It was like a dream come true — only it was a “visioning” come true.
For years, I had hoped Princeton would utilize the Princeton architectural, planning and design firm Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK) to do a community engagement planning project for Princeton — something LRK has done fabulously well in so many other communities throughout the country. On Saturday morning, June 18, at the Princeton Garden Theatre, my hope became a reality.
Thanks to the leadership of Princeton’s mayor, council members and municipal staff, and Princeton University’s funding, LRK engaged the residents of Princeton in a meaningful, apolitical, non-ulterior-motivated, community planning process for the downtown’s main thoroughfare, Nassau Street.
Hinds Plaza was a brilliant success in planning and implementation, as was Palmer Square decades earlier. But planning for the rest of the downtown and taking a holistic look at the aesthetics and utilization of the town’s iconic and historic thoroughfare were way overdue. It was as though the town’s vision for the downtown was deteriorating with age alongside of its infrastructure.
LRK and the project leader Jim Constantine, who is a master of this citizen engagement process, obtained public input through a slide/voting presentation inside the Garden Theatre and supplemented that process outside the theater with actual streetscape displays. Unlike an open community forum, the anonymous voting technique (little individual push-button phones — we need these for town council meetings) allowed everyone to answer questions honestly with no worries about giving a wrong answer.
The community input will be compiled within the next week or two. The overall “design palette” will be presented most likely in the fall when people have returned from summer vacations, according to Princeton’s assistant engineer Deanna Stockton, who helped implement the visioning event. The report will include recommendations about signposts, benches, street seating, bike racks, landscaping tree wells and planters, sidewalk and crosswalk pavers.
Now that I feel so emboldened by the visioning process, I would like to offer the town and LRK a few of my own vision-simple recommendations with a more behavioral and utilitarian (as opposed to aesthetic) perspective.
• Pavers. I have no opinion about whether pavers should be square, oblong, round, multi-colored or change colors to match community holidays (although that would be a memorable aesthetic quality requiring, however, the formation of another ad-hoc design committee). All I want are pavers that do the following: dissolve chewing gum; are stain-resistant to spilled coffee and ice cream; are easy on the feet, particularly feet wearing any type of heeled shoes; have separation cracks that are small enough so cigarette butts are unable to collect inside of the spaces; trigger a “get off the sidewalk immediately” announcement, as soon as the wheels of a skateboard or bicycle make contact with the sidewalk.
• Benches. The Parklet was the best setting for community conversation that I ever experienced (it was recently announced that a second Parklet will be set up outside JaZams). People talked to one another. The seating area discouraged the use of computers and encouraged the use of one’s vocal chords for real, as opposed to virtual, communication with one another.
• Stones. No unsecured stones shall exist anywhere — not on the tree wells or in any pathway. Stones of any shape and size are magnets for bad kid behavior.
• Kiosks. Jim Constantine, calling the Kiosks the “third rail” of Princeton planning policy, said LRK was “Kiosk neutral” and offered no suggestions for the renovation or destruction of the kiosks. I think we should keep them, but the Nassau Street facelift should include ongoing Botox injections for the kiosks that would keep them looking young and vibrant. The municipality should pay the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts to administer the beauty treatments, i.e., to maintain the appearance of the kiosks and the timeliness of the notifications posted on the kiosks. The pay would be a contribution to the scouts from the municipality, which would honor the scouts with an official proclamation — Kiosks and Scouts, Perfect Together.
• Paying for all the improvements. Even though Princeton University funded the initial visioning initiative, the town never should expect (but probably does) that the university would fund the implementation of the Nassau Street upgrades project. One resident interrupted Jim Constantine’s presentation with a question about “who is going to pay for all of this” and noted that lower taxes should be the municipality’s vision.
Open Space tax revenue ought to be the funding mechanism for the improvement and creation of urban/suburban sidewalk space. Nassau Street sidewalks are the open spaces to those of us who rarely get to use the paths and trails of Princeton’s preserved open space. I walk Nassau Street daily, and have walked in the woods once in the past two years.
• Witherspoon Street. My dream of community visioning for downtown only partially came true on June 18. We need to engage in a similar process for the town’s other historic and iconic thoroughfare — Witherspoon Street.