Back in a former life, I worked briefly in the office of a landscape architect and urban planner. I didn’t contribute much to the effort (and got fired about nine months after I started), but I did develop an interest in the subject of land use (and misuse, a closely related topic).
The Bible of my curriculum was “The Last Landscape,” written in 1968 by William H. Whyte, a writer and editor known to most people as the author of “The Organization Man,” the 1956 bestseller that described a play-it-safe bureaucracy that ruled the American corporate landscape. But Whyte’s real concern was the physical landscape and how people relate to it. That became his second career.
In 1988 Whyte published another book, “City,” that spent a chapter or two focussing on the corporate exodus from the big cities and the “semi-cities” that grew up in response. The most interesting of those, he proclaimed, was the Princeton-Route 1 corridor. Among its problems, he noted nearly 20 years ago, was the antiquated road system, poor land use planning, and low-density sprawl. It made my day back then to see our own U.S. 1 newspaper quoted in the book: “The trouble is not too many people, but too few.”
Whyte died in 1999 at the age of 81. Too bad he could not be around for the recent series of planning charrettes focussed on the proposed redevelopment of the area surrounding the Princeton Junction train station in West Windsor. He could have easily turned the experience into another book.
I did attend all three charrettes, “hooked” as I have said before in this space,k on the excitement of mixing and matching ideas with other people who have their own interests and concerns for the region. While Whyte might have been able to turn all the talk into a book, the bigger question now is whether or not West Windsor will be able to turn it into a master plan for the site.
The plan has evolved into quite a baby: First off the highly inefficient surface parking lots would be largely replaced by parking garages; the extra space would be used for office, retail, and housing. Then the train station would be moved a few hundred yards to the north, enabling it to seque into a new town green that reaches over to Princeton-Hightstown Road, which itself would be transformed with retail with second floor housing that would be closer to the street, with parking behind.
The green would lead to an 80-foot wide “bowl” that would run under the train tracks and provide a link to a long green that would be flanked by office space on one side, along the Dinky line heading into downtown Princeton, housing on the other, and a public performing space at the end.
It gets even better: The office development at the train station would involve a transfer of development rights with the Sarnoff Corporation and could enable a large swath of mature woods on the Princeton side of the train tracks to remain as permanent open space. Imagine: From the corner of Princeton-Hightstown and Wallace roads you could walk five minutes in one direction and be in the heart of the transit village and five minutes in the other direction and be in the Sarnoff woods, the heart of darkness by central New Jersey standards. (Visit www.wwpinfo.com to see a schematic of the proposed site.)
But will the talk turn into plan of action? The municipal election next Tuesday, May 8, might give us all a clue. Incumbent Franc Gambatese is one of the council members who voted for the redevelopment planning process. He and his slate of two other candidates are running against a slate that includes incumbents, Charles Morgan and Will Anklowitz, who at various times have seemed more eager to stall than to proceed.
Recently the editorial pages and community blogs have been filled with the rhetoric of fearful and threatened residents. The development will attract crime, some charge, painting images of crack dens in dark parking garages.
Traffic is another bogeyman, despite the fact that the additional parking may relieve traffic — the planners have calculated that many more commuters now use the station than there are parking spaces, meaning that many of them have to be driven to the station and then picked up at night, generating twice as many trips through town as someone who parks for the day. In addition, the development is all within a five-minute walk of not only the train corridor, but also within the hub of a bus rapid transit system that is coming — whether West Windsor likes it or not.
But the bane of the proposal has been housing – West Windsor is against it and has been since the 1990s, when it waged a long, expensive, and ultimately unsuccessful court fight against Toll Brothers and a 1,000-unit development. More houses mean more children in the schools, most everyone in West Windsor believes, and that means a decline in educational quality.
Even some of the most staunch advocates of redevelopment are against the housing component associated with it.
One of the biggest arguments against the West Windsor redevelopment can be summed up in two words: Forrestal Village. We don’t want to be stuck with a “monstrosity” like that in our downtown. Nearly 20 years ago, when Forrestal Village first came on the scene, William Whyte quoted the developers who boasted that Forrestal would be a “one-stop village that gives you access to just about everything you need or want.”
Countered Whyte: “Not quite. It is a village center without a village. No homes abut it. No schools pour forth their children. No one lives within normal walking distance of the center. It won’t seem like a real village until they do.”
If Whyte were around today, he might agree with the residents who fear another Forrestal Village, but he might also have a word for those who want the West Windsor transit village without the housing: “Watch out what you wish for.”