For West Windsor Township, 2017 will be a year where officials will be faced with decisions that will likely affect the long-term future of the township.
At the top of the list is the development of the 650-acre Howard Hughes Property at the corner of Quakerbridge Road and Route 1. The landowner is expected to submit a concept plan to the township early this year outlining its vision for the development of the property.
Other projects include a new beginning for the transit village at the Princeton Junction train station and the transformation of Route 571 through the Princeton Junction business district.
Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, who is serving in the final year of his current term as mayor and has not yet announced whether he plans to run for re-election, says he is hopeful that the new Mendonez-Miller-Hamilton majority on township council can help clear the logjam that has blocked a number of his initiatives in recent years.
WW-P News Senior Community Editor Bill Sanservino sat down with Hsueh to talk about the upcoming year, the projects in the pipeline, an his hopes for an improved relationship between council and his administration. Below is an edited version of that interview.
WW-P News: What are some of the priorities for West Windsor in 2017?
Shing-Fu Hshueh: The (state’s) transportation trust fund is available again. We have been waiting for many years for the redesign of Rt. 571 from High School South to the railroad tracks.
We already went through quite a few public meetings and hearings through the planning board, and that the whole design was finalized and agreements signed. I think it was sometime in 2005, but we have been waiting for the money to come before we could get started.
The county has already had engineering consultants start working on the survey and design, but it was ordered by the state DOT to stop last year because the Transportation Trust Fund had run out.
I’m hoping it will come back again, because it’s important for us to turn that portion of road into something more bicycle and pedestrian friendly so that the people will have more access to the (Princeton Junction) town center. The town center will also eventually be expanded to the other side of the train station.
We also want to be able to finish Nash Park I’m hoping if we can finish that this year, that will help to bring business to this area. It will be attractive to people who will spend their time over there. (The park is named after Nobel Prize winner Dr. John Nash, a long-time township resident who was killed along with wife, Alicia, in an auto accident in 2015. Nash was the subject of the movie A Beautiful Mind).
There will be picnic tables and benches for people to sit down and eat and then walk around, particularly in summer time. There will also be a pond, a pavilion, benches and an open area for people to have kids playing different games and things like that.
We also intend to create games there like Dr. John Nash used to play so that people will have some more memories about what John Nash really means to all human beings. Not only mathematics, but almost every field uses his concepts and theories.
I’m not sure if a lot people know that he lived on Alexander Road close to where the park will be built.
Yes, within walking distance. And I think it’s very important that we try to promote these kind of individuals who have had an impact on all of mankind. People who live there and have business in that area remember the family. He and his wife liked to walk around in that area.
We are also talking about a donation coming from the Princeton and MIT alumni associations. Depending on how much money they can collect, there will be a statue of Dr. Nash and Alicia.
Aside from the Princeton Junction business district, what are the plans for redevelopment near the train station? I’ve heard talk that the transit village as approved in 2008 is never going to get built.
I think we will see something happen with that sometime in the next year. The reason it cannot be built is because the economic situation changed after it was approved. Even though we came to an agreement with Intercap (the Transit Village developer who had filed a lawsuit against the township) in March 2008, the case wasn’t officially settled until 2011. The agreement with Intercap was based on the economic situation back then. Now it’s different.
We are discussing with potential developers to deal with some of the legal issues. Of course, all of these legal issues aren’t open to discuss publicly, but once we come to some kind of conceptual agreement, there will be an open discussion through the planning board and the council. It’s moving, but I can’t say anything more than that.
What is going on with the Howard Hughes property?
I believe it’s the biggest empty piece of property owned by a single entity between Boston and Washington D.C. We are eager to see exactly what they are going to do conceptually. They were supposed to submit a report, but so far we haven’t got it yet.
I have to emphasize that even though we have to plan this year, it’s not going to get built right away. I estimate — with a property that size — that to completely develop that property, you’re talking about 40 to 50 years.
What do you think the town envisions as the proper use of that property?
Right now it’s zoned for manufacturing and research, and you can see by today’s standards that this is not something attractive. It’s not a positive use of the property because of the location. We want to make sure we have the foundation (for what happens there) done this year. It doesn’t mean you are going to get into the details, but at least in general we want to know the direction we will be moving forward.
Do you see it being a mixed-use style project?
I encouraged Howard Hughes to look into that. But again, I want to see their concept, and then I want the public to be part of it, so there will be an open discussion in the community.
As mayor, I can propose my own general philosophy, but people in this community will have to buy in. That’s why I think it’s important to have more and more conversation to talk about how we’re going to use that piece of property. Of course it’s not just up to us, it’s also up to the property owner.
We also need to understand what is going on with affordable housing at the state level. A lot of developments will be restricted as to how we’re going to deliver the mandated affordable housing units.
Would you consider declaring the property a redevelopment area?
I personally feel I will support that. But, as you know, this is one area where I need three votes from the council. There are certain advantages for the township and also the developer. It will definitely help them in dealing with some state issues.
Declaring it a redevelopment area would give the township a greater ability to negotiate with the developer for what it wants on the site, correct?
Correct. Redevelopment is a very complicated topic, so it’s always subject to a lot of political interpretations, and people don’t quite understand all of this. That’s why it’s so easy to make it a political issue. When people use all of that emotional language they create chaos within the community.
The township has been very proactive over the years in preserving open space. Are there any other properties that you’d like to purchase?
We still have a few pieces we want to purchase. The final few that we need to pursue are in the southern end of the township. That’s the only area where there’s still open space we can buy.
Also, I would expect Howard Hughes to donate a lot of open space. I would expect that we will get a couple hundred acres there for free.
What are your thoughts on the financial state of the township and this year’s budget?
It’s going to continue to be healthy. The only problem is that we have to make up for some of the things that council did last year.
For example, last year the administration estimated between $900,000 and $1 million in construction fees, but the council added an addition $300,000 to the estimated revenues. Now at the end of the year, the revenues came in very close to the number that we had estimated.
The problem we had was that the communication between council and administration didn’t work very well. This year I want to make sure we have much better and stronger communications to make sure we all understand the implications. I don’t want to see us miscalculate or mis-estimate something so it turns out that the following year we owe more.
Something similar happened two years ago. The council decided to change the estimated revenues coming from police enforcement. They added an additional $100,000. It turned out that we only collected $6,000.
When the police department got that kind of revenue estimate, they asked me how they’re supposed to get all this money. Our police department is one of the best in the whole state, and they just don’t issue tickets because they want to collect more money. They issue tickets they can defend in court.
You mentioned wanting to have better communication between council and administration. With Peter Mendonez essentially deciding to work with you and council members Alison Miller and Ayesha Hamilton, how do you think that situation will be more positive for the township?
We can’t get a lot done if we don’t have good communication. We all have to work for the greater good of West Windsor. It shouldn’t be partisan. This is a nonpartisan form of government and we have to work together.
When it comes to dealing with potholes, there’s no Democrat or Republican way of fixing them. There’s only one way. Just do it. And that is my philosophy. I’m not too concerned with politics here. I just want to make sure we all allow for open dialogue and conversation and be able to come up with a clear consensus on which way is the best way to go.
In terms of the division of powers between mayor and council, it seems to me that sometimes council wants to have a role that the mayor should be playing.
I think you are correct. I have been trying to encourage members of council—particularly newly elected members of council—to participate in the local municipal officials training program held by Rutgers University for them to see what the functions are of this form of government and what they’re supposed to be doing and what the mayor is supposed to be doing.
I also tried to set up a training program, inviting the state League of Municipalities attorney to come and conduct a workshop for a couple of hours. Unfortunately, for the past three years, I couldn’t get council to support the idea.
I believe this is one of the most serious problems we have. If elected officials cannot understand the function of responsibilities of council and the mayor’s office, then how can you expect the voters to understand?
I have tried to reach out to them many times, including Linda Geevers and Brian Maher when they were council presidents. They didn’t want to talk to me unless there was some kind of emergency where they needed me. That’s why I think we are costing the taxpayers a lot of money as a result.
We could have sat down and figured things out jointly and tried to make it work. That is something I feel is one of my major frustrations in the past few years. In this town we have never been so partisan before, even under a partisan form of government.