If you want to see some bad landscape architecture just come over to our office at 12 Roszel Road. Step out of the hot and humid parking lot and into the tree shaded courtyard and note the flagstone seating area there with four teak chairs and benches.
With a cool breeze blowing through the courtyard, the view is especially inviting. And we did a lot of things right: The teak seating has weathered well, the chairs and benches have slats to that they drain after a rain, and the size of the seating area doesn’t overwhelm the space around it.
The only trouble is that hardly anyone ever sits there. The problem: The chairs and benches are spread apart so far that the only way to enjoy the space with someone else is to sit side by side on the same bench. But people like to sit at least diagonally across from each other. So why not just move a chair closer to a bench? Because they are all bolted to the flagstone — security, of course.
I can be critical of the design at 12 Roszel Road without hurting too many feelings because I was partly responsible for it. And with that mea culpa, I will indulge in some critical thinking about Princeton’s newest outdoor room, the large plaza in front of the new public library on Witherspoon Street.
There Princeton Borough officials have a chance to succeed (or fail) on a scale far greater than any office courtyard seating arrangement. And by now the town planners must realize that simply to zone for open space is not enough to make it successful open space. Years ago the Nassau Inn expanded back toward Hulfish Street, and the design included a large open space. For a while the Nassau Inn had some outdoor seating there with a bar and even live entertainment. But it never took off. Now it’s not much more than a vacant lot (admittedly a beautifully landscaped vacant lot) in the middle of some very valuable commercial space.
Like it or not, the bustle of downtown Princeton is overflowing onto the sidewalks. Tables and umbrellas are out in front of Panera Bread. A few doors away Ricky’s candy and ice cream store also has chairs and tables on the sidewalk. The Bent Spoon ice cream store on Palmer Square has some outdoor seating. People apparently want to see and be seen — just like in a big city.
One of the most successful open spaces in town was created on a lot that has been vacant for years due to various legal battles. That’s the plot on Paul Robeson Place, flanked on two sides by a parking garage, where the landscapers and literary folks came together last year to form the whimsical Writers Block. It lasted for a month or two. Now it’s awaiting the completion of a high end townhouse development there.
Last Friday night, a nice and comfortable summer night, the usual crowd gathered at Thomas Sweet Ice Cream on Nassau Street and took seats mostly on the lawn in front of the university building at 185 Nassau Street and licked their cones and enjoyed the music of a singer and guitar player.
Further up Nassau Street on an equally nice Saturday night, people crowded the sidewalk in front of the Blue Point Grill. Some were dining al fresco, some were waiting to dine, and others were listening to a small combo that had set up its instruments on the sidewalk. It was a “pall mall” kind of scene that has been repeated over and over in successful commercial areas since the Middle Ages.
Meanwhile, over at the Princeton Public Library plaza, three or four people sat on one bench in the cavernous open space. It was like a house party celebrating a new addition, where all the guests crowd into the old kitchen while the new room stands mostly vacant.
It’s easy now to be pessimistic about the new space. A chance to have the retail stores on Spring Street also open onto the square (thereby giving it three sides of foot traffic) has come and gone. The highly expensive, ornamental grates around the trees don’t seem to be noticed by most people.
But lots more work remains to be done at the as-yet unnamed square in front of the library. Eventually a pergola will be installed, and pretty soon tables and more benches should appear. Those dozen young trees seem to be headed toward a bright future, regardless of the grates that surround them.
And the developer, apparently saddled with unexpected costs due to water leakage in the new Spring Street garage (what did they expect when they built a garage on a street named “spring?”), now has brought in a partner. He turns out to be Jack Morrison, owner of the highly successful Blue Point Grill, who is hoping to open another restaurant soon in the retail space that opens onto the new square.
Maybe Morrison’s new restaurant — once it opens — will help breathe some life into the still dormant square. In the meantime, as we look out on our vacant benches and chairs in the courtyard at 12 Roszel Road, we offer one word of advice: Don’t bolt the furniture into place until you absolutely have to.