This article was originally published in the July 2018 Princeton Echo.

By Lori Rabon, Joshua Zinder, and Liz Lempert

The town of Princeton is a wonderful place to live, work, and visit, which also makes it a great place for customer-facing businesses. We all want the customer and visitor experience to be memorable, and we’d like for folks who have not yet come to Princeton to add this destination to their “bucket list.”

We also want entrepreneurs, retailers, restaurateurs, professionals, and service people to think of Princeton as the place to hang their shingles. And to make sure our town stays on their list, we need to reduce obstacles facing business owners who want to operate in Princeton while preserving the downtown’s unique sense of place and historic appeal.
That’s why the Mayor and Council of Princeton have created the Princeton Economic Development Committee, which includes several representatives from the Princeton Merchants Association. As its first order of business, the EDC will recommend ways to update the rules and regulations so that merchants in town can more easily do business, and residents, employees, and visitors to town can more easily get around and dine outdoors.

The EDC will be making recommendations to the Princeton Council to improve the town’s approval processes, and giving feedback on new, user-friendly technology that the town is implementing. The first main items that we will prioritize are parking, signage, and sidewalks

We all want the customer and visitor experience to be memorable, and we’d like for folks who have not yet come to Princeton to add this destination to their ‘bucket list.’

Parking. Readers of this column will not be surprised to hear that some challenges to local businesses have to do with parking. Restaurants have a higher parking requirement than retail shops do. A new restaurateur moving into a former retail space must either provide additional parking spaces or seek a variance from the Zoning Board. In Princeton there just isn’t the space for new spaces! So typically the restaurateur will go the Zoning Board for an exemption to the additional parking requirement. The process can take several months and cost upwards of $10,000 in architect and attorney fees.

So the Princeton Council, with the support of the EDC, is considering the creation of a “parking bank.” Instead of seeking a variance, business owners would be able to pay into a fund that helps improve transit and the existing parking system, instead of individually having to physically construct and carve out new spaces.

Building new parking areas, particularly structured parking, is a large expense — $25,000 per space, on average — and, in Princeton, maybe a needless one. Our parking studies have shown that there are plenty of unused spaces in our town, as long as people know when and where to look for them!

At 5 or 6 in the evening, Princeton’s day workers go home, and those spaces and lots empty out. Visitors may be driving around the usual areas looking for a place to park, while in other areas around town there are empty spaces.

But how to find these lots and spaces? Well, that’s where technology comes in. Following the lead of Austin, Texas, Princeton will be launching a parking payment app that can help drivers find parking spaces. Businesses and churches will have the ability to offer their lots and spaces after hours, on weekends, or whenever feasible; drivers can use the app to pay the owner of the lot directly for the use of the parking space. This technological tool saves time and stress for drivers, and allows lot owners to generate extra income while helping the town expand its supply of available spaces.

Signs and Sidewalks. Another complication for businesses is a quirky regulation that allows some restaurants to offer outdoor dining more easily than others. If an owner owns only the building, but not any of the sidewalk in front, that owner can simply fill out an application for an outdoor seating area. But another owner whose property line extends onto the sidewalk is required to go through a lengthy variance process.

The EDC will be recommending that Council make it just as easy for those restaurants that own their sidewalk frontage to apply for outdoor dining.

We will make recommendations on revising our signage ordinances, simplifying codes, and introducing a more visually friendly graphic system so that business owners can visualize exactly what their options are for signage. We also want to support the municipality in its efforts to put more permit applications online.

As the go-to organization for businesses in Princeton, PMA is bringing together our business and government leaders together to look into all these issues on every level. With input from businesses — retail, restaurant, design, service, real estate, nonprofit — we know how business works because we’re in business too. And we’re thrilled that Prince­ton’s government and merchants are collaborating via the Princeton Economic Development Committee.

Lori Rabon is vice president of Palmer Square and Nassau Inn. JoshuaZinder is managing partner of Nassau Street-based architecture and design firm JZA+D. Liz Lempert is mayor of Princeton.