Witherspoon Street approved for one-way traffic

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Witherspoon Street, which was temporarily converted from a two-way street to a one-way street between Nassau Street and Spring Street, will become a one-way street northbound permanently, under an ordinance approved by the Princeton Council.

The ordinance, which gained final approval at the Princeton Council’s Dec. 21 meeting, stipulates that Witherspoon Street will be a one-way street northbound, which means cars will travel “down” the hill on Witherspoon Street from Nassau Street.

There will be one lane for cars and trucks. The rest of Witherspoon Street will be redesigned to accommodate pedestrians, bicycle parking, outdoor dining, public art, green infrastructure storm water management and other non-vehicular uses.

The change must be approved by the New Jersey Department of Transportation because Nassau Street/Route 27 is a state highway. Witherspoon Street is a municipally-controlled street.

While there was significant support for the change – including a petition in favor of it that was signed by more than 1,100 people – there was some opposition from merchants and neighbors.

At the same time, some supporters expressed disappointment and said the Princeton Council did not go far enough. They wanted that section of Witherspoon Street to be closed off for a pedestrian mall.

Meanwhile, a traffic study commissioned by the town indicated that the change in the direction of travel on Witherspoon Street may require changes on nearby streets, such as S. Tulane Street and Chambers Street.

The direction of travel on S. Tulane Street, between Nassau Street and Spring Street, may need to be flipped from northbound to southbound. Cars would travel south on S. Tulane Street, toward Nassau Street, and drivers would not be able to turn left onto Nassau Street. They could only turn right.

At the intersection of Nassau Street and Chambers Street, cars traveling south on Chambers Street – toward Nassau Street – may not be allowed to turn left onto Nassau Street. Left turns are banned between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., but it is likely that left turns will be banned altogether.

The intersections of Wiggins Street and Vandeventer Avenue, and Nassau Street and Vandeventer Avenue/Washington Road, would likely be impacted by the additional traffic that would be pushed onto those streets, according to the town’s traffic study.

During the public hearing on the ordinance, Princeton resident Brian Levinson told the council that he initiated the petition in support of the proposed change. He praised the change as one that is both smart and flexible.

“What you are doing is making a difference. Your vote (to approve the ordinance) takes a regular old street with narrow sidewalks and turns it into a vibrant boulevard,” Levinson said.

Alex Merchant, who lives in Princeton, said the change will be a “tremendous improvement,” but he said he was disappointed that the council did not close the street and make it a pedestrian mall. He called it a “missed opportunity.”

Sam Bunting, who signed Levinson’s petition, said the petitioners believe that if the town created a more pedestrian-friendly space on Witherspoon Street, people would be more inclined to spend time – and money – at the businesses. It would attract more people and “resolve” the store vacancies, he said.

But some merchants disapproved, pointing out that the change would benefit restaurants but not retail businesses. The new traffic patterns also might discourage visitors because of the difficulty of navigating through Princeton, they said.

David Newton, who described himself as the landlord of 92 Nassau St. and 16 Chambers St., objected to the ordinance because of the “terrible” vacancy for commercial properties. The majority of retail store owners are not in favor of the change, he said.

“This town feels – and I am not quite sure why – the need to create a very significant change to the traffic system at a time when people are just reeling in terms of their (retail) businesses,” Newton said.

Andrew Siegel, whose family owns Hamilton Jewelers at 92 Nassau St., said that while he welcomes the beautification of Witherspoon Street, the change will likely hurt the quick service businesses and fine retail shops in the Central Business District.

“It is important to remember – and it must be stressed to all who supported this change – that there are individuals and businesses who have lost with this decision,” Siegel said. “It is good for full-service restaurants that will have more space for outdoor dining, but other businesses will suffer.”

Objections to the new traffic pattern also came from neighborhood residents Tina Clement and Jim Firestone, who said they spend a lot of time sitting on the front porch of their home on Vandeventer Avenue.

Since the town began its experiment on Witherspoon Street several months ago, they have watched as traffic is “backed up” on Vandeventer Avenue southbound – toward Nassau Street – as visitors try to leave town, Clement and Firestone said.

But Princeton Council members supported the change.

Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros said the full-service restaurants are “anchors” and will bring patrons to the retail businesses. The Princeton Council will work with the business owners and listen to their concerns, she added.

Councilwoman Eve Niedergang said that “change is scary. No one can guarantee that this is going to work.”

“On the other hand, there are changes all around us that are affecting business – Amazon, the big warehouse stores. They are also going to be putting pressure on so many retail businesses. If we can create a fun, dynamic place, then people will come to shop,” Niedergang said.

Councilwoman Mia Sacks said there was similar opposition when Hinds Plaza and the Princeton Public Library were proposed. Merchants were concerned that it would affect their businesses, but it has become a popular gathering spot.

Sacks said it will take at least nine to 12 months for the New Jersey Department of Transportation to review and approve the application, and there are additional steps that need to be taken before the change can be made.

“The shovels are not going into the ground tomorrow,” Sacks said.