This article was originally published in the September 2018 Princeton Echo.
If you have followed Princeton municipal affairs in recent decades, especially the controversial matters such as the expansion of the Arts Council, the creation of a public square and parking garage at the library, the relocation of the Dinky station, and the apartment complex that rose on the site of the old hospital, you have heard of Princeton Future.
Not an arm of government, and not a business organization, either, Princeton Future is a nonprofit with a mission to bring together knowledgeable people with innovative ideas, hold panels for the community to learn about and respond to plans created by architects, planners, affordable housing experts, and financial people, and to methodically record the public’s responses. Its Saturday morning planning sessions at the public library are well attended and comprehensive in their approach, breaking problems down by neighborhoods or by other relevant components.
Late last year, when the town introduced a report proposing major changes to the way parking is managed, Princeton Future invited a handful of experts to analyze the proposals and lead a public discussion of their possible consequences. On Saturday, October 6, Princeton Future will host another public forum, this time on affordable housing.
In lots of communities, development issues such as those addressed by Princeton Future receive plenty of attention, usually at planning board meetings where the talk is dominated by developers and their lawyers on the one hand, and Not In My Backyard opponents on the other. When the discussions do occur the planning process is usually so far down the road that the choices facing the town are either accept it or reject it.
With Princeton Future, says co-founder and administrator Sheldon Sturges, “we are trying to get a consensus from the community — can we all agree on this?” And, he continues, “because we have people who actually know things to lead the conversation, you get to a better place.”
The Princeton Future board, he says, “is hopefully a pretty good representative of the whole community.” In addition to Sturges the board includes Kevin Wilkes, an architect and builder, president; Jeff Gradone, a lawyer concentrating in property taxation and redevelopment, treasurer; Katherine Kish, executive director of Einstein’s Alley, secretary; Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, professor of sociology at Princeton; Peter Kann, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal; Alvin J. McGowen, affordable housing advocate and former assistant county prosecutor; Marvin Reed, former mayor of Princeton Borough; and Rick Weiss, founder of Viocare Inc., a healthcare company.
Princeton Future’s website describes its mission: “As the Princeton region grows, a complex intertwining set of issues related to planning, development, and affordability needs to be faced, analyzed, and, in so far as is possible, resolved collectively. We hope to move forward together with a view towards integrated solutions. We hope to avoid the piecemeal, project-by-project approach that has led to community frustrations, inequities, and general dissatisfaction that opportunities were squandered.”
The founders in year 2000 were Robert Goheen, Bob Geddes, and Sturges. Goheen, who died in 2008, was a Princeton University alumnus, former university president, and a resident of Princeton for most of his life. Geddes, now retired, was dean of the university’s school of architecture from 1965 to 1983, and maintained an architectural practice in town for many years. Sturges had no similar Princeton ties — but after getting a job here, he realized it was “a wonderful place to raise children.” Then he bought a house and stayed put, even after he became a commuter to Manhattan.
The idea of civic responsibility was not strange to Sturges, even at a young age. “My mother always looked at me and said, ‘You have a great deal to give to the world,’ and I believed her,” he says. On the other hand, he has learned from experience “it is not always a good thing — sometimes you run into brick walls.”
The son of a teacher at the Milton Academy in Massachusetts, which Sturges attended through 12th grade, Sturges was admitted to Harvard as a scholarship student. Having “descended from school teachers, everybody was broke,” and Sturges worked his way through school. “I think that’s a good thing,” he says. “It makes you ambitious in a way some of the guys who inherited a lot of money weren’t. Somehow cleaning out toilets at the end of the year inspires you to go out in the world and do something.”
At Harvard between 1960 and 1964, Sturges experienced both John F. Kennedy’s election and his visit to campus a week later. Seeing him “all tanned and very handsome looking,” Sturges says, “I think the general thought was ‘Okay, he did it, so can we.’”
A history major, he taught French for a year at the Wooster School in Danbury, Connecticut. Then he earned a master of arts in French at the University of Paris. In the footsteps of his brother and father, both French teachers, and also to stay out of the Vietnam War, he took a job teaching at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire.
But in the middle of his second year at St. Paul’s, during the Tet Offensive, he was drafted into the National Guard.
When his service was up Sturges sought career advice from Francis Keppel, chairman of General Learning Corporation, a joint venture of General Electric and Time Inc. The advice, Sturges says, was “that the technological resources of America ought to come together with the publishing resources of the country. It seemed like a good idea for me — I can stay doing educational work but maybe learn about business.”
Sturges was hired by Frank Caplan, founder of Creative Playthings, whose new company was Edcom Systems in Princeton. Caplan started Sturges on a series of business ventures involving monthly learning opportunities for children when, just back from the Nuremberg Toy Fair, he told Sturges, “We have two containers of science kits coming in four months from Japan — you figure out what to do with them.”
So Sturges, with sponsorship from the Franklin Institute and rental of the Scholastic magazine mailing list, created a monthly book club of science experiments that eventually had a million dollars in sales. This venture whetted his interest in business. In 1972 Sturges applied to work at Scholastic, which he knew was run by “two of the smartest guys in the publishing business.” He was soon commuting to New York, marketing paperbacks to students via their teachers. He then figured out a successful response to low sales of books to early teens. His idea was to make kids’ magazines “less boring,” and he created “Dynamite,” a magazine for 7 to 10-year-olds that included baseball cards and a fold-out poster.
At the Magazine Publishers Association convention in Bermuda in about 1980, Sturges met 26-year-old Steve Jobs, who told him, “I’m always asked if the computer is going to replace the human mind? The answer is no, it’s going to be the bicycle for the human mind.” That intrigued Sturges, so he took Jobs’ card, and they ended up doing business together.
In the new realm of computer education, Scholastic published Bank Street Writer, “the first word processor for American schools” and “a huge force in selling the Apple II,” as well as “Microzine,” the first magazine on a floppy disk.
In 1985 Sturges secured funding from six groups to open Sturges Publishing Company, and Jobs gave him the warranty list of everybody who owned an Apple computer. “My company was formed on the idea that intellectual property was going to grow up randomly around the world the way books do,” Sturges says.
Sturges focused on creating a software club for kids, with monthly magazines for three age groups that came on a disk along with two software programs for the price of one. He first sold the magazines via direct mail using the warranty list he had acquired from Steve Jobs. Later, he linked up with Computer Depot and trained its salespeople to enroll customers who bought Apple computers in the software club.
Not too long after Computer Depot declared bankruptcy, Sturges was only able to keep up the magazines for a year using Apple’s warranty list. He followed up with a couple of small magazines connected to the Macintosh computer, but in about 1989 he had to lay off all his employees.
While continuing to operate as an entrepreneur, Sturges got caught up in community service in the mid-1990s, when he watched a discussion between Connie Mercer of HomeFront and the head of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen on “The Poor in Our Neighborhood.” It emphasized, Sturges said, that “you have to help your neighborhood.” He ended up as president of Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) for three years.
Princeton Future started September 29, 2000, as an offshoot of Sturges’ attempt to make sure that the garage next door to the library would be well constructed. The borough and the township had come to an agreement in 1999, after 12 years of trying, to keep the library downtown, as opposed to possibly moving it to the Princeton Shopping Center, as long as the community built a garage and people from the township could park for free to go to the library.
“I looked at the government — the elected officials and the staff — and thought, ‘Nobody here knows anything about building a garage,” Sturges says. Without that talent, he feared “that it was going to end up being a big mess.”
Having spoken to Bob Geddes, former dean of architecture, Sturges says he knew that “we were both on the side of the poor and the people.” Second, “I knew he knew how to plan and how to build.” Third, he knew that Geddes, having set up “storefront architecture planning spaces where the people could help plan,” believed in communal input to the planning process. In sum, Sturges says, “He’s still a real democrat and a fighter for social justice.”
Sturges called Geddes at 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and at noon had lunch at the old Annex restaurant. Assessing the situation, Geddes said, “Okay, we need a banker,” and he asked Sturges whether he knew someone from the university who might help. Sturges thought of Bob Goheen.
Sturges, Geddes, and Goheen had lunch the next week and “agreed to form a no-name organization that would attempt to gather talent in the town to address the issues facing downtown.” Goheen too had a strong interest in social justice. As Princeton president, he had hired Carl A. Fields, the first black administrator at an Ivy League college. When Princeton Future was founded, Sturges appointed as honorary legal chair Nicholas Katzenbach, U.S. attorney general who had confronted Alabama governor George Wallace to enable desegregation of the University of Alabama. “Nick was my true north on matters of race in the town,” Sturges says.
Goheen, Geddes, and Sturges were a complementary threesome: Geddes is a genius architect and planner, but more important, is a fabulous teacher (Sturges jokes that he was Geddes’s “longest reigning graduate student” because they spoke five to six times a day for six years); and Bob Goheen was “a battler.” “What I like about Princeton Future is that it has always been led by a small collective rather than by one person,” Sturges says. “The three of us would hash things out and then expand the decisions to a larger group.”
The three men created a booklet, “The Founding of Princeton Future,” for the initial meeting, attended by 200 people. Especially important to Sturges was including a conversation he had had with Albert Hinds, whose grandfather had been a slave on a North Carolina plantation, moved north to work on the Brooklyn Bridge, and later worked as an assistant to Princeton president James McCosh, planting the first magnolia tree in Princeton in front of the library.
Sturges particularly highlights what Hinds had to say about being an African American in Princeton: “There is a general feeling that the intention has always been to move us out so that the town can be lily white. Conditions now aren’t a whole lot better than they used to be.”
Princeton Future captured its basic principles in its first yearly report: stopping Princeton’s piecemeal approach to planning; having the social vision and the physical vision inform each other; being aware of useful talent among town residents; maintaining the desire to get built what Princeton Future plans; being able to collectively finance what makes sense; and the need to work hard to “maintain the racial, ethnic, and economic diversity of our town.”
That first year the group launched a planning effort. It hired a planner to do valuations of parking places, residences, and retail stores in three zones downtown. It documented findings on each area of the town, did planning studies, and then mailed postcards to every resident, inviting them to a June, 2002, workshop to think about the area around the library and the proposed garage.
The debate about building the garage wasn’t easy — some people liked the existing surface parking lots and wanted to keep the town the way it was. “The extremes get up and talk all the time; but you do get to the middle,” Sturges says.
To get real input from the community for their plan, they organized 33 in-home meetings. They asked people what things they liked most about Princeton and what things they would like to see in Princeton, listing them on a board. Participants used different color dots to prioritize the items. “Out of that came a sheet of characteristics,” Sturges says, for example a grocery store downtown that carries lettuce.
Funding for the plan proposed by Princeton Future included $60,000 from the university at its founding, $10,000 from Dean Mathey’s Bunbury Company, and another $30,000 from many individuals. The plan included its recommendations for Hinds Plaza, the garage, and two multistory buildings.
As part of the planning process, Princeton Future produced a 184-page book titled “Listening to Each Other: The Downtown Core, The Downtown Neighborhoods; December 2001 to June 2002.” Now part of the Princeton Collection at Princeton Public Library, it illustrates Princeton Future’s commitment to community input. The book, based on conversations with residents who lived in the different zones, contains “verbatim of what each resident who showed up said,” Sturges says.
Sturges committed himself to these full reports of what every participant said because of his consciousness of “the rich-poor divide in America” and its consequences. “One of the things that happens when you have a public meeting is the poorer members of our town are not as skilled in public speaking and expression as the mayor and other people more practiced and having loud voices. When there are stammers, or a different accent or cadences, you’re not apt to listen as carefully,” he says.
Most of these conversations were videotaped, and Sturges transcribed them word for word. “The poor are not listened to in America,” he says. “They don’t vote enough and nobody listens to them. I have been methodical about typing up what people said because they deserve to be heard.”
“Hopefully once you’ve created the documents, the head of the planning board and the guys in government read it,” Sturges says, adding that Wanda Gunning, chair of the planning board since Princeton Future’s founding, “has been to every Princeton Future meeting and sees us as an organization of value. She likes to listen to what people are saying.”
However, Sturges points to what he views as a flaw in the town planning process: that the planning board only hears final plans. “It means an applicant may have spent millions preparing, but there has been no official conversation until they come to the zoning board for variances or to the planning board for final approval,” he says. “By that time the people have been left out.”
Since its founding Princeton Future has tried to bridge that divide and has played a part during many transformative projects, in addition to the Hinds Plaza creation.
Arts Council expansion. In 2004 controversy arose when the Arts Council proposed a new, expanded building diagonally across Witherspoon Street from the library. The original brick building had belonged to the black Y, built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Sturges says. When the Y “went out of business, the borough had title to it, and the mayor sold it to her best friend for a dollar to found the Arts Council of Princeton.”
When the Arts Council proposed a big expansion, the neighborhood was not happy, and Princeton Future held 22 meetings to air differences. “We had constructive conversations chaired by Nick Katzenbach,” Sturges says of the Princeton Future board subcommittee that included three people from the neighborhood, three from the Arts Council, and Katzenbach, Yina Moore, and Princeton artist Susan Hockaday from Princeton Future.
Palmer Square North. Princeton Future also played an active role when Palmer Square North (Princeton Future’s “Robeson Place South,” with boundaries Paul Robeson Place, Hulfish, Witherspoon, and Chambers) was being developed, creating an alternative plan that brought back previous street patterns. “The simple idea we had was to have a skyscraper, seven stories, for people that could afford it and have an enormous number of affordable houses,” he says. This plan came out of series of workshops led by planner Bob Brown, an affordable planning expert, and an economist to figure out the economic benefit of the plan. But Palmer Square was private rather than public, and in the end the owners had other plans for the property.
Witherspoon Street. In 2004 and 2005 Princeton Future did the Witherspoon Street Corridor Study, based on conversations about what should become of the hospital site. “What the people wanted was a village-like kind of thing,” Sturges says. But when the hospital decided to move, it needed money and ended up selling to Avalon Bay, which could pay cash. Princeton Future worked with the developer, but “it turned out they didn’t listen. All they cared about was a courtyard with a swimming pool that could only be accessed by the people who lived there. The only green space was at the entrance to the leasing office.”
“The neighbors went berserk, but it was their private property and they could do pretty much what they want,” Sturges says. At the Avalon Bay neighborhood meeting, the corporation refused to allow table discussions, but demanded that all discussions include all participants, Sturges says, and exhibited an attitude of “No, we’re in charge; we’re paying for this meeting; we want to hear it all.”
Consolidation. Princeton Future held two important public meetings to provide input on the 2012 consolidation vote. In March, 2011, each member of the consolidation commission led a conversation on one of the following topics: governance and administration; shared police department; shared public works; and finances and taxes. The second meeting, in October, shared recommendations by Princeton Future on consolidation, with each presentation followed by a Q&A.
Ongoing projects. Princeton Future is still alive and kicking and has drawn in some younger people, including treasurer Jeff Gradone, a Princeton attorney at Archer focusing on local property tax, redevelopment, and condemnation. And other efforts are underway to improve Princeton. One reaches back to Princeton Future’s founding: it is to form a partnership of all nonprofits, corporations, and public bodies to form a special improvement district. Sturges explains, “It is a way to make town-wide planning that gets built, because they can fund facade improvements, buy land, and build and lease buildings, with the goal of making the downtown economy more sound and making the town more vibrant.” It could, for example, also subsidize rents for retailers who sell the items people need in their daily lives, like needle and thread.
A special improvement district is necessary, Sturges says, because “it is hard for the government to make plans outside of a lot-by-lot development scenario.”
Princeton Future just got a first-time grant from NRG and continues to get grants from the E.T. Cone Foundation as well as many individuals. Sturges says he is paid “a very nominal amount to keep the lights on as the administrator of the organization.”
Sturges and his first wife, Caren Sturges, a former president of Princeton Symphony Orchestra, have three children: Rebekah Harris Sturges, a landscape architect, Zachary Sturges-Moyne, a consumer fraud lawyer at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Louise Ingalls Sturges, a painter and artist. He met his second wife, Tatiana Popova, in the children’s department of Princeton Public Library, where she was translating for the illustrator Gennady Spirin.
“We’re hoping to lead community discussions in October that would get people excited about more density in downtown,” he says, although he admits that “density” has been “a dirty word in this town.” At the same time, many people in Princeton understand that density downtown is more sustainable. Sturges is hoping to make density more palatable by arguing from a social justice perspective. People like fire volunteers, he says, can no longer afford to live in the town, “and the same with teachers.” But, he adds, teachers who live in the town are more likely to know students and families over a longer term: “You can’t make people live here, but you ought to give them a decent choice.”
More recently Princeton Future has joined the cadre of townspeople who have transformed Dohm Alley, the 10-foot wide alley on Nassau Street between Starbucks and Landau’s, into an outdoor art gallery and performance space. Dohm Alley had been identified as a site of a possible mini-park in Princeton Future’s early assessments of downtown spaces and how they could be used. A volunteer group led by Kevin Wilkes, the architect and Princeton Future board member, and Peter Soderman, a landscape designer, began work on the alley about two years ago.
Now the group has become part of Princeton Future, which is administering fundraising efforts. Still on the wish list: a multitouch, 65-inch weatherproof monitor that will grant access to a range of information about Princeton. One button will feature documentaries about such Princeton luminaries as Albert Einstein and Lyman Spitzer, who conceived the Hubble Spacecraft; another button will tell you what is going on in Princeton for the next two hours — talks or activities at Princeton Theological Seminary, Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton Public Library, the YMCA or YWCA, and other local venues.
Sturges is also considering an idea he calls “a Cotswold walk or ramble.” He envisions a walking route that winds behind buildings on Nassau Street, where he envisions cafes, bookstores, and popup shops, then down through the Delaware & Raritan Canal, the Institute for Advanced Study, and Princeton Theological Seminary, by Einstein’s house, and back into downtown. “The job is to create vibrancy in the downtown. We have to make it so it becomes economically feasible and the shops work,” he says.
Looking back on Princeton Future’s most successful venture, the Hinds Plaza, garage, and related buildings, his group and Mayor Marvin Reed worked together to “create a consensus of probably 60 to 70 percent of the people” who “wanted public space, shops, and affordable units.” Describing the process, Sturges says attendees fell into four categories: radically against Princeton Future’s proposal, radically in favor, moderately pro, and moderately con. “What we discovered is that if you have enough meetings, people in those left of center and right of center areas get sick of hearing the strident people on the extreme and sort of veer toward the center.”
Sturges’ concern for the future involves not just the town, but a more global business idea that brings together his longtime interest in meshing education and technology.
Sturges Publishing Company has a patent to build a conversational robot. Data structures in a cell phone will be able to analyze the learning style of the “student,” and a conversation would ensue. “A young boy walking barefoot in Somalia could have a conversation with Desmond Tutu,” he says, or an adult might talk to Aristotle or Napoleon. But so far he hasn’t been able to procure the money he needs to develop a prototype.
“The idea of capturing the pattern of input of a growing mind and adjusting the presentation of content accordingly is the core idea,” he says. His friend Roy Rosser, patent agent and entrepreneur, said to him, “Sheldon, what you’re really talking about is conversation. It’s what a good teacher does. A good teacher looks you in the eye and figures out where you are and then puts forward his information at a level you can get.”
Maybe that is a little like what Princeton Future does. It tries to involve everyone in the conversation about planning in this town, listen well, and determine the major needs and fault lines in the community and options for solving or resolving them. As it seeks to reach a consensus on good planning solutions, Princeton Future packages its findings in ways that enable citizens and local government to make the best decisions for Princeton’s future.
“The idea would be,” Sturges says, “let’s try to figure out, everybody in town, what kind of town we want, and then go forward and make that happen. I’m a believer that we will all agree on what that is. I believe the town wants to be sustainable, I believe the town wants to be inclusionary, and I believe everybody likes the university and the university respects the town. Our job is to figure out by what mechanism can we work together.”
Princeton Future, Box 1172, Princeton 08542. www.princetonfuture.org.
But is it affordable?
It’s easy to envision the kind of sustainable town championed by Princeton Future — a walkable downtown, streets with ground level retail and housing above, dynamic public spaces, a healthy mix of restaurants and entertainment venues, and all linked via pedestrian paths and bikeways to the surrounding community.
It’s also easy to envision such a community being prohibitively expensive, with housing beyond the means of school teachers, police officers, or others who provide the daily services to make the town as appealing as it is.
Princeton Future addresses the affordable housing issue on Saturday, October 6, from 9 to noon at the Princeton Public Library. Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, will address the gathering. Discussion groups will then meet to consider plans for possible affordable housing at six downtown sites:
- The Chambers Street garage.
- Mid-block of Nassau Street.
- The Park Place parking lot.
- The Griggs Corner parking lot.
- The underdeveloped area of small parking lots, garages, and storage buildings behind Starbucks and the U-Store (known as “E = mc Square(d).”
- The area around the Bank of America building and the Harrison Street firehouse
Among the ideas being considered are replacing some older, one-story buildings with taller buildings that include “non-market units” set aside for people like teachers or police who work in Princeton and whose rent would be set at 30 percent of their total income. To entice developers the parking requirement would be reduced in proportion to the number of non-market units.
Given a future with ride-shares, shuttles scheduled by smartphone, electric scooters, and improved mass transit, Sheldon Sturges says, “things are going to change” with respect to parking. He adds that before 2000, about 80 percent of new units in this country were built in the suburbs. Since 2000 about 80 percent have been built in town centers.
For more information, visit www.PrincetonFuture.org.
Spirit of Princeton calls for volunteers
The Spirit of Princeton invites community members to help produce three popular events: the Memorial Day parade, the Flag Day commemoration, and the Veterans’ Day ceremony.
A charitable non-profit group of local residents, the Spirit of Princeton became operational 21 years ago and is led by Mark Freda and Kam Amizarfari. The late Ray Wadsworth, who founded the organization with Herb Hobler, led the organization until his death, a few days after the 2018 Memorial Day Parade.
To contribute to the Spirit of Princeton with either sweat equity or financial support e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.