Grassroots planning organization sees consolidation as chance to start fresh

For Sheldon Sturges, managing director of Princeton Future, effective planning is the only way to mold the consolidated Princeton into an entity that will reflect the desires of its citizens.

Such planning is a process that acknowledges current realities in a community, tempers them with dreams about what could be, and produces plans and policies that can realize those dreams. Once all that is in place, governmental entities must institute the necessary regulations and implement the plans.

As the consolidated town is about to come into its own, Princeton Future is implementing a series of three programs to support the new municipality in developing a planning process that will envision and create the kind of town that its citizens want. The program will follow the four steps in the planning process as framed by Princeton Future cofounder, Bob Geddes: gathering information, developing plans, regulating, and implementing.

The initial step, information gathering, is simply stated, but complex to enact.

“The first thing any community needs is an agreement on what is accurate information,” Sturges said.

Even as a community agrees on what is accurate information, its citizens, interest groups, and politicians view that information differently and contribute their different perspectives, which all must be considered as a plan is developed.

“Trying to get new ideas into the conversation that are thoughtful, interesting, and compelling can change the community conversation,” he said.

That is exactly what happened, he suggested, in the deliberations around the square and the library in town. “And we ended up as a community in a better place,” he said.

The March 16 program will focus on gathering good information, and one of the speakers will be Ralph Widner, who worked for four and a half decades with communities across the United States and Europe. Relatively new to Princeton, he has lived here since 2006 and sits on the traffic and transportation committee for the borough.

Early last year he realized that the town’s master plan called for a traffic database, but one had never been developed. So he took action. “We assembled a portrait of sources and causes of traffic problems not only in the town, but in the surrounding area,” Widner said.

Using data from sources like the U. S. Census Bureau and traffic counts by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Association and the state Department of Transportation, he created a comprehensive map of all the traffic that goes into and out of Princeton.

“What was rather astonishing was that people didn’t have any idea of just how much traffic comes into Princeton every day,” he said, offering examples of the data he uncovered: four times as many people work here as go out to work elsewhere. About 24,500 people commute into Princeton to work every day, from as far away as Connecticut, southern New York, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and almost all of New Jersey, and that is only a fraction of the total traffic.

Including internal and drive-through traffic, there are about 180,000 trips each day. Also, about 60,000 people who live in greater Princeton (which includes the adjacent municipalities) also work in greater Princeton.

To disseminate the information Princeton Future has gathered, the group has a plan to create both an online database as well as a reference volume that would be placed in all the public libraries and other key decision places in town.

But after sharing the traffic profile at a Princeton Future meeting in the fall, the group suddenly started to receive calls from other organizations in town that also needed data to effectively discharge their responsibilities and measure progress. They wanted to know, for example, the number of people who get food stamps or how many children live in single-parent households.

“We decided since the new consolidated Princeton begins in January, that we would develop a comprehensive statistical database and portrait of the consolidated town that would be the starting point for all future planning in the community,” Widner said.

Widner offers an example of the role numbers can play in planning. We know that today the Witherspoon neighborhood near the old hospital site is largely Guatemalan and poor, having seen a decline in the African-American population.

Buton either side of that neighborhood are two large development projects: the hospital site that is being redeveloped for residential purposes, and the university’s renovation of Merwick and the Stanworth complex for graduate students. Those two realities create a tangled, complex policy dilemma.

“We have two major residential complexes being built in the neighborhood, which means services will upgrade to serve those populations. So living in the neighborhood will be more desirable and prices will escalate,” says Widner, who then asks, “So what happens to the Latino population that is living there?”

Despite the essential role of reliable numbers, sometimes official sources get them wrong, and local officials and volunteers may have to be proactive if something seems incorrect. Widner himself discovered a glitch in the census data for Princeton Borough, which had documented an uptick in population of about 2,000 in the year 2000; but by 2010 the town’s population was back down to 12,000, plus or minus.

With some poking around, Widner discovered that some of the graduate students at Princeton University had been double counted that year, and he adjusted the 2000 population to the correct number.

“You can’t project population accurately with that bump in there; and we had to figure out how to correct it for our purposes,” he says. “This is why we are arguing that locally we need to maintain an information database; we can’t rely on outsiders.”

Also involved in the pursuit of good local information, although on a more micro level, is Larry Hugick, a partner at Princeton Survey Research Associates, who will be on the response panel for the March 16 meeting. A few years ago he did a microsurvey to gather neighbors’ opinions on what to do about the West Coast Video and former Wild Oats buildings.

Working with Sturges and Ryan Lilienthal, he conducted a survey, based on the voter list, where responses could be filed either on paper or online.

“It is not often that you see actual scientific surveys done for this sort of thing,” Hugick said. Information is usually gathered only by interviewing the people who go to meetings. “It is important to reach out and hear from people who are not the usual suspects to find out what the community really thinks,” he said.

In his report on the issue, he combined survey responses with input from people who attended the meetings.

“If you get everybody’s opinions, it will make it easy to get things done,” he said. “You know what people want and how much agreement and disagreement there is, and not just among the elites but among the rank and file, the public or the voters.”

Once legitimate information has been gathered and plans developed, the next step is is to develop regulations that will bring those plans to fruition. One issue that needs to be decided involves design standards. Because those can be subjective, thereby leaving wiggle room for developers, Sturges suggests that the community consider moving beyond vague zoning codes that address separation of land uses and development intensity to form-based codes.

Those, according to the Form-Based Codes Institute, “address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks. The regulations and standards in form-based codes are presented in both words and clearly drawn diagrams and other visuals.”

Apparently that has been done very successfully in Haddonfield, and Andy Johnson, the former chair of its planning board, has been invited to speak at April 2 program on best practices.

Implementation brings its own basketful of problems. Putting in place ideas that are new and different may require setting up special financing mechanisms and collaborative organizations. For example, Sturges said, “sometimes the ideas you want to bring forward may not be what the market wants to do, and you may need to put together a public-private partnership or find capital from other places.”

Princeton Future also supports the idea of forming a Princeton partnership that would involve all the major institutions in town, including both nonprofits and corporations, and would work with government on implementation. When looking at implementing policies that affect the entire region, like transportation infrastructure, both state and regional mechanisms must be part of the process.

As the community moves into the planning process, Widner would like people to focus on defining problems more carefully before narrowing down on a favorite solution. Regarding the shuttle to Princeton Junction, for example, proposed solutions have focused largely on its role in point-to-point transit from Princeton to Princeton Junction, serving both regular commuters and more casual users, with about 60 percent of the total being university related.

But a wider view of the information bespeaks a very different problem: the Dinky riders are only a tiny fraction of the people who move back and forth across U.S. 1 every day.

“So instead of thinking of the Dinky as a point-to-point transit system,” Widner said, “we should think of it as part of a greater traffic plan that links all of the employment sites, shopping sites, the hospital, Princeton Junction station, and the town centers.”

As a community contemplates its problems and potential solutions, Widner also cautions planners to consider the undesirable consequences that even good decisions bring, sometimes due to external forces outside of the town’s control. That happened, he said, when the town justifiably opposed construction of an extension of Interstate 95 to connect up with 287.

“It saved the countryside, but the predictable outcome — that trucks would use 206 to go between 287 and 95 — will get even worse because the tolls are going up,” he said.

His cautionary note about potential negative consequences applies equally to a master plan.

“When the town adopts a community master plan, we want to preserve the small town, leafy atmosphere that we have today and we all prize,” he said. But the undesirable result will be substantial commutation into the town because people work here but live elsewhere and can’t afford Princeton real estate.

“The purpose of the database is to get us to see more broadly about these things instead of thinking that once we have solution, we’ve gotten rid of the problem, because sometimes a solution creates new problem,” he said.

Widner’s experience with solving big community problems began as the first director of the Appalachian Development Program, which involved 13 states in a federal program to build highways, hospitals, and schools. Next, he ran a think tank for government at all levels, the National Academy for State and Local Government, which tackled big issues involving development in the south and economic problems in the northeast and industrial Midwest.

His next position was with Greater Philadelphia First, which brought together the city and suburbs to deal with the economic problems of Eastern Pennsylvania. Finally, he worked with the French on the channel tunnel and then with Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and the Republic of Georgia to help them put together local government and communal structures and to train them how to run them effectively.

Hugick started at his current firm in 1993 and became a partner in 2002. He started his research career at Gallup in 1978.

So what comes next? Although Princeton currently has a master plan, Sturges notes that its last full draft was in 1996, with parts updated every so often in accordance with the state statute. But in the face of the significant issues the community is dealing with — what to do with properties like the old hospital site, Merwick, and Hibben-McGee, and the future of the arts and transit neighborhood — he said, “The master plan is supposed to give guidance, and really needs to be rethought and probably rewritten.”

But Sturges is optimistic that most of the town’s residents will eventually agree on what should happen to Princeton.

“It happened around the square and affordable apartments in the unit,” he said. “But it wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have all that listening that went on before that.”

“This town is going to change,” Sturges said. “We never use the word ‘city,’ but it is happening.”

The series “A United Princeton Looks at the Future: What Do We Want Our Town and Region to be in the Next 20 Years?” will comprise three programs, all of which will run from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday mornings.

First on the schedule is “How Can Neighboring Communities Plan Together as a Region?” (Feb. 23, at Borough Hall), with Jon Carnegie from Rutgers University speaking on “The Route One Growth Strategy” and Tom Wright Jr. and Rob Freudenberg of the Regional Plan Association speaking on “How Do Other Regions Plan?” with a response panel of Peter Cantu, Plainsboro mayor, Shing-Fu Hsueh, West Windsor mayor, and Liz Lempert, Princeton mayor.

“What Information and Input is Needed to Plan and Measure Progress?” is scheduled for March 16 at Princeton Public Library, with Gianni Longo of ACP Visioning+Planning speaking on “Giving Voice to the People’s Vision” and Ralph Widner on “A Statistical Profile of Consolidated Princeton and Greater Princeton,” with a response panel of Liz Lempert, Toby Israel, author of “Some Place Like Home,” Larry Hugick, and Katherine Kish of Einstein’s Alley.

“Best Practice: What Tools and Techniques Can Lead to Effective Decision-Making and Implementation” is scheduled for April 20 at Princeton Public Library, with speakers Robert Bzik, AICP/PP director of planning, Somerset County; Philip C. Ehlinger, Jr., AICP CZO, deputy manager, Doylestown; Andy Johnson, former chair, planning board, Haddonfield; and Nat Bottigheimer, former planner, Washington DC Metro Authority. Response panel will be staff and elected and appointed members of the government.

On the Web at princetonfuture.org.