Aiming to refine what residents would like a refurbished Witherspoon Street to look like – now that the town has a $610,000 state grant in hand – the Princeton Engineering Department listened to residents and merchants at a virtual meeting designed to tease out their preferences.
Five options were rolled out at the Sept. 15 meeting, ranging from restoring Witherspoon Street, between Nassau Street and Spring Street, to its original configuration of one lane in each direction plus parking on both sides of the street, to keeping the temporary configuration of one lane northbound and one lane for parking/loading, or complete closure of Witherspoon Street to make it a pedestrian plaza.
While a decision will not be made immediately, several merchants made it clear that they opposed the complete closure of Witherspoon Street for a pedestrian plaza. They said it would hurt their businesses, which are already suffering because of the shutdown order issued by Gov. Phil Murphy in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Sept. 15 meeting was the second one in a series of three meetings to get feedback from residents, Municipal Engineer Deanna Stockton said. A third meeting will be held in October. The Princeton Council and the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission, which is a municipal body, will weigh in on the redesign.
The goal is to wrap up the final concept, prepare bid specifications and go out for bids in April 2021, Stockton said. Work would begin in June 2021. Improvements to the rest of Witherspoon Street, from Green Street to Valley Road, would take place over the next several years.
Among the improvement under consideration are widening the sidewalks on Witherspoon Street, and to improve pedestrian safety through a variety of measures that include bump-outs at the street corners to shorten the distance between the east side and west side of the street for pedestrian crossings.
It was also suggested that the traffic light at the intersection of Witherspoon Street, Paul Robeson Place and Wiggins Street could be modified to create an “all-crossing,” similar to the one at Nassau Street, Vandeventer Avenue and Washington Road that stops traffic in all four directions at once to allow pedestrians to cross the street.
Since the street trees along Witherspoon Street are reaching the end of their lifespan, they would be replaced with a variety of shade trees and native trees, Stockton said. They would be surrounded by cast-iron tree grates for protection. Street lighting would be upgraded and made to look “historic,” she said.
Adding bicycle-sharing opportunities or other “micro-mobility” options, bicycle corrals, bicycle shelters, bus shelters and street amenities such as benches are “all on the table for us,” Stockton said.
But the most pressing decision that need to be made is choosing from among the five options – to restore Witherspoon Street to its original configuration, to close it altogether for pedestrians only, or one of the options in between.
Four of the five options would allow for wider sidewalks, but some of the options would reduce the number of parking spaces on Witherspoon Street from 22 spaces to 11 spaces. It is possible that the one-way direction of travel on Spring Street and South Tulane Street (between Spring Street and Nassau Street) would have to be flipped, depending on the selected option.
Also, with the exception of restoring Witherspoon Street to its original configuration, all of the options would require a traffic study and approval by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, Stockton said.
According to an online survey conducted by the town, Stockton said, the majority of respondents voted to close off Witherspoon Street to create a pedestrian plaza. The final survey results will be reviewed, and the top three preferred options will be examined.
During the meeting, Stockton read off some of the comments submitted by residents. Several residents wrote in to say that business would improve on Witherspoon Street if it were closed to create a pedestrian plaza.
The residents pointed to similar measures taken in other college towns, such as Boulder, Colorado, which home to the University of Colorado, and to Burlington, Vermont, which is home to the University of Vermont.
But when the meeting was opened for public comment, several business owners expressed concern about closing off Witherspoon Street to cars and its impact on business – including Jessica Durrie, long-time owner of Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street.
Durrie praised Princeton officials for allowing outdoor dining, but cautioned that decisions on the design of Witherspoon Street should not hinge on it or be used as a benchmark. Conditions are “not normal,” she said.
Princeton University and the Princeton Theological Seminary are essentially closed down, and the traffic flow has been reduced by about 30-35%, she said. Weekend tourism is essential to businesses’ success, she added.
There is no denying that closing off the street for pedestrians is very appealing and gives it a European, romantic feel and that everyone is relaxed, but “you can’t make changes based on how you feel. Merchants have to pay rent and real estate taxes. I believe a more measured re-design (would be preferable),” Durrie said.
Andrew Siegel, whose family owns Hamilton Jewelers on the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon streets, was supportive of the streetscape improvements, but he cautioned municipal officials about closing off Witherspoon Street to cars and parking. It is not a good idea and would be a “disaster” for the businesses, he said.
“I understand the reality of my business,” Siegel said.
Most of the store’s customers, many of whom are not Princeton residents, drive to the store, so “easy” parking is essential for his business and for the mixture of businesses on Witherspoon Street, he said.
“Closing off Witherspoon Street would be the death knell for businesses that are struggling,” Siegel said. The merchants are not opposed to change, but “we know the simple truth about the businesses here,” he said.
Dorothea von Moltke, who is an owner of Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street, said the town is in an “exceptional state” because of COVID-19. It is not possible to extrapolate from these exceptional times and plan for the future from inside of this particular moment, she said.
There are many vacant storefronts, and there may be more on the way, von Moltke said. She said that she, too, is worried about closing Witherpoon Street to traffic and its impact on businesses.
Closing off Witherspoon Street also drew concern from former Princeton Councilwoman Jo Butler, who said it would have an impact on public safety. It would make it difficult for emergency responders if the street is closed off, she said.
There are apartments on the second and third floors of the buildings on Witherspoon Street, above the ground floor businesses, Butler said.
Butler also said the green spaces on Palmer Square are not well utilized.
“What question are we trying to solve?” Butler said.
But Adam Welch, the newly-appointed executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton, suggested a compromise: to close off Witherspoon Street on the weekends. The parallel parking spaces on Nassau Street could be converted into diagonal parking spaces, making up for the lost parking on Witherspoon Street, he said.