If it weren’t for the New York Times, Chris Bobbitt might not be in Lawrence. Now, he’s the township’s mayor.
Christopher Bobbitt grew up on the West Coast, but he now calls Lawrenceville his hometown. He first ran for elected office only two years ago and now he is the mayor of Lawrence Township. Bobbitt has traveled a long way from his childhood in California to find his new hometown—a hometown he and his wife, Tiffany Smith, chose after reading a New York Times article suggesting Lawrenceville as an ideal location.
Bobbitt grew up in the San Fernando Valley in California.
“I thought it was a great place to grow up,” he said. “It was part of the city, but also part of the country. I was right at the border of the city with mountains in the backyard. Rattlesnakes and quail and everything.”
He finished his west coast stint with an undergraduate degree in urban studies with a concentration in architecture at Stanford University and a master’s degree in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley.
Moving east when his wife got a job offer from a major Princeton employer meant their first idea of living in Brooklyn—where Bobbitt’s sister had relocated—was not realistic. That fateful New York Times article brought them to Lawrenceville, where they first found a home in the village for two years while looking for something they could buy.
“We lived in the village, fell in love with the town, and drove every street with houses we could afford before deciding on a house in Colonial Lakelands,” Bobbitt said. He had found a new hometown and quickly decided it was time to do something for Lawrence, though he says he had no plans to run for council when he and Smith first moved here.
“Something I learned from one of my mentors in the San Francisco area, though, was to determine the lay of the land and the people in town,” he said. “I applied for the zoning council, but I was selected for the growth and redevelopment committee, and that was my entrance into Lawrence. I have an interest in the environment and I got on the Green Team and then on the Sustainable Lawrence committee. I kept up with current events, paid attention to what was going on, behind the scenes sort of stuff. I thought about policy and how to make things better.”
Bobbitt was asked if he wanted to round out the field of candidates for an unexpired term on council in 2015. It was the first time Bobbitt had ever run for any political office. He had no expectation of winning, but his run was successful against a wide field of candidates.
“I decided to take a chance,” he said. “I felt that I have something to say and that I have a voice that isn’t reflected in the other council members, so I decided it would be good to run.”
At his day job, Bobbitt is the principal at Interurban Architecture, where he now specializes in rehabilitating interiors.
“I have worked with the Diocese of Trenton rehabilitating some of their parish schools and I’ve worked with Trinity Cathedral in Trenton,” he said. “I’ve discovered I have an ability to navigate the rehabilitation sub-code, so a lot of the work I do is in the area of Hamilton and Trenton, just renovating things. The buildings may not need a whole facelift, but they need to be brought up to code.”
After stints in workforce development for both the state and federal government, Smith, Bobbitt’s wife, now works with Jobs for the Future, a national non-profit headquartered in Boston. She works remotely from home where she and Bobbitt are parents to 13-year-old Frances and 9-year-old Henry. Bobbitt enjoys walking his dog, a hound-whippet mix, around Colonial Lake.
Speaking of the relationship between the council and the town staff, Bobbitt says, “We have a very good professional staff that makes the job as mayor much easier,” he said. “As town manager, Kevin Nerwinski is like the CEO of a nonprofit and the council is the Board of Directors. So, he’s the guy we put in charge to run things on a daily basis. As mayor, I check in with Kevin once or twice a week. It’s not our place to manage the day-to-day operation of the town, but we have to know what is going on. Kevin Nerwinski brings to the table an enthusiasm and, as a life-long resident, he has great insights.”
Councilwoman Cathleen Lewis met Bobbitt when he was chair of the growth and redevelopment committee.
“When the open council spot came up, I thought of Chris because our town needs a progressive, forwarding-thinking leader who can look at how policies impact the whole town,” she said. “I’m excited to see him as mayor. He has a good sense of the whole community, he reaches out to everyone. He’s proactive and is always looking for good ideas. He wants to see the township grow and understands our changing needs. He looks at how things can benefit the community as a whole not just one area.”
Nerwinski said he and Bobbitt recently met to discuss their “mutual expectations” for the coming year. He added that he’s looking forward to working directly with Bobbitt.
“I know him to be a man of high character and intelligence, and we have a firm foundation in place for good work to be done,” Nerwinski said. “He is very committed to this township and has a clear vision regarding what he wants to accomplish. Lawrence Township is fortunate to have him serve as its mayor.”
Bobbitt spoke to the town recently upon acceptance of the mayoral position and touched on where Lawrenceville has been and where it is going.
“From preserving our open space and natural resources to enhancing our local business districts, the council must continue to keep future generations in mind,” he said. “We must continue to be good financial stewards when looking at adding services, staff, or negotiating contracts. When facing difficult decisions, the council, manager, clerk and staff will work to follow a guiding principle that we all share and that is: how does this decision maintain Lawrence Township as a wonderful place to live and work?”
Bobbitt said the future of the township played a large part in the council’s discussions over the last year. It’s a growing, changing landscape, he added.
“The amount of open land available for development is shrinking,” he said. “Staff in every department continue to work tirelessly to be as efficient as possible. Our municipal tax rate has been flat for the past four years. The township’s financial future looks bright with new ratables and our continued focus on ensuring that we spend within our means.”
Bobbitt acknowledged in his remarks to the township that the council is facing pressure to both expand services and stay within current financial constraints.
“There are pressures to expand and provide additional services or restore those that had been cut in the past due to financial considerations,” he said. “We as a community are reaching a moment in which we cannot simply continue to do things as they have been done in the past, but instead evolve to meet the challenges of the future. The question becomes, how do we evaluate our decisions to renew the township while retaining our common heritage?”
Bobbitt also has the goal of additional involvement and communication from township residents.
“We need to have conversations as a community,” he said. “The younger generation is busy, and one of the challenges is how you continue to get people to volunteer for fire, for boards and committees, for soccer, softball, lacrosse, things that were easier in the past for people who had the time to do those things.”
In looking to the future, Bobbitt says, “I don’t think we’ve collectively talked about where we want to be in five or 10 years. For me, there are a lot of opportunities for denser design to help people be able to navigate the town without driving a car and it will be easier for people to get around. We just don’t have enough land. That, combined with the competition that we need fields for soccer year-round, and we just don’t have the land available. Are we willing to spend more money to get those things?”
Bobbitt is excited about his continued service to Lawrence and his new role as mayor. There is enthusiasm in his voice as he speaks about the future, tempered with reverence and respect for the more than 300-year history of Lawrence. Bobbitt represents a new theme for the township—a man raised and educated elsewhere who chose to make Lawrence his hometown, and a man who wants to leave an even better town for his children.