Corrections or additions?

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

grandparents,

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

building,

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"

column.

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"

started

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

former

dean of architecture at Princeton University and a principal in his

own firm, and Sheldon B. Sturges, a Web-based publisher, are the

co-chairs.

Robert F. Goheen, a past president of Princeton University, is

honorary

chair.

Princeton Future aims to assist municipal authorities to take a

forward-looking

and more comprehensive approach to planning. It tries to focus on

how development might affect the quality of life for people in

adjacent

neighborhoods and for others who live or work in Princeton and the

surrounding region.

"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

townhouses.

But it disagrees with the borough on its affordable housing

responsibilities

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

the plans.

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

regional

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

developed

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

identify

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

community,

a new Hispanic community," says Kish. "It is a wonderful

combination

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

founders

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

informal

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

residents

in the John/Witherspoon neighborhood were being left out of the

planning

process.

By July, 2000, Geddes had issued a manifesto, pointing out that

Princeton

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

University,

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

preparing

a downtown master plan and it will be published in the fall,"

says Sturges. "I don’t know of an organization where so many

people

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

$5,000 monthly.

Geddes points out that Princeton Future is an independently self

funded

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

longtime

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

reports

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

time of

the expansion of the Nassau Inn." The approval expires this

December.

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

opposite

ends of the spectrum as to what’s required."

Though the debate at the May 4 workshop was vigorous, it was not

strident.

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?

Paul Robeson Place. Princeton Future’s next meeting on

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 Retail. David Newton, vice president of

Palmer Square Management, says he is adhering to the policy of

reserving

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,

pointing

to Jazams and Zoe.

Downtown Investment. Real estate downtown continues to

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

building

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.

The Urken building. The Urken family has owned the

building

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.

"Having

been in business myself on Witherspoon Street, I think it is as good

or better location for foot traffic than Nassau Street," says

Toto.

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

Commercial

Property Network, and he is 10 years their senior. He remembers

"back

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

Church

& Dwight and what used to be the New Jersey Banking Association on

Ewing Street. "My grandfather sold off six or seven lots on

Harrison

Street to recoup his investment and gave the land to the Italian

American

Sportsman’s Club."

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

real estate."

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

time,"

says Toto. But the decision to join his family "was a tough

decision,"

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

stayed

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

weren’t."

"It was so special back then, when you had the families that ran

their own businesses," says Toto, ticking off the retailers:

LaVake’s,

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

political

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

works.’"

Says Sturges: "I have this naive hope that all the groups will

get together."


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