Face-changing in town center far from over


By: Packet Editorial
   Although not to everyone’s liking, the face of downtown Princeton is definitely changing. Every day, a little more visible progress is made on the Princeton Public Library going up at the corner of Witherspoon and Wiggins streets, and the 500-car parking garage and related development rising on the site of the former Park & Shop lot right next door.
   Some Princetonians lament this change, and have fought it at every turn. Others embrace it. Still others don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other, but will simply be relieved when the two projects are completed in the spring — adding more parking spaces downtown, removing the traffic impediments caused by the construction and reducing the decibel level of the raucous debate.
   But whatever relief arrives with the opening of the library and garage may be short-lived. By that time, depending on what happens at two important public meetings this week, construction activity could simply move to the other side of Witherspoon Street, where Palmer Square Management and The Arts Council of Princeton are poised to sculpt additional changes to the face of the borough’s central business district.
   The first step toward turning the long-planned Hulfish North development from a pipe dream into a construction project could take place as early as tonight, when the Princeton Borough Council holds a public hearing on the terms of a developer’s agreement hammered out between the borough and Palmer Square Management. Under the agreement, Palmer Square would be authorized to build 97 to 100 townhouses atop the unsightly parking garage between Hulfish Street and Paul Robeson Place. In return, the borough would receive 10 low- and moderate-income housing units and over $300,000 for municipal fees and off-site improvements.
   Already, this project has its detractors, who believe the borough could have held out for more affordable-housing units, higher fees, bigger improvements or a streamlined payment schedule. But it appears to have the support of a majority of the Borough Council, who see in this agreement the long-awaited chance to convert what is arguably the central business district’s biggest eyesore into an attractive (not to mention taxpaying) residential development.
   Later this week, the Site Plan Review Advisory Board is scheduled to take up The Arts Council of Princeton’s revised application to expand its building at the corner of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place. An earlier application, featuring a Michael Graves-designed rotunda and a 200-seat theater, was turned down by a 6-5 vote of the Princeton Regional Planning Board in December 2000. In this revised version, The Arts Council has significantly scaled back its expansion plans — but not nearly enough to satisfy opponents.
   Parking, traffic and the impact of an expanded Arts Council on the quality of life in the neighboring John-Witherspoon community are the major points of contention here — though, truth be told, simmering just below the surface of the public debate are a lot of festering issues regarding Princeton’s historically black neighborhood and its treatment at the hands of the white majority over the years. While the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting of the advisory board is likely to zero in on more immediate and tangible matters — like square footage, setback requirements, parking spaces and traffic circulation patterns — succeeding steps in The Arts Council’s application process, up to and including hearings before the Planning Board, will be through a minefield of less technical but more incendiary considerations.
   In the end, The Arts Council must win approval, at a minimum, to upgrade and improve its badly outmoded facility to comply with local, state and federal building requirements. Without such approval, it will either have to move away from its central location or shut down altogether, neither of which is a sensible outcome. When all the other considerations are swept away, the challenge to The Arts Council, the neighborhood and the larger community is to find common ground. Otherwise, the emotion attendant to this particularly contentious project has the potential to leave an unwelcome blemish on the changing face of downtown Princeton.