It was Oakland, California, that inspired Gertrude Stein’s famous observation that “there is no there there.” But the same might be said about West Windsor, a town of 26,000 that is currently trying to create a little there there.
A week or so ago I went over to the Princeton Hyatt Regency (which is in West Windsor, of course) and participated in the first of three charrettes intended to elicit community input in the proposed redevelopment of West Windsor’s town center and train station.
Even though I am not a West Windsor resident, I do own some office space in town, pay property taxes, and spend most of my waking hours there. After awhile you discover that, in addition to all the Class A office space, West Windsor also boasts some exquisite residential neighborhoods that can no longer be thought of as simply “developments,” public schools that stand as appropriate monuments to the town’s highly accomplished students, several working farms, and 8,092 acres of preserved open space — 48.1 percent of the town’s total acreage.
While it may be true, as the opponents suggest, that no one moved to West Windsor to live in a town with a highly developed center, some people obviously would see such a center as icing on the cake. Put it another way: Imagine that the village centers of places like Ridgewood, New Jersey, or Bedford Hills, New York, or Darien, Connecticut, were suddenly replaced with the Acme shopping center and assorted banks, gas stations, and pharmacies that currently line Route 571 in “downtown” West Windsor. For those towns it would be a Katrina-like tragedy.
In West Windsor some opponents concede that, yes, the Route 571 strip could use a facelift, but that the other part of the redevelopment, the conversion of the Princeton Junction train station into a “transit village,” is a disaster in the making. Remember Princeton Forrestal Village, the opponents say, the retail shopping center created out of farmland on Route 1 in neighboring Plainsboro and which never did achieve its initial goal.
And who, the opponents ask, would want to live in a transit village, cheek by jowl with the main line of the Northeast Corridor?
Well, some 400 of us crowded into the Hyatt ballroom, seated at tables of 12, most of us believing that a transit village at the Princeton Junction train station, through which 7,000 commuters pass daily, would be a much different economic model than Forrestal Village.
And who would live there? I think back a few years to the opening of Stonebridge, the retirement community just north of Princeton in Montgomery. Within months of its opening half of the grand old mansions in the western section of Princeton were for sale and the well heeled residents were poised to move to Stonebridge. Things change, and so do people.
Critics of the “charrette” — from the French word for the cart used to collect designs from architectural students in the 19th century — wondered if it wasn’t really a — ha-ha — “charade.” Bob Hillier and his firm, the architects hired by West Windsor to lead the planning process, must already know what they are going to suggest for the land, and are merely humoring the public by eliciting their opinions.
The dozen people at table no. 3, my table, all took the process pretty seriously. For a little more than an hour we batted out ideas for how a transit village might look and feel, weighing economic, environmental, traffic, parking, and cultural considerations.
The question of who would want to live so close to the railroad tracks came up, and one woman at our table had a pretty good suggestion: Princeton graduate students, who might value the easy access to campus, via the Dinky, and to New York and Philadelphia.
We considered how Vaughn Drive might be extended to connect Alexander Road to Princeton-Hightstown Road and become a main thoroughfare through the transit village. But what about the point where Vaughn would have to cross the Dinky tracks, one of our group wondered. Another member offered a solution: terminate the Dinky a few hundred yards from the main line.
The charrette was no charade, but it was a seductive process. By the end of the evening a lot of us felt more enthusiastic about a transit village than we were at the beginning. I marked my calendar for the next charrette: Saturday, March 17.
The evening ended with a representative from each table summarizing the group’s discussions. One of the last presenters made an observation that had escaped everyone else in the room, including Bob Hillier. The architect’s aerial maps of the train station area included circles representing the distance of a five-minute walk and a ten-minute walk from the station — that would be the prime real estate for any development.
But the presenter, Jim McCullough of Hereford Drive, noted that commuters don’t all go to the train station. They board and leave the train at multiple points along its length. The five and ten-minute walk areas would resemble pickles more than circles, and they would encompass even more of the redevelopment area.
So there might even be more there there at the Princeton Junction station than we had originally thought. And there you have it.