Now that the Plainsboro Village Center is just getting into the construction phase, with a new library expected to be its centerpiece, it may seem like an odd time for one of the township’s key players in the project to hand in his resignation. But for Michael LaPlace, whose last day as Plainsboro’s director of community development was on October 15, it was time to pull up stakes and follow his bliss (as the late educator, Joseph Campbell, suggested). ##M:[more]##
But with the planning for the Village Center nearly complete, LaPlace says that now is a good time to move on. “My background is in planning and community design,” says LaPlace, who worked with Plainsboro Township since 2000. “The position of community development director involves those areas, but also involves a lot of other things such as overseeing and managing code enforcement (building and housing codes as well as social services). A lot of those areas need a lot of attention and are becoming increasingly busy. It takes me away from some of the planning and design things that I really enjoy doing.”
For LaPlace, his time in Plainsboro allowed him to add some significant accomplishments to his resume. “The fact that Plainsboro has had so many cutting edge issues of planning all happening right here — open space preservation, mixed use center development like the Village Center, smart growth — all those things that you read about in trade magazines that go on across the country are happening right here in Plainsboro. I feel that I’ve gotten a lot more experience in a lot more areas of planning than I would have in other places.”
Ed Yates, the township committee liaison to community development, says that LaPlace will be missed. “Michael did an excellent job here and he was an excellent planner,” says Yates. “He was instrumental in the planning of the Village Center and when it is complete it will be a testament to his planning and vision of the future.”
LaPlace was born in New Brunswick and raised in Piscataway. He attended George Washington University majoring in American studies with a concentration in architectural and urban history. He also earned his graduate degree from GWU in 1989 with a masters degree in urban and regional planning.
After graduating, LaPlace entered the management training program with the New York/New Jersey Port Authority in New York, working there for two years. In 1996 he moved to Gaithersburg, Maryland (a suburb of Washington, D.C.), where he was the director of long range planning for two years and rewrote and updated the township’s master plan. “Gaithersburg is a city of about 50,"000 people,” says LaPlace. “It is growing and very innovative in terms of planning with a focus on smart growth.”
While there is no single definition, smart growth is an urban planning concept that emphasizes the kind of development that revitalizes cities and older suburbs, enhances public transit, promotes walking and bicycling, and preserves open spaces and agricultural lands. Smart growth attempts to revitalize the already-built environment, foster efficient development, and in the process create more livable communities.
For LaPlace, working in Gaithersburg offered him a chance to experience first-hand this new wave of smart growth urban planning. “There is a development in Gaithersburg called Kentlands,” he says. “It is very famous in the smart growth movement and was one of the early examples. Gaithersburg is where I got a lot of my initial experience with the smart growth movement, new urbanism, and neo-traditional development.”
He returned to New Jersey in 1997 to work for Westfield’s special improvement district. He stayed for three years. “They set this district up in their downtown to do marketing and promotions and planning and design and projects,” says La Place. “That was great. I always liked downtowns and town centers.”
But although he had written a downtown improvement plan for Westfield and had done a good deal of marketing and bringing new stores into the area, LaPlace says that he was still missing the chance to do community planning on a larger scale.
He interviewed for the position of Community Development Director in Plainsboro and LaPlace says that he jumped at the opportunity when the position was offered to him. “It was a great opportunity,” he says. “Especially since they were talking about their hopes of creating a village center and doing other smart growth initiatives like open space preservation, farmland preservation, and the Plainsboro Preserve. That’s what brought me here four years ago.”
LaPlace says he is taking some personal time as he looks for the next position. He says that he would like the challenge of working in a more urban or larger community or working for a state or local agency that had a planning function, such as in parks or environment.
“I have some interviews lined up and some very interesting jobs are out there that are really more in planning and design,” says LaPlace. “I haven’t chosen anything yet, but I’m going to spend the next couple weeks doing interviews and deciding where I am going to end up.”
Staying in the area, while not a certainty, is something that he would like to do. “I live in Princeton Borough and I’m very happy living here,” he says. “My family lives in New Jersey and although I’m single, I have a lot of extended family in the area and friends that I grew up with.
LaPlace is proud of his time in Plainsboro. “When I came in 2000, this position had been empty for at least half a year,” he says. “There were a lot of projects and initiatives that had been on hold and it was made clear to me that they wanted projects to move forward. There were several residential and commercial initiatives and some relationships with the business community that needed to be renewed. I hit the ground running and within a year we had major projects moving through the planning board toward completion, and a lot of the stuff that had been in the pipeline was moving forward.”
While working on the Plainsboro Village Center, LaPlace says that he was able to use what he had learned in some of his previous positions. “It was important for me to build a strong identity for Plainsboro in order to make it the kind of place that people would want to go,” he says. “It was pretty easy in Montclair and Westfield because they have a lot of character and a lot of people knew them already.”
The fact that Plainsboro is right next door to Princeton was something that created a difficulty. “It is hard to be next to something that has a strong image like Princeton,” says LaPlace. “But with every project, we would try to think how does this build a unique, strong, attractive identity for Plainsboro? Everything we’ve done — from getting the grant to pay for the new village signs, reviewing the architecture and planning for the village center, or looking at the possibility of building a library as the center of the village — was focused on trying to build a sense of place for Plainsboro.”
“It will pay dividends in the future for the township,” he says. “When people think of Princeton they think of Nassau Street. When they think of Point Pleasant, they think of the boardwalk. And in the future, when they think of Plainsboro I think they are going to think of the Village Center. It will be a source of pride for those who live here already and I think it will make people want to come here to live and work. It is one of the wisest things that could be done at this point in the town’s history.”
Offering good customer service, while not his favorite part of the job, is also an accomplishment that LaPlace says he is proud of. “The people who I work with here in the community development department are very wonderful people and do a very difficult job,” he says. “These are very demanding positions because whether you are at the building desk issuing permits or doing housing inspections or zoning compliance, a lot of the time you deliver news that people may not want to hear. But we offer polite, well informed service. Taxpayers deserve that. It’s a very challenging work, but the people here are such professionals. I’ll miss them the most.”
LaPlace says that he feels his time in Plainsboro has been rewarding both for himself as well as for the service he has been able to offer the community. “I’m very excited to see what Plainsboro will look like in five years and 15 years,” he says. “I feel like I’ve helped plant some good seeds here and it will be fun to come back here and check on them.”