is for three years.
Asked what they would do to foster a viable Central Business District and which has seen its share of vacant storefronts, each candidate offered a slightly different view of the issue.
Shaw said it is important to look at Princeton as a whole. She pointed to the need to market the community and “to make sure the world knows what have in this town.” She suggested looking into the future and thinking about the town would look like in 10 years.
Shaw also would like to ensure that there is affordable housing for low- and middle-income households and for senior citizens. Free WiFi would help the businesses because they need to have an online presence. Better public transportation is needed, too.
Fraga, who sits on the Economic Development Committee, agreed and said the committee is working on much of what Shaw had suggested. While the committee has heard from business owners in the Central Business District, the voices of micro-businesses – especially in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood – need to be heard, she said.
The possibility of an economic development manager has been mentioned, Fraga said. The Princeton Council also had been working on a sign ordinance and on a permit parking system for employees and neighborhood residents before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Cohen said that in the COVID-19 era, the challenge will be to maintain social distancing in the commercial district as businesses begin to open up and outdoor dining is permitted. It is easier to do so in the residential neighborhoods.
He also said that in the long term, creating affordable housing above the stores and businesses in the Central Business District and in the small business node on Route 206, north of Cherry Hill Road, would be helpful. The residential units would supply the businesses with potential customers, he said.
On the issue of the Princeton Police Department, the candidates were asked if there is more that the police department could do to assess its performance, training and discipline to further eliminate racial, gender and ethnic bias in its interactions with the community.
“It is hard for me to imagine what more they can do,” Cohen said. There is an early warning system in place that tracks an officer’s use of force, complaints and inappropriate interactions with the community so that steps may be taken to correct the officer’s behavior, he said.
There has been some talk about getting information – on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis – about the presence of police, Cohen said. There is a perception that there is a greater police presence in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood than in other neighborhoods, he said.
Fraga agreed with Cohen that the Princeton Police Department is “pretty good.” Police Chief Nicholas Sutter is responsive to suggestions about how the police department could do better. If suggestions or recommendations are offered, they are often implemented.
It starts at the top and with the recruitment of new police officers, Fraga said. When directives and policies are handed out, officers must be trained to understand and follow them, she said. The officers are not just handed a piece of paper with new directives and policies.
Shaw said that her philosophy would be to re-imagine what policing could look like in Princeton, given the turmoil over the past few weeks involving police nationwide. The Princeton Police Department is an “incredibly important part of the community” and it needs to be part of the community, she said.
Shaw said she would work with Sutter, the police chief, to figure out what the officers do for the town, and whether they are trained in all areas. Do they do everything they are trained to do, or is extra training or extra help needed under some circumstances, she said.
The candidates also were asked to address the recurring issue of how to make single-family homes more affordable for the middle class – such as a review of the zoning ordinance – and what is standing in the way of such a review.
Fraga said officials have discussed the issue, and “as far as doing something, that is something we are working on.” Some neighborhoods would not welcome possible solutions, such as duplexes or multifamily housing because of the character of the neighborhood, “but in my opinion, it should all be fair.”
Shaw said a review of the zoning ordinance would be a top priority, if she were to be elected to the Princeton Council. There are “interesting ways to design multifamily housing,” she said. It is exciting and it is something that the town needs to do in an orderly, timely fashion, she said.
Cohen said there is nothing standing in the way of a review of the zoning ordinance and in fact, an ordinance is set to be introduced at the council’s June 15 meeting that would make it easier to create an accessory dwelling unit – a second, smaller housing unit – in an existing single-family home or in a garage on the property.