Hillsborough Township

Frank Scarantino

Toby Israel

Jim Constantine

Anton Nelessen

Corrections or additions?

Creating a Sense of Place

This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

February 17, 1999. All rights reserved.

What you hope your home and community will look like

depends on where you came from. If you grew up in Manhattan, you may

be aggravated by suburban sprawl that requires you to drive two miles

to buy a newspaper. If you were from farm country, living cheek by

jowl with your neighbor’s townhouse may seem confining.

Helping people analyze their "sense of place" is what James

Constantine and Toby Israel do. Trained as an urban planner, Constantine

had his own company, Community Planning & Research, and now has joined

a much larger one. Trained as an artist, teacher, and environmental

psychologist, Israel joined Constantine to set up the Princeton office

of Looney Ricks Kiss, a Tennessee-based firm known for coming up with

house plans that twang buyers’ heart strings.

"Listening to the end user is the best way to create design that

enriches someone’s life," says Constantine. "Research is a

way to make those ears a little more formal and structured."

Constantine and Israel each had their own singular methods of researching

their clients’ wants and needs — how they wanted their houses

and their communities to look. Together, they work on projects ranging

from profiling a single designer’s environmental biography to helping

a community choose its environmental future. As for their own environmental

choices, they just finished moving from Charlton Street to one of

Princeton’s proudest and oldest historic homes, the Beatty House,

on Vandeventer Avenue.

Israel had written a book on her concept of Design Insight, which

uses face-to-face interviews to help people discover their thoughts

and feelings about proposed designs. These interviews can be one-on-one

(as when she interviewed Michael Graves about his childhood-based

preferences) or in groups.

Constantine had developed tools grouped under the title Design Preference:

bias-controlled, carefully structured questions and visual prompts

to elicit opinions on various design choices. These surveys can be

conducted by mail, telephone, computers in high-traffic locations,

or on-line.

As part of Looney Ricks Kiss they combined these methods under the

rubric LRK Design Research, aimed at eliciting "community responsive

design." One of their initial joint projects was a community visioning

survey for Hillsborough Township that ran on computers as an "electronic

town hall."

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Hillsborough Township

Hillsborough Township is anxiously waiting for a bypass to route traffic

around their community. Then it hopes to "take back," as a

local street, the center of town along Route 206. "Their vision

is to turn it into a Main Street and a traditional town center,"

says Constantine.

The project contracted to T&M Engineering cost a total of $105,000,

and the Looney Ricks Kiss part of it was worth $67,500. Dot Line Inc.,

based on Park Place in Princeton, did the programming. "It blended

use of our design preference methodology with followup design insight,"

says Constantine.

"It’s one of the first computer planning surveys to be done so

successfully, and it is receiving a very prestigious national award

from the American Planning Association," says Jack Molenaar, a

planner with the Morristown-based RBA Group and president of the New

Jersey chapter (http://www.njapa.org).

Until now, planners have had two alternatives: send out mail surveys

or assemble community members at town meetings. Mail surveys can’t

convey in full graphic detail all the nuances of all the choices,

notes Molenaar, and they do not offer the synergy that can bubble

up from a group. "Someone may get a wrong idea in his head and,

with a mail survey, there is no way of changing that person’s mind."

Public meetings, on the other hand, are more interactive, "but

if you do more than one or two, they cost a lot of money," says


In contrast the township formed a representative group for a series

of workshops, not to conduct the survey, but to come up with a set

of "wants and don’t wants." With these in hand Israel helped

develop probes — hyperlinked questions to offer selection and


The survey was loaded into computers in the YWCA, the library, a firehouse,

and a cafe, so as to obtain a large scale community input. Posters

advertised the location of the special computers, which could download

the more than 100 color pictures speedily and cut survey time to 12

to 14 minutes. The survey was also accessible from the township’s

website, but at double the download time, which cut actual participation

through the Internet to 110 people. Overall, respondents were from

a wide range of income levels, ages, and household configurations,

from senior citizens to teenagers.

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Frank Scarantino

"We have a college-educated professional work force, and we thought

with that level of computer proficiency we would have a better chance

of getting good response to the survey," says Frank Scarantino,

Hillsborough’s director of engineering, planning, and public works.

"Statistically there was a very good response. It was a greater

response than anybody had anticipated," says Shirley Yannich,

township planner. Only a one percent sample (350 people) was needed,

and 1,000 responses would have made everyone very happy indeed, yet

nearly 2,700 people answered the questions. Each question garnered

at least 1,200 responses.

"We had a series of visuals of existing street scenes with buttons

you could hit, saying `I like existing conditions’ or `Bury the utility

wires’ and the image would change before their eyes to show what that

could do," says Constantine. Participants could add decorative

lights, brick crosswalks, and landscape medians or replace a strip

mall with stores and sidewalk cafes. "We had two dozen people

that liked the existing conditions but over 700 people selecting all

the improvements," says Constantine.

Then the inevitable question: "We tested their willingness to

pay. We asked them if they would consider paying additional annual

taxes to implement the streetscapes they had selected, and three-fourths

were willing to pay in different price ranges. That’s why this project

has received strong public support from the officials. Not only do

they have a clear vision but they are willing to step up and pay for


"It showed the will of the people — they expressed a very

strong dissatisfaction with existing conditions along Route 206,"

says Constantine, "as being too automobile-oriented and not inviting.

They had a very strong desire to see a people-friendly traditional

Main Street."

"We heard over and over that they want a place in town where they

can walk on a town green, shop at quaint stores, and buy an ice cream.

They kept saying they were tired of going to Princeton, downtown Somerville,

Chester, or Lambertville."

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Toby Israel

Toby Israel’s core values are three: "Wherever there is an overlap

between art, architecture, and education, that makes me feel great,"

says Israel. She grew up in Bergen County, majored in English and

art at Trinity College in Connecticut, Class of 1974, and has a master’s

from Rutgers in education and a master’s in environmental psychology

plus a doctorate from the City University of New York. She did her

doctoral research in England on how people can participate in the

design of their environment. "The British have a long and well

established tradition of community participation in both the arts

and architecture," she says. "It is so much a part of the

heritage, they drink it like the mother’s milk."

Israel was an environmental educator and arts consultant before taking

a job for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts in 1982. She had

been a consultant to Looney Ricks Kiss but joined the firm three months


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Jim Constantine

Constantine’s core values go back to his first encounter with a British

"garden city," Radburne, "when I knew what I needed to

do for the rest of my life. It was a public green space that knit

the community together. It hit home like you wouldn’t believe."

He was 19, and this insight impelled him to major in urban studies

at Rutgers, Class of 1983, where he studied with Tony Nelessen.

Yet Constantine had grown up amid traditional Bergen County suburban

sprawl; his father was an executive in Manhattan and his mother was

a traditional homemaker. In Constantine’s case, rebellion against

the environment of his youth would determine his core value. "I

knew that helping to create a better sense of community would be what

I would do for the rest of my life."

After he graduated, the community planning business

hit a slow spot, and he developed an interim career in video production,

approaching the New Jersey Society of Architects to do a television

series that culminated in a 30-minute documentary on Michael Graves.

He also worked for Nelessen. "He was my mentor; he helped me start

my own firm in 1991."

Constantine devised his own methods of research, different from Nelessen’s,

and collaborated frequently with LRK. "As I was starting Design

Preference Research, I discovered I was getting a response with LRK

designs coming up very very strong. LRK was practicing a client-responsive

architecture to a very high degree. The residential designs that became

the hallmark of the firm are updates of timeless design, and we started

to get an insight on the preference for the traditional neighborhood.

`It reminds me of grandma’s house’ is a deep insight that comes from

their past. They can’t explain it but `it reminds me of a warm, secure,

nurturing place.’"

With his previous firm Constantine did a master plan for the borough

of Doylestown that involved two standing-room-only crowds at town

hall. "It was the first master plan they had done in 30 years,

and it was well received, publicly and politically," he says.

Other projects were to gauge market acceptance for the growing wave

of traditional neighborhood developments, referred to as "new

urbanism." Early in 1998, to measure acceptance for Sharbell Development’s

proposed Washington Town Center, he did a mailer survey and some focus


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Anton Nelessen

This desire to re-make one’s community is part of a nationwide trend,

says Nelessen, the author of the benchmark book "Visions for a

New American Dream," and a professor at Rutgers. His Nassau Street-based

practice works mostly outside the state, most recently on projects

in Maryland and is just finishing a redevelopment plan for downtown


The babyboomers, children of the generation that created both the

prosperity and the sprawl, are trying to retrofit their environment

to cure the sprawl, the traffic congestion, and the pollution, says

Nelessen. Hillsborough hopes to create a Main Street or Town Center

where a state highway now runs. Lawrenceville hopes to reclaim its

Main Street as the centerpiece of a sustainable village (see page

18). Plainsboro and West Windsor are struggling with the problem of

how to carve out town centers from what used to be farm land.

"Sustainable main streets mean you have some level of population

close to the main street, so there is a percentage of people who live

and work there and don’t have to drive," says Nelessen. "We

are finding that if the Y and X generations have a choice, they would

dump their car too."

"What we are starting to determine," says Nelessen, "is

that the boomers want to preserve rural land, sustain communities,

have more green, have a downtown that they can call theirs and is

human in scale, and balance transportation — that is starting

to become fairly clear across the country."

Says Nelessen: "It’s a baby boomer phenomenon, to want to leave

a legacy for the future."

Looney Ricks Kiss, 19 Vandeventer Avenue, Princeton

08542. James Constantine and Toby Israel 609-683-3600; fax, 609-683-0054.

Home page: http://www.job.com/lrk/.

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