Not in my backyard? Maybe not, but maybe that’s a good place to start to study your neighborhood, your town, and your surrounding region.
If you’re like me you may take a dim view of NIMBYs, the people who ignore most things going on in their hometown until something is proposed close to where they live. Then they turn up at the planning board and proclaim that the idea may be OK someplace else, but “not in my backyard.”
A few weeks ago I saw an item in our sister newspaper, the Princeton Echo, announcing a Saturday meeting of Princeton Future, the privately funded group that studies various development issues facing the town and offers suggestions to the town’s governing bodies on how to proceed. As it says in its mission statement, at www.princetonfuture.org, “As the Princeton region grows, a complex intertwining set of issues related to planning, development, and affordability needs to be faced, analyzed, and, in so far as is possible, resolved collectively. We hope to move forward together with a view towards integrated solutions. We hope to avoid the piecemeal, project-by-project approach that has led to community frustrations, inequities, and general dissatisfaction that opportunities were squandered.”
Sounds reasonable, especially if you have ever attended a planning board meeting and witnessed a resident voicing some reasonable concerns about a proposal presented by a team of high priced lawyers, planners, and traffic consultants, after obviously having had discussions with the town’s professional planners. The resident ends up looking like the skunk at the garden party. You wish the resident had been involved a lot earlier. That’s the role Princeton Future has played in many community discussions, including the creation of Hinds Plaza by the public library, the relocation of the Dinky for the Lewis arts center, the planning for the site vacated by the medical center when it moved out to Route 1, and other big-picture issues.
The most recent meeting had to do with affordable housing — certainly a big picture issue. The announcement for the meeting posed the following question: “Are there options that can encourage economic growth, benefit Princeton’s taxpayers, fulfill our commitment to affordable housing, and enhance community character?”
Unfortunately it was scheduled for a Saturday when I was heading out of town. Then I looked at the fine print. The discussion would focus on four locations, the mid-block of Nassau Street, where Labyrinth Books is located; the Griggs Corner parking lot adjacent to Mistral on Witherspoon; a place called “E = mc Square(d),” the open area behind Starbucks that contains a small municipal parking lot and some private parking; and the Park Place parking lot.
Park Place? Hey, that’s my backyard! (Or across the street from my front yard, to be accurate.) I postponed my trip for a few hours and headed to the library.
Backyard issues aren’t necessarily limited to your own backyard. Before the 50 or 60 of us in attendance broke into groups to study each of those locations above, we heard a presentation by Thomas K. Wright, a Princeton resident (and, as oldtimers can tell you, the son of Thomas H. Wright, the former general counsel and vice president at Princeton University) and now president of the Regional Plan Association, a 96-year-old organization that engages in research, planning, and advocacy with respect to issues facing the tri-state area of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey (including Mercer County).
As a student at Princeton young Wright took Architecture 101 from Bob Geddes (one of the co-founders of Princeton Future with Sheldon Sturges and Bob Goheen), graduated in 1991 with a degree in history, and then earned a master’s in urban planning from Columbia. At the Regional Plan Association Wright sees lots of planning challenges. “Part of the beauty of Princeton Future is its local focus,” Wright says. “But we’re also part of the metropolitan region. If we aren’t aware of the big regional issues we will be run over them.” Among them:
Climate change. Wright’s talk at Princeton Future came just after the UN issued its most sobering report yet on the impact of climate change and the need for action now to reverse what would otherwise be irreversible harm. The Meadowlands, for example, is in a low-lying area that could be flooded by mid-century. Teterboro Airport could be under water. Wright suggests thinking of the Meadowlands as a “climate resilience” park.
We may have already gotten a sneak preview of climate realities with Superstorm Sandy, and the long-term damage it caused to train tunnels under the Hudson River, Wright says.
Transit. The two Hudson River tunnels, Wright notes, are now 110 years old. If one is closed for repairs, the overall capacity is reduced by about 75 percent.
“Transit is the lifeblood of our economy,” Wright says. And the improvements would pay for themselves. Real estate studies show that, for every minute of commuting time to New York you knock off, the value of a house rises by about $3,000. Reduce a neighborhood’s commuting time to Manhattan by 15 minutes and every house in the neighborhood increases in value by an average of $45,000. On this basis, the $12 billion project to build a new tunnel under the river would return a value of about $18 billion.
Housing, especially affordable housing. Even without the escalating value caused by potential transit improvements, housing in our region is already a dearly priced item. In fact, says Wright, three-fourths of the families our area cannot afford to buy a home (based on the assumption that a household should spend no more than 30 percent of its income on housing). “We know where we are headed,” Wright says, referring to San Francisco and its astronomically priced housing.
The answer to the housing problem is to increase the production of housing. “If we simply made it easy to create ‘granny flats’ out of single family homes, we could add more than 500,000 new housing units with no new construction,” Wright says. “If we took three-fourths of the parking lots at train stations and used that acreage for housing, we could create 250,000 homes — all of them within walking distance of the trains.” Wright’s own commute to Manhattan takes him through the vast sea of surface parking at the Princeton Junction train station. While there are finally some plans in the works for housing and a mix of retail and office space in the tract adjoining the station, it can come none too soon for Wright. “I consider the Princeton Junction station a daily affront to everything I have done in my career. It’s a waste of public space.”
Soon it was time for the rest of us at the Princeton Future work session — most of us rank amateurs armed only by our first-hand, street level knowledge of the terrain — to discuss ideas for our neighborhood. The Park Place discussion included seven or eight participants, only one of whom had any professional experience. That was architect Ron Berlin, who used to live on Madison Street, which intersects with Park. He said he was always bothered by the Park Place vista — a municipal parking lot carved out of an otherwise pleasing streetscape of modest homes.
I was there because I once heard talk of converting the Park Place parking lot into a parking garage. “Not in my backyard” was my response to that idea. The table kicked around some ideas, including my point that the parking lot has one entrance off of Vandeventer Avenue, and then another entrance and exit off of Park. Maybe one of those access points could be eliminated and a trio of row homes could be constructed in front of the parking lot. The housing would consume some precious parking spaces in the lot. But someone else suggested adding a level of parking, which in this case would be shielded from the street by the housing. Maybe I could buy that.
All this brainstorming was only that, of course. There is no current discussion (that we know of) regarding imminent changes to the Park Place parking lot. But there could be, and when it does come up a few of us at the table may feel that we have some ownership in the discussion and its outcome.
I have to contrast the Princeton Future exercise with what is going on in Trenton these days. Last week I completed an in-depth story on the capital city and its prospects for the future. I suggested a few items for possible action that could help move the needle of progress in the city — little things like smart parking meters, better signage, more visible and clearly marked pedestrian and bicycle paths, and more events, such as an Hispanic food festival, that might lure visitors from a place like Princeton. The little things could stand as signs of real progress while much larger, long-range goals were pursued.
The day after that story was printed, the Trenton movers and shakers were instead caught up in a planning board review of the state’s plan to locate two new office buildings in areas that would do little to improve Trenton’s central business district. It’s a noble fight: The proposed location of the new office buildings flies in the face of Trenton’s comprehensive master plan.
That’s top-down urban planning, and it’s good that citizens try to intervene in that process.
But what’s also needed in Trenton, I think, is more proactive planning such as that facilitated by Princeton Future. Call it bottom-up planning. Or even better, backyard-out. To get more people involved, the backyard is not a bad place to start.