Some people have referred to the area along Princeton-Hightstown Road between the railroad and Alexander Road as West Windsor’s “downtown.” What? Are they serious?
That’s not a bit like any downtown I’ve ever seen or lived near. First of all, a downtown has to have a town to be down for. Very little about West Windsor is townlike. It’s nothing more than your basic American bedroom community, full of houses on large lots and apartment complexes spread out over a large area of former farmland and populated largely by people who spend a lot of their time somewhere else — that requires a train or a car to get to.
As we have discussed before, the closest thing to a town in West Windsor is Berrien City near the train station. But even that doesn’t have what you should find in a real town. Where is the bookstore? The place where you can buy a dress or a shirt? The shoe store? The grocery store? The movie theater? And where are the sidewalks that allow you to walk by these places and find what you want without having to drive four or five miles to find it?
In short, a downtown has to be a destination, a place you go when you want to shop, or go out for dinner or be entertained. None of these apply to Princeton-Hightstown Road, and never will. Much of the traffic on that road is through traffic, going from one side of West Windsor to the other. It has no intention or need to even slow down as it goes through West Windsor on the way to points east or west.
What do we have in our so-called “downtown?” Not much. Six banks (one is on the other side of the tracks), three gas stations, a few real estate offices, some doctors’ offices, a drug store, and a partially occupied strip mall, the one called Windsor Plaza. And even if the latter were fully occupied, you’d still have to drive there in your car from most of the township. In Princeton, where there really is a “downtown,” there are many stores of all kinds mostly along a single street where people actually live in apartments over the stores or in houses on nearby streets within walking distance of the shopping. In our strip mall, there is no living space above the stores, even though it’s designed to look as if there is. Fake dormers, that’s all.
The whole idea of West Windsor having a “downtown” is nonsense. So let’s stop referring to it that way. A strip mall is a strip mall. A bank branch is a bank branch. A fast food place is a fast food place. That’s what we have and that’s what we’re stuck with. Calling it “downtown” will never change the reality.
Now, there is another approach to all this that some people have said they like. And that is to create a whole new “downtown” at some other place in the township. Huh? Oh, I see, they mean to create a whole new “town” someplace where new people will live and walk to their own new downtown, and maybe even their jobs. And all without disturbing the neighborhoods we already have. (A “neighborhood” is not a “downtown,” incidentally.)
Some people have even referred to such an area as being “urbanized.” That sounds really scary. Let’s see, one urban area I know about is Manhattan Island in New York. It’s area is 22 square miles, about the same as West Windsor’s 27 square miles. But its population is 1.6 million, not counting commuters. 1.6 million is 55 times West Windsor’s current population of 29,000. You really like the idea of urbanizing?
But even without the urbanizing the whole concept of creating a self-contained community from scratch usually fails. Developers will never tell you this, of course, since they make their money by convincing you that they have the answer to your problem, after pointing out that you really do have a problem in the first place—which you probably do not. Building a self-contained “community” has been tried in the general Princeton area several times in recent decades without success, with Forrestal Village on Route 1 being the most prominent exercise in fantasy.
What is there now is nothing like what was planned for, and, except for a hotel and a couple of restaurants, much of the place is empty. Another nearby flop is Robbinsville. Virtually no one will be found walking the streets of its “downtown.” Its only real shopping is in malls just like nearly everyone else’s.
Let’s forget about labels like “downtown” and develop each area of the township in a way that serves the people of that area the best way it can. If we end up with another small commercial area here and there to satisfy the needs of different neighborhoods, so be it. As long as they have the desired stores and services, ok, but let’s be honest about what we’re doing, and what we have when we’re done. West Windsor Township will never be a “town,” nor will it ever have a real “downtown.”
I still wonder why we need six banks within less than half a mile. Well, actually, there are only four. Two have disappeared in recent months. That’s the way downtown can be.