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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the May 15, 2002
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
For Princeton Future, the Time to Act Is Now
Al Toto remembers the days when downtown Princeton
Borough streets were dotted with delis, not boutiques. Meat markets,
not chain clothing stores. His family, in fact, had owned one of those
establishments. Toto learned the art of meatcutting from his
and eventually he ran the store. But in 1987, 75 years after Toto’s
Meat Market had opened, Al Toto closed the business. Ten years later
he sold the family’s building on the corner of Wiggins and Witherspoon
to the Momo brothers, owners of Witherspoon Bread Company.
Toto, now assistant vice president with Commercial Property Network,
has presided over many such downtown transactions. Owning the
so the traditional wisdom goes, is the only way for an entrepreneurial
business to succeed in such a high rent district, where retail space
can lease for $40 to $60 a foot. Toto’s most recent transaction was
the sale of the Urken’s Hardware building to Paul Shu of Holsome Herbs
and Teas, now at 20 Nassau Street. Shu’s purchase of 27 Witherspoon
Street will keep Urken’s old address in the "owner occupied"
For decades borough planners have been trying to strike a balance
between chain stores and privately-owned businesses, between stores
that appeal to tourists and those that serve students and townies.
Two years ago, aiming to provide input into the next edition of the
regional master plan, a group called "Princeton Future"
to broaden this discussion. Funded to the tune of $226,000, this blue
ribbon committee has been holding biweekly workshops and information
sessions regarding plans for each neighborhood. Robert Geddes, a
dean of architecture at Princeton University and a principal in his
own firm, and Sheldon B. Sturges, a Web-based publisher, are the
Robert F. Goheen, a past president of Princeton University, is
Princeton Future aims to assist municipal authorities to take a
and more comprehensive approach to planning. It tries to focus on
how development might affect the quality of life for people in
neighborhoods and for others who live or work in Princeton and the
"We were concerned that perhaps the borough, the township, and
the university weren’t thinking in a sufficiently coordinated way
about how downtown development projects connect with each other and
the community," says Sturges. "Everything seemed to be done
in a piecemeal manner. We thought there was a lot of talent in the
borough and greater Princeton that might be tapped to help on some
of these strategic issues."
Four dozen meetings later, Princeton Future now focuses on the most
controversial section, Hulfish North and Paul Robeson Place, where
Palmer Square Management says it has approvals for 97 upscale
But it disagrees with the borough on its affordable housing
and has left the site unfinished. Calling the Hulfish North side of
Paul Robeson Place "a vivid example of blight," Princeton
Future threw down the gauntlet this Tuesday, May 14, challenging the
borough to consider the area "in need of redevelopment," and
challenging the developer to look at other options for configuring
An open meeting will be held on Wednesday, May 22, at 7:30 p.m. at
Princeton Borough Hall. Also remaining are meetings to discuss the
new library’s block, scheduled for Saturday, June 1, at 9 a.m. and
Wednesday, June 19, at 7:30 p.m. All the findings will be summarized
on Wednesday, July 17, at 7:30 p.m. Call 609-921-6100 for information.
Some politicians may have worried that Princeton Future would evolve
into a "shadow government." Phyllis Marchand, mayor of the
outlying Princeton Township, is protective of the rights of the
planning board which, she points out, consists of volunteers chosen
for their expertise. "I personally think that is the right forum
— a public meeting of a board appointed by elected officials.
That is where the decisions are made that can be implemented. But
we are always looking for people to come in and give us ideas, and
we welcome Princeton Future’s input."
Sturges points out that the planning board’s master plan subcommittee
meetings are rarely well attended, and that by the time the planning
board holds its public comment meetings, a project has pretty well
solidified. "We have discovered that if you allow public comment
months before a project goes to the planning board, the plans
can be more responsive and more cohesive to neighbors," he says.
Why do we care? Why, if we are not residents of Princeton Borough,
should we get concerned about what happens downtown?
Ask someone whose business is located outside of Princeton. "I
think that Princeton is the heart and soul of the whole region,"
says Katherine Kish of Cranbury-based Market Entry. A past Princeton
Chamber president and a board member of Princeton Future, she thinks
that no matter where people live or work in Central Jersey, they
with Princeton. "Many places don’t have a heart and soul. When
people go to restaurants, when they want a strolling experience, when
they want to hire employees, when they tell friends about what they
enjoy in their life — they are talking about Princeton."
"Princeton means Oppenheimer, Einstein, a world class educational
center, international languages, an historic African American
a new Hispanic community," says Kish. "It is a wonderful
of the richness of the urban center with the joy and freedom of open
space. With its social, economic, and physical diversity, I believe
this is a 21st century model of how a community could be."
Princeton Future began in February, 2000, when the
got concerned about the lack of planning for how some big projects
— the library, the arts council, and a new garage — would
affect the neighborhood between John and Witherspoon streets.
Efforts to elicit community input started with some polling in the
1980s, and in 1999 the Princeton Chamber commissioned a planning study
done by Nassau Street-based Anton Nelessen, which resulted in an
community poll taken on December 8, 1999. But Geddes and Sturges —
pointing to how Princeton is becoming increasingly gentrified at the
expense of diversity — still thought the black and Hispanic
in the John/Witherspoon neighborhood were being left out of the
By July, 2000, Geddes had issued a manifesto, pointing out that
is part of a regional corridor stretching 25 miles along Route 1,
and that it needed a new community square. He called the unfinished
part of Hulfish North (Paul Robeson Place) "a profound community
insult" that ought to be "fundamentally redesigned," and
he advocated somewhat greater density in the downtown. He recommended
that neighborhoods should contribute to the development of their own
plans and that a "citizens’ council" should be created to
discuss, review, and advise on Princeton’s future.
The first official meeting of Princeton Future was in September, 2000.
The group raised $226,000 from Dow Jones, Fleet Bank, the Robert Wood
Johnson Foundation, the J. Seward Johnson Foundation, and private
individuals. Princeton University gave $60,000 for the first two years
and promises up to $60,000 more in matching grants. Next year the
San Francisco Foundation and the Harbourton Foundation have committed
funds. Merrill Lynch, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Princeton Township
have turned down PF’s funding requests.
The borough footed the $30,000 bill for Bob Brown (Princeton
Class of 1963, of Philadelphia-based Brown & Keener Urban Design)
to lead Princeton Future’s monthly community discussions and help
prepare the downtown development plan. The borough also allocated
some $9,000 for advertisements and mailings for these meetings.
"We are doing this as an organization of citizens of the community
and for the planning board should it wish to receive it. We are
a downtown master plan and it will be published in the fall,"
says Sturges. "I don’t know of an organization where so many
are putting up professional time and professional skills."
More than two dozen area architects and planners have contributed
their ideas and services. Demos Bakoulis does the actual mailing and
Amy Brummer does the videotaping, both as volunteers. CPA Robert Geer
of Thompson Court of Nassau Street is the auditor. Sturges worked
without pay for the first 18 months but since last August has drawn
Geddes points out that Princeton Future is an independently self
and self-selected body: "Our role is to help the elected officials
by bringing people and ideas to the table." Some 800 postcards
were sent to residents and institutions asking what should happen
on Palmer Square North, and whether the borough had promised —
and if so, could it keep its promise — to build affordable housing
and community-type stores there.
In spite of Princeton’s supposed acceptance of diversity, some
residents in the John-Witherspoon neighborhood are convinced that
most of Princeton wants them to leave so the entire community can
be lily white.
James Floyd, the township’s first black mayor, was tapped to lead
discussions in the John/Witherspoon neighborhood, and Yina Moore,
an architect and urban planner and member of the Regional Planning
Board, chaired Princeton Future’s Neighborhood Task Force. Moore
that, for some of these residents, discussion about Princeton future
is clouded by Princeton past and Princeton present. "Some doubted
that meaningful change could occur."
In 1929 when Edgar Palmer began to develop Palmer Square, much of
the black neighborhood was demolished. Houses on Baker Street, a
residential street that ran parallel to Witherspoon Street, and Nassau
Place (the area now occupied by the Nassau Inn) were razed, and many
of the residents were moved nearly a mile away, to Birch Avenue. Then
in the late 1950s Jackson Street was demolished so that Wiggins Street
could connect with Hodge Road, resulting in the wide street now known
as Paul Robeson Place.
During the "urban renewal" phase, the developer (Princeton
Municipal Improvement, encouraged by Princeton University) wanted
to extend Palmer Square to Witherspoon Street. It tried to condemn
the properties on Witherspoon Street belonging to Burnett Griggs,
an African American who owned and operated Griggs Imperial Restaurant
for 42 years, and the Toto family. Saying that he had used his life
savings to purchase that land, Griggs refused to sell and filed suit
against the claim that his property was in a "blighted area."
The Toto family joined him in the suit and they won in court.
Descendants of Burnett Griggs came to a Princeton Future
workshop on May 4. Kim Peterson, a granddaughter, works at the
Carnegie Center for Amersham Health. Her sister, Wendy Peterson
Osborn, lives in Virginia and was represented by her husband. The
property they own, at the corner of Hulfish and Witherspoon streets,
is rented to the borough as a parking lot. Needless to say, the
sisters are intensely interested in the Palmer Square’s current bone
of contention, development plans for Palmer Square North.
"There has been a 13-year standoff," says Sturges. "The
stance of Palmer Square Management is that all they need is the
building permit, but it is the understanding of the neighbors that the
borough made promises to build affordable units on the site at the
the expansion of the Nassau Inn." The approval expires this
Bob Bruschi, borough administrator, says that Palmer Square "has
offered a modest amount of money, but we say the ordinance calls for
close to 20 units. We have closed the gap somewhat but we are at
ends of the spectrum as to what’s required."
Though the debate at the May 4 workshop was vigorous, it was not
Teri McIntire said that Palmer Square Management was serious about
moving forward with its application for building permits on upscale
townhouses. Geddes complimented everyone’s restraint. "None of
us could defend what happened in the 1960s," he said. "The
point is, now we have a chance to think outside the box."
So where does everything stand?
the John/Witherspoon neighborhood and Paul Robeson Place is Wednesday,
May 22, at 7:30 p.m., at Princeton Borough Hall. Sturges said in an
interview for this article that "not being the government allows
us to say things that government might not be able to say." On
May 14 Princeton Future formally urged the borough to declare Paul
Robeson Place an area "in need of redevelopment". "We
would prefer to allow Palmer Square’s owner to invest and create that
part of town in a way we all want, including him," says Sturges.
"This could expedite the replanning process and could work to
the advantage of the owners as well. It is intended to be a win-win
situation," says Yina Moore, a member of the steering committee.
Palmer Square Management, says he is adhering to the policy of
40 to 50 percent of the storefronts for local or regional tenants.
Among the move-outs, victims of the recession, are Laura Ashley, Gap
Kids, and the Yard Company. Among the move-ins will be Ici fashions
for children, Mimi Maternity, and J. Crew. In spite of September 11,
there are some success stories with regional retailers, he says,
to Jazams and Zoe.
be a good investment, says Tim Norris of Callaway Commercial. The
former Deluxe Travel building at 219 Nassau Street, on the market
for $875,000, was sold two weeks ago. The three-story red brick
consists of an office plus four apartments, and the rent from these
apartments might cover as much as 80 percent of the mortgage.
Norris says that after 2 1/2 years, 182 Nassau Street has a tenant
but he refused comment on what will go in there. The 168 Nassau Street
building, formerly occupied by Edith’s lingerie, is still vacant and
needs a non-food, non-office tenant.
at 27 Witherspoon since 1937; after a year on the market the property
sold for $1,175,000. Al Toto represented both buyer and seller.
been in business myself on Witherspoon Street, I think it is as good
or better location for foot traffic than Nassau Street," says
The buyer, Paul Shu, will take part of the 4,000-foot square foot
first-floor retail space and will lease the rest. The second and third
floors are apartments.
As a broker, Toto works with Bill Barish and Paul Goldman at
Property Network, and he is 10 years their senior. He remembers
when" their parents were his clients at Toto’s Market. "When
I was 20 years old and delivering groceries, I would have to push
Bill’s hands away — he would be trying to get the cookies before
I could get them into the house."
Real estate has always been important to the Toto family. Al Toto
says his grandparents once owned all the land behind what is now
& Dwight and what used to be the New Jersey Banking Association on
Ewing Street. "My grandfather sold off six or seven lots on
Street to recoup his investment and gave the land to the Italian
His grandparents started the meat market business in 1912 and turned
down an opportunity to be developers. "Before Palmer Square was
sold to Arthur Collins, the university approached my family
to buy Palmer Square. But our forte was not in owning that kind of
Toto graduated from Princeton High School in 1965 and took classes
at a small college in Michigan and at Rider and Trenton State. He
played third base and pitched in various adult leagues, and the high
point of his athletic career was his tryout with the New York Mets
in 1969 at age 21. He was working in the music department at Princeton
University Store when his grandmother offered him a job in the family
business. Now he and his wife, also a Princeton High graduate, have
a 25-year-old son who works in Boston for Merrill Lynch.
"We all had the pleasure of working with each other at one
says Toto. But the decision to join his family "was a tough
he says. "There were times when I was kicking myself. I had fresh
ideas, and my hands were tied. Little my little they saw that maybe
I did have some brains. I took over the business, and my parents
on because that is the Italian way of doing things."
Toto has a cache of stories about some of his clients. One is about
delivering a huge dinner party order. "The butler called back
to say they had one additional guest and would we please send over
two more stalks of asparagus." Another time, his driver called
to say he would be late, because when he knocked on the door to make
a delivery, the maid had just walked out and the elderly homeowners
didn’t know how to finish cooking the eggs on the stove. The driver
finished cooking their breakfast.
"There was a reason people paid our prices. We aged our meat,
cut it from the animal, pounded the veal by hand, and made every slice
the same thickness. Very rarely did we have someone come back and
say it wasn’t right. But when people said they didn’t want to pay
that much per pound, and when they tried to bargain with us, that
was an insult."
"After spending 21 years in the business I knew it was time for
me to get out because I didn’t take too much guff from anyone. Though
the customer is always supposed to be right, probably they
"It was so special back then, when you had the families that ran
their own businesses," says Toto, ticking off the retailers:
Urken’s, Hinkson’s Clayton’s, and the English Shop. Besides Hill’s
Market there was Reiley’s meat market, Frazee’s fish market, Nassau
Delicatessen, the Royal Scarlet market. "We all competed against
each other," says Toto. "We all delivered."
More than a planning board, more than a borough council,
Princeton Future is not a government entity but something that comes
from the community. But will it do any good? Is anybody listening?
Is it too late?
At the most recent Princeton Future workshop, someone suggested that
any input to the master plan is indeed too late, because bulldozers
are already at work, building the Princeton Public Library. Robert
Geddes tried to explain that planning is an ongoing process, and that
one has to start somewhere: "It’s like taking a drink out of the
fire hydrant," he says.
But will Princeton Future’s conclusions really effect change? Kish’s
response: "Here’s what you hope — that reasoned discussion
in an open forum really does help shape solutions. It may make
entities aware that there is a block of feeling in a community. It
may open the political powers’ minds to a different way."
The key to Princeton Future’s success is that people are brought into
the process, Kish says. "People came out who have NEVER come out
to community meetings. Princeton is such a marvelous melting pot.
If we can preserve that richness, that diversity, then I think we’ve
got something that other places can look at and say `That really
Says Sturges: "I have this naive hope that all the groups will
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