I have seen the future of the West Windsor town center and the image is striking and innovative — as well as controversial, I am sure. In case you haven’t heard, West Windsor, that town of 26,000 people, has been casting about for ideas for a new town center in conjunction with an overhaul of the parking and circulation at the Princeton Junction train station, which handles some 7,300 travelers each day.

While a few people in town argue that the current town center is fine just the way it is, lots of others believe that it lacks most of the amenities that people paying $8,700 a year in municipal and school taxes (the township average) would expect when they leave their McMansions and venture into “town.”

To prove the point you could do this: Take a group of out-of-towners into a half dozen West Windsor neighborhoods, the beautifully landscaped McMansions of various housing developments; the Craftsman style bungalows of Berrien City (straddling Alexander Road near the train station); and the wooded enclave around North Mill Road. Then show the out-of-towners photos of the town centers in, say, Bedford Hills, New York, or Ridgewood, New Jersey, and then the “center” on Route 571 in West Windsor. Then ask the subjects: Which town center is West Windsor’s?

I couldn’t imagine many votes for the stretch of Princeton-Hightstown Road that includes the Acme strip mall, three drive-through banks, three gas stations, and a motley collection of Class C office space.

But the plan I’m looking at now might get some votes in that poll.

Like other plans that are being bandied about by developers and politicians eager to redevelop the 350-acre tract surrounding the Princeton Junction train station in West Windsor, the plan that has just been unveiled to me proposes the inclusion of housing along with office and retail space. And it goes further: It incorporates new municipal buildings and a performance center, as well.

If it had a church with a steeple this new town center would offer all the amenities of an old fashioned New England village (though in culturally diverse West Windsor, the church could also be a mosque or a synagogue or a temple).

Could this plan be the future? Possibly, but probably not. The plan I am describing is in fact an old plan, presented in a 1973 edition of a now defunct community newspaper in West Windsor. Quite simply, people in West Windsor have been talking about a new town center for a long time.

In the time since that grand vision was unveiled, West Windsor has seen sod farms along Route 1 transformed into the MarketFair, Nassau Park, and Windsor Green shopping centers, and a farm field turned into the Southfield Shopping Center on Route 571 on the eastern outskirts of town — all classic examples of car-oriented suburban sprawl. It doesn’t take long to figure out that difference between development — of a sod farm or acres of vacant land — and redevelopment of a train station or an existing downtown area — is a lot greater than just two letters. For a developer an empty tract of land is a relatively easy mark compared to the thicket of neighbors and their back yards that a re-developer has to confront.

The man now on center stage of the West Windsor redevelopment is Steve Goldin, a West Windsor resident himself and the CEO of Intercap Holdings, a development company that is backed by the $1.7 billion Lubert-Adler Fund V and that owns 25 acres on Washington Road right next door to the train station, a tract that includes the well worn offices at 14 Washington Park and the newer “octagonal” building at 36-42 Washington.

Goldin will host an information session Saturday, May 31, from 9 to noon at the Princeton Hyatt to explain his company’s proposal to tear down its existing office buildings and replace them with a retail center about the size of the Acme strip mall, a town green, and up to 450 units of townhomes and condos — the housing component that Goldin and other transit village proponents believe is critical to any successful project.

Wary West Windsor residents, who fear that redevelopment might worsen their traffic problems and add schoolchildren to their schools and many more dollars to their property tax bills, will no doubt point out that Goldin and Intercap will surely profit from any transformation of the train station and its environs. (And surely others of us could profit, as well. See the Between the Lines column, page 2, for this newspaper’s small but mildly relevant interests in redevelopment.)

Goldin presents his case in a bigger context — “new urbanism” — and he presents himself as one of the disciples. “New urbanism,” Goldin says in an interview in the summer of 2007, “is a mix of uses that allows people to meet their daily needs in one place without getting in their car. Right now I can drive to my office in 12 minutes — that’s a luxury. But it would be an even greater luxury if I could walk to work in a few minutes.” (That was 10 months ago, when gas was around $3. A few days ago, in small talk prior to a follow-up interview Goldin remarked that he had just spent $70 to fill up his tank — the walk to work may have just become even more valuable.)

“I’ve never enjoyed ‘greenfields’ development,” Goldin says, referring to all those sod farms and potato fields that have been turned into blacktop throughout the country. “I look at a farmer’s field and I see a farmer’s field. But when I see a worn out downtown, tired old office buildings, or shuttered warehouses, I dream in Technicolors.”

Dreams such as those led Goldin to what became a highly controversial transformation of the old American Standard manufacturing site next to Hamilton train station, where nearly 700 townhouses were approved but never built after the township reversed its position on transit villages early last year. “Changing land use is a fundamental change, and some people are afraid of change,” says Goldin, who lists his position as co-chair of the New Jersey chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism among his developer credentials. “But it’s worth the pushback.”

Given the current price of gasoline and the current correctness of all things green, it would be easy to imagine any developer suddenly standing in line for credentials at the Congress for the New Urbanism. And in fact just about every station stop in central New Jersey, from Trenton to West Trenton to Hamilton to North Brunswick, is now the subject of either talk or action regarding transit village proposals.

In Trenton Matrix Development and Nexus Properties have joined Dan Brenna as parties interested in developing the area around that train station. In Ewing Township there is talk of of extending West Trenton line that was abandoned in 1982 and resuming passenger service. Ewing has made noises about getting the West Trenton station renamed the Ewing station.

Goldin grew up in North Brunswick, where his father was a lawyer and municipal court judge and his mother was a homemaker. Goldin entered Harvard, Class of 1982, without much of an idea of what he wanted to do in life. He majored in art history and became interested in the study of the man-made American landscape. “I convinced the head of the department that urban planning is really architecture on a larger scale,” he says. “I had a wonderful independent study where I spent a lot of time walking around the streets of Boston. That’s where I got the bug.”

After a summer job working for the city of New Brunswick, Goldin came to the conclusion that “the people really creating change” in the urban landscape were the developers, not the planners. So he earned an MBA from Columbia, in real estate finance.

During his time at Columbia he was able to work for the Rouse Corporation, which led to a job at Hovnanian. In 1991, with the housing market in a tailspin, Goldin was laid off. But a rising young political star named Jim McGreevey had just been elected mayor of Woodbridge, and was seeking talented people to help him transform that city. His current personal problems notwithstanding, McGreevey was “a phenomenal mayor,” says Goldin. “He hired great people and let them set goals. I got to be very entrepreneurial.”

After about four years in Woodbridge, including a stint as the president of the Woodbridge Economic Development Corporation, Goldin was offered a chance to return to Hovnanian and help create “more housing on three-acre lots.” But by then Goldin was beginning to view development in another light. “I found it distasteful to waste that much land on one house.”

Instead Goldin and his wife and two sons moved to West Windsor, where he began his work in development and redevelopment. By then Goldin was beginning to have some of those technicolor dreams. “In 1999 I remember coming off 295 and seeing the old manufacturing site and the new train station,” says Goldin. Noting that it’s important “to see what others have seen, but to think what no one has thought,” Goldin was happily surprised to see the opportunity still sitting there several years later.

Goldin and his investors, operating as Columbia Properties, took on the residential development in the train station area, while Preferred Real Estate developed the old American Standard toilet manufacturing plant. The office development, since sold by Preferred to Lincoln Equities, has been a major success.

Renamed American Metro Center, the factory’s three huge buildings offer 482,053 square feet of office space, with 20-foot ceilings, exposed beams, and innumerable skylights. In an interview last summer Rob Fisher, Lincoln’s director of leasing, said “I have never witnessed such a space grab. We put offices up for rent this last November and already we are 65 percent full.”

Commercial space in the famed old toilet manufacturing factory is definitely not for everybody. Fisher describes his lessees as generally younger, funkier, and enchanted by architecture or by the transportation potential.

But Goldin’s housing component did not fare so well. He scaled back the plans from over 700 units to 680. When he sent out a flyer to town residents describing that cutback as “significant,” opponents on Hamilton’s council accused him of overstating his case. They further accused him of making political contributions on behalf of then Mayor Glen Gilmore (denied by both Goldin and Gilmore and not evident in New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission records). And they accused Gilmore of not running an open process.

While Goldin was embroiled in controversy in Hamilton, his hometown of West Windsor was moving full steam down the redevelopment track. In 2005 Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh and his slate of town council candidates had run on a platform that included jumpstarting — once again and finally, they hoped — the already much discussed concept of a new town center in the area of the Princeton Junction train station. Hsueh and company won with a whopping 90 percent of the votes.

With that mandate, West Windsor officials began the process. The first step: Selecting a firm that would help create a plan that would roughly lay out what elements — office, parking, retail, and housing — would go where.

Intent on not following the example of Hamilton Township — “we don’t want to be Hamilton-ized,” people said at public meetings — West Windsor received proposals from more than 20 architectural and planning firms, all publicly identified. From that list three were selected as finalists and invited to make public presentations to explain how they would run the planning process.

The firm finally selected was the one that was headquartered literally in the back yard of the train station. Hillier Architecture (now RMJM Hillier) is located at 500 Alexander Park, connected by a pedestrian pathway to the train station area. With more than 40 years experience, Bob Hillier was a man with a track record that spanned the globe but also included plenty of projects at home. He had a reputation as an architect who could talk the developer’s language. Hillier designs were known for being delivered on time and within budget.

Who better to lead the Princeton Junction train station redevelopment process? And, not surprisingly, Hillier was familiar with prior plans for a West Windsor town center. If you went back to that 1973 planning effort, you would note that the architect chosen to create three alternative plans for a town hall and police station was Bob Hillier. While the full blown town center plan never came to fruition, a police station, town hall, senior center, and library are all in place at the municipal center on Clarksville Road — though not within walking distance of the train station and the town’s retail center.

After selecting Hillier as its lead planner, West Windsor authorized some $330,000 to fund the process, which would include three “charrettes,” or workshops aimed at eliciting public input and developing a consensus about what the community wants and doesn’t want in the area being redeveloped.

Hillier’s first charrette, held on a weeknight in February, 2007, at the Hyatt on Route 1, was a euphoric event. More than 400 residents turned out, and ended up breaking into groups of a dozen of so to mark out their own ideas on large maps that showed the train station configuration and outlined an area that was within a five minute walk of the train station ticket office.

At the end of the meeting representatives from each table went to the podium to summarize their group’s thinking. Hillier’s people dutifully took notes and collected the site plans to study the public’s thinking. The meeting broke up after three hours but probably could have gone three hours more. Various people active in West Windsor government described the charrette as one of the most positive and energetic civic exercises ever in the township. The redevelopment process seemed to be gathering steam.

But even then I noted a few clouds in the planning sky. At my table most of the people seemed in favor of a housing component at the transit village. With one exception they all seemed to appreciate that housing would help make an transit village a village, not just another office park or retail mall. One woman voiced concern about the relative safety of parking garages, and it was pointed out to her that some 24/7 residential units would provide some added security.

But when the group polled itself about the number of units, the exception at our table, a longtime West Windsor resident, said zero. The others thought that maybe 100 or so would be OK.

And another woman, on our way out, raised a question: “What kind of people would want to live so close to the train tracks?”

Housing is a delicate subject in West Windsor, and in lots of other suburban enclaves in New Jersey. As the newcomers become oldtimers, they realize that more developments such as their own will bring more families and lots more schoolchildren to the town. With a blue ribbon school district that spends something like $12,000 a year on each student, more families equals more kids equals more property taxes, which are already sky high.

In response to those concerns West Windsor began an aggressive policy of buying up open space for preservation. Despite those high property taxes, residents have voted to increase their support of open space acquisition. And when Toll Brothers came forward with a plan for more than 1,200 new houses on a 300-acre tract of woods and fields near Bear Brook and Meadow roads and the train tracks, West Windsor and its planning board put up the barricades.

That led to a massive, decade-long lawsuit pitting Toll Brothers against West Windsor. In the end, at the state Supreme Court, the township was defeated and the houses went up — the finished development is now called the Estates at Princeton Junction.

Despite all these efforts to restrain growth West Windsor’s population of 26,279 residents represents a 19 percent increase since 2000, making it the fastest growing town in Mercer County.

But no one was dwelling on that recent history at the beginning of the redevelopment process. The second charrette, held at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South the day after a major snow storm, drew almost as many participants as the first.

A series of scenarios for how the train station could be redeveloped began to emerge. Several of the schemes called for working out a deal with Schlumberger, the French company that has a research center on Wallace Road directly across from the train station, so that it would relocate elsewhere in the township. The Schlumberger property would then be transformed into a retail corridor, possibly with Palmer Square-style apartments on the second floor, linking the train station to the existing retail uses on Princeton-Hightstown Road.

One of the visionary ideas, it seemed to me, was to replace the dank tunnel now connecting the east and west side of the tracks with a “bowl,” that gradually sloped down one either side of the tracks to a concourse under the tracks lined with retail stores. On the west (or Route 1 side) of the tracks the bowl would lead to a public square, where the activities could include performing arts and the popular West Windsor Farmer’s Market (which now sets up shop every Saturday morning in a commuter parking lot off of Vaughn Drive).

Another ambitious idea that came out of the early charrettes was the idea of moving the train station itself a few hundred yards north, to the area under the Route 571/Princeton-Hightstown Road overpass. Not only would both loading platforms be largely sheltered by the overpass, but the station itself would be moved that much closer to the town’s retail center.

Hillier called that idea the “Big Move,” but later presented information from New Jersey Transit and Amtrak that such a move would necessitate massive amounts of track and signaling work that would make it prohibitively expensive. He scaled back that part of the plan and tailored another option called the “Little Move.”

But all of that would not come without cost, Hillier noted, and the cost would have to be met by housing. West Windsor residents would not want to foot the bill for such improvements, the argument went. And a developer might pay for such infrastructure improvements if he could make a profit elsewhere on the site.

The enticement would be housing. The only question was how many units. At about that time the number 1,000 entered the discussion. Remembering the tone of my table at the first charrette, I winced. On April 17, 2007, I sent an E-mail to Hillier’s PR people, seeking some background information for a story in U.S. 1’s sister newspaper, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News. I decided to throw in my own editorial in the E-mail:

“I’m looking forward to the April 19 charrette, though I have to say: I will be surprised if any of it ever comes to fruition. The WW oldtimers are adamantly against even one new unit of housing, let alone 1,000. I think Bob needs to state that these 1,000 units are unlike anything that has ever been built before in WW, and will not be attractive to families with children, both because of their size and location and also their cost (presumably very expensive). When West Windsor people hear apartments they think Plainsboro and poor people crowded into ratty apartments. It’s a ‘small move’ but a ‘big sell’ is needed to make it fly in West Windsor.”

My warning was echoed by various elected officials. Nevertheless Hillier came back to the final charrette with a proposal for 1,000 units of housing, a minimum number, he argued, to support all the amenities people would want at the new transit village. It was, he said later, a matter of simple arithmetic. The number of affordable housing units that would have to be built in conjunction with the planned office and retail development — under the state’s Council on Affordable Housing rules — was 200. And developers normally expect to scatter affordable housing through market rate housing at a rate of 1 in 5 — hence 1,000 units total.

Citing the school district’s own numbers, Hillier argued that the West Windsor-Plainsboro schools would have the capacity to accommodate any influx caused by the transit village.

Buttressing that view was a study by David Listokin, director of Rutgers’ Edward Bloustein School for Planning and Public Policy, which suggests that these fears may be minimal. His study on transit village demographics surprised many planners and town councils. Listokin surveyed 10 existing transit villages with a total of 2,183 homes. In similar housing — one to three bedroom apartments — around New Jersey, comparative studies had led him to expect 285 public school children should be living in these homes. Instead he found only 47 in the entire group of 2,183 apartments.

The results did not surprise Listokin. “Transit oriented development attracts the younger and older people,” he explains. “The young individuals are involved in their jobs — they may be commuting back and forth to the city. They are not having children while they live here. Older people and empty nesters move to transit villages seeking a cultural center and access to daily supplies reachable by foot.” Since the early 1990s studies have shown that an increasing percentage of Americans are favoring the urban lifestyle. Baby boomers who grew up watching “Leave it to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet” are now watching “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” The boomers’ focus is single and urban.

None of that mattered in West Windsor. Stan Katz, a school board member with a special interest in demography, argued that the town’s schools are so desirable that they don’t fit the normal pattern. If you build it, the critics of redevelopment argued, kids will come.

That number 1,000 did not play well in West Windsor. Shortly after Hillier’s announcement elections were held for three West Windsor council seats. The slate of Charles Morgan, Will Anklowitz, and George Borek created campaign signs showing the number 1,000 surrounded by a red circle with a line through it.

Voters swept the entire anti-transit village slate into office. At the next transit village meeting — a joint session of the planning board and town council — a somber Bob Hillier addressed a smaller than usual crowd. The situation in West Windsor, he told the audience, reminded him of the early days of his practice when he did a lot of home designs for married couples. “Our policy was that both husband and wife had to attend our meetings. Unless both clients are on the same page it’s hard to create a successful plan. And it’s very hard in a town with 20,000 residents,” Hillier said. “Divisive politics has possibly jeopardized this project. If it’s impossible to continue in the present climate, we are willing to step aside for the best interests of the project.”

Since then WW officials have wrangled over every part of the decision-making process, including who should be the municipal attorney representing the township and whether or not Hillier lived up to his contract for the charrettes. But very little wrangling has taken place about the redevelopment itself and what it should include, or should not.

Enter Steve Goldin. During the lengthy process leading up to the charrettes and during the charrettes themselves, Goldin had been neither seen nor heard. But when the process stalled out, he stepped forward. The only problem with the Hillier charrette process, Goldin said, was that “he was trying to do with $333,000 what we would expect to pay $2 million for. I have enormous respect for Bob Hillier. But he was given an impossible task.”

While Intercap could profitably develop its own 25-acre property under existing zoning, Goldin argued that “wouldn’t be in the best interest of West Windsor. It would be a crime.” He essentially began his own charrette process, beginning with an offer to finance a tour of new towns in the Washington, D.C., and Virginia area so that interested citizens, public officials, and the media could see first hand how the “new urbanism” can work.

But this being redevelopment, not development, there was “pushback” even about the trip. “We are only looking to have a seat at the table,” Goldin said at the time. Council president Will Anklowitz responded that “any gift with strings is no gift. And a seat at the table is definitely a pretty strong string.” There were no takers for the guided tour.

But Goldin says surveys and focus groups that he commissioned of West Windsor residents showed that while a small percentage want no redevelopment, “most of us want some redevelopment,” including “creating a main street that is a jewel, not an embarrassment, parking for West Windsor residents at the train station, and a Lick-It ice cream stand.”

Lick-It? That was the name of the tiny mom-and-pop ice cream store that was located at the corner of Wallace Road and Princeton-Hightstown Road that was torn down to make room for a gleaming new PNC branch bank. The Lick-It got mentioned so often in surveys that one of Goldin’s consultants wondered how he could become an investor.

Goldin hired consultants for a traffic study and a study of the true costs of a parking deck (the euphemistic term for a parking garage) that would help alleviate parking problems for West Windsor residents at the station. Even some of those adamantly opposed to any new housing still want more parking at the station, where some residents wait for years to get a parking permit. (As one resident explained at one of Goldin’s public workshops, everyone sees the rush in the morning, when the stay-at-home spouse drops the commuter off at the crowded station. But the situation is even worse in the evening, when the stay-at-home double parks waiting for delayed trains, and cursing matches erupt between other commuters in their cars and fighting to get out of their spaces and into rush hour traffic.)

The parking deck cost study, in Goldin’s analysis, was another reason for a multi-use, tax positive development. “Our study showed that you would need to charge about $170 a month to support a new parking deck for 1,000 West Windsor residents.” But right now residents lucky enough to have spaces are only paying $35 a month. Using several small lots at Intercap’s 14 Washington Park property, Goldin did his own market test. “I think the market will only support a fee of $100 a month,” he says. “You would need a subsidy of $13 million to build that deck.”

As a taxpayer himself in West Windsor (and with parents now living in a West Windsor senior community), Goldin is one developer who doesn’t need a survey to tell him “no new taxes.” So how does he propose to pay for this new parking?

The concept is called “tax increment financing.” Goldin uses Intercap’s Washington Road office property as an example. “We now pay about $500,000 in property taxes a year. If we were able to redevelop the property [to a more intensified use] we might pay $4.5 million year.” Part of that tax increment could be used to fund bonds that would pay for infrastructure improvements such as the parking deck. And through tax-increment financing, or TIFs, developers and investors bear the risk, not the municipality.

Hillier had a similar idea when asked how the plans from a year ago would be transformed into reality. Goldin has scaled back his suggestions for West Windsor, so that only 450 housing units, plus something on the order of 90 affordable units, are called for, instead of the 1,000 calculated by Hillier. Gone from Goldin’s vision, for example, is the bowl under the train tracks.

And, Goldin emphasizes, he is wiling to promise that the housing, which will include no tot lots or other child-friendly amenities, will be marketed in waves. If the first batch produces more school children than predicted, then he will reduce the scale of the project.

So how much will it cost? In his full page ads announcing the May 31 meeting at the Hyatt, Goldin says that “the plan we have for the land surrounding the Princeton Junction train station will be paying for these improvements [including a parking deck, traffic improvements, and a transformed ‘Main Street,’ as some refer to the Acme section of Princeton-Hightstown Road] in their entirety. That means zero cost to us West Windsor residents. No smoke and mirrors.”

Can it be that simple? Remembering that at one point in his career Goldin felt the need to get an MBA in real estate finance, we note that he has allowed three hours for the meeting. This is redevelopment, after all, not development.

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