Taunts will not stop change at shopping center


By: Packet Editorial
   Some folks may wonder how useful it was for a group of students in a Rutgers University landscape architecture class to spend a semester drawing up plans for improving the Princeton Shopping Center. After all, the shopping center had earlier commissioned its own conceptual plan, prepared by prominent local architect Jeremiah Ford, and presented it to the Princeton Regional Planning Board for review.
   And some may question how appropriate it was for Carlos Rodrigues, who teaches the Rutgers class, to have his students appear before the Planning Board to report their findings and recommendations. After all, Mr. Rodrigues also serves as chairman of the Princeton Township Zoning Board of Adjustment, and even the remotest chance that his students’ designs might influence the future shape of the shopping center could be perceived as a potential conflict.
   But whatever view one may take of the students’ project, and of Mr. Rodrigues’ role in it, they did not deserve the treatment they received last Thursday night when they made their presentation to the Planning Board. The board itself was attentive and cordial, but several audience members who live near the shopping center were anything but. They were, in fact, downright rude.
   Given the intense neighborhood opposition the shopping center’s own plan generated when it was unveiled in October 2002, it wasn’t surprising that some of the neighbors in attendance Thursday had a similarly hostile reaction to the students’ plans. Nor would anyone find fault with these same neighbors raising pointed questions about, or even using some harsh words to criticize, the students’ plans.
   But that’s not all the neighbors did. They grumbled — loudly. They hissed. They booed. They interrupted. They didn’t just criticize the students’ work; they mocked it and belittled it. As a result, what might have been a valuable lesson for the students in the give and take of civic discourse turned out to be a more jarring introduction to uncivil behavior.
   And that’s a shame.
   We’ve looked over the comprehensive study prepared by the students in Mr. Rodrigues’ Advanced Landscape Architecture Studio at Rutgers’ Cook College — and we’re very impressed. The students offer a number of intriguing ideas for upgrading and modernizing the shopping center, which they term "The Downtown North." Some of their schemes would add office buildings, townhouses, senior housing, a skate park and a civic center. Others focus on improving traffic circulation, parking and landscaping. Several include designs for an expanded Grover Park. (One student, in what may turn out to be a prescient piece of planning, reserved a spot for The Arts Council of Princeton.)
   Not surprisingly, many of these same ideas were incorporated into Mr. Ford’s original plan. And it’s safe to say that no matter how the shopping center’s owners ultimately decide to update and improve their property — which, aside from the occasional cosmetic facelift, has remained essentially unchanged since the 1950s — many of the elements contained in both Mr. Ford’s plan and the students’ will be prominently featured.
   One thing is certain at this point. Big changes are in store for the Princeton Shopping Center, and its neighbors would be well advised to recognize this inevitability. If they work in good faith with the shopping center, and those who are helping design its future, they could contribute to the development of a plan that is truly beneficial to all concerned. If, on the other hand, they treat those who advocate change — or even those, like the Rutgers students, who simply want to make a well-meaning contribution to the planning process — with open hostility and disrespect, they run the risk of being dismissed as irrelevant obstructionists. That will do neither them nor the greater community any good at all.