Interview by Bill Sanservino and Alexa Johnston
Last year saw the resolution of a long-time thorn West Windsor’s side, when a state judge approved a settlement of litigation over the amount of affordable housing the town to provide over the next five years (1,500 units).
While the settlement provided a great deal of clarity on the impact of future residential development in town, there are a number of outstanding issues that must be dealt with by Mayor Hemant Marathe and other township officials.
Chief among them is future development in the township, the completion of a master plan review, absorbing residents from a number of new housing developments being built in the near future, and attracting new ratables to the town while keeping taxes down.
Marathe sat down to talk about these, and a number of other issues, on Feb. 5 with Bill Sanservino, editor of The News, and Alexa Johnston, a senior at High School South who is working as an intern at the newspaper this semester.
Below is an edited version of that interview.
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West Windsor-Plainsboro News: One of the developments that will have the biggest impact on town is the transit village at the Princeton Junction train station. What’s the status of that?
Hemant Marathe: It’s moving along fine. They (developer AvalonBay) have met already with the New Jersey Transit folks, and they have met with our township professionals. It’s proceeding on schedule. One of the requirements is that they are going to straighten Washington Road—the part that goes over the railroad bridge.
Also, the Vaughan Drive connection will eventually happen. That road will come out somewhere around 50 or 70 Washington Road, near Rush Holt’s old office. Then we will either have a circle or a light or some kind of traffic device at that intersection.
We have also talked to SRI (the Sarnoff Property in Penns Neck) on and off, too, because they have their property on the market. When SRI has come and spoken to me, we have made it clear to them that as part of any project, they have to build the bypass road all the way to Route 1. (The road would route traffic off Washington Road and out to Route 1 near Harrison Street).
Whenever they come up with the project, that will be one of the requirements. The bypass road will connect the road coming out of Vaughn Drive all the way to Route 1.
WWP: What about the general development plan that was approved for the SRI property? Did plans change after they sold the frontage along Route 1 to Princeton University after the plan was approved?
HM: Yeah, that’s not going to happen. They are now talking to various developers. We have told them that we won’t approve any housing there unless it’s strictly senior housing only, which will not generate kids in the township.
They have told us that even though they will sell the property, they do want to maintain a presence here because they see themselves as having a future in West Windsor.
We are located between New York and Washington, D.C., where they have a lot of business. They may require the new owner to build a building for them and lease space from them. So I’m optimistic they will be in town.
But when that project happens, the bypass will definitely be built. Then depending on what the state decides, maybe across Route 1, but at least West Windsor will do our part, and we’ll have that. That will reduce a lot of pressure on Washington Road, that it currently faces.
WWP: Speaking of general development plans, Princeton appeared before the planning board with its GDP in January. What was the result of that?
HM: We had three meetings, and we approved their GDP for them. It’s a 20-year plan, and that plan also requires a road within their property that they are going to build at their own expense parallel to Route 1.
Then depending on what they actually come up with, they’ve offered to connect it to the bypass, if the state decides to build one across Route 1 or connect it to Harrison Street.
WWP: You should have gotten them to build an overpass as they did in Plainsboro. The town got Princeton to build the one at College Road.
HM: Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s good to know. They do have a lot of money. That’s why they’ve offered—and we accepted that offer—to build the road and maintain the road. That will reduce some traffic pressure.
WWP: Do they have any plans to put any housing on the property?
HM: Yes. It’s going to be graduate student housing. One of the good things is that its taxable property, so it’s not going to be tax-exempt. (Because Princeton University is classified as a nonprofit, it doesn’t have to pay real estate taxes on land developed with academic buildings.)
They claim it will generate upwards of $1 million in taxes for West Windsor, and because the graduate students are very young, they don’t have too many many kids coming out of that development. We’ll see what actually happens, but they tell us that they have only seven kids coming out of their graduate housing in Princeton. If the numbers are like that, then it’s going to be very tax positive for West Windsor.
WWP: Is the plan that was approved significantly different than what they have been talking about over the past few years?
HM: No, it was very similar, there were just a few more specifics about where various things are going to go. It’s going to be built in phases.
WWP: So when they’re ready to build a phase, what will happen?
HM: They will come back to the planning board for approval. One of the requirements for the GDP approval was they are required to do a traffic study every time they come to the planning board for approval. So we will get an update of how the traffic is moving, and what we can or can’t do to reduce the pressure on the Washington Circle and on Washington Road and Route One.
Right now it’s very bad, especially since Alexander Road is closed, but I’m very optimistic that things will improve a lot more once Route One is expanded and Princeton builds a campus. In the study, we can figure out what is the best way of dealing with traffic.
WWP: Tell me a little bit more about the master plan and some highlights of changes that you’re going to be making?
HM: The Howard Hughes property dwarfs everybody because that’s the largest piece, so that is very optimistic (see story on Page 1). But there are a lot of new developments, and a lot of new commercial developments are going to happen.
Other than the property next to the mosque (on Old Trenton Road), most of the housing developments being built also have some kind of commercial. So for example, the development on either side of Meadow Road has a hotel and restaurant coming in. The one by the train station also has a nice hotel and roughly 12,000 square feet of retail.
There is Tractor Supply Co. coming on Route 1 South. There’s a Wawa coming on the other side of Route 1 going towards Trenton, where the Princetonian Diner was.
People are talking to us about various properties, but I don’t take them seriously since they haven’t come to the township with a plan. I always say, “When they put down the money to do studies, that’s when they’re serious.”
People get excited, and I say, “Look, 10-15 people talk to me in a month about various things just to gauge whether we will support it or oppose it.”
Until they put the money down, it’s just talking. It means nothing. Once they put the money down to start our professionals to take a look at the plan, then they are serious. Then we can say, “Okay. This is a possibility. This is coming up.”
WWP: In the past, West Windsor had been seen by some developers as being a difficult community to get a development or a project approved. That was one of the reasons that Princeton Hospital decided not to locate in West Windsor and eventually went to Plainsboro. Do you think you’re getting out a message to the commercial community that West Windsor is, as they say, open for business?
HM: I definitely think so based on the number of people that are approaching us with various projects. I would definitely say that that has happened. For example, it used to be a two-step process (when submitting a development application).
You had to go to the Site Plan Review Advisory Board, and then you had to go to the planning board. Essentially they did a similar thing, and sometimes SPRAB’s recommendation was something the planning board didn’t like.
One of the first things I did was to eliminate SPRAB. Now we have a Technical Review Committee whose job essentially is to look technically at the project to make sure it complies with West Windsor Township ordinances and everything. They try to get guidance from the planning board as to what the planning board is looking for.
So that has not only shortened the process, but it has made it a little less expensive, because the developer doesn’t have to spend money on professionals going to two sets of meetings, as opposed to one meeting. So the message is definitely getting out. That’s why we keep getting developers approaching asking, “I’m thinking of this project, would you support it?”
I think in the next two years, we will see a lot of new commercial development going on in town.
WWP: As far as the affordable housing compliance plan, do you anticipate seeing any of those developments being built soon?
HM: Woodstone by Canal Pointe Boulevard has already started—at least taken the trees down. The other developers have told us on and off that depending on how well they rent, how well they sell, they will decide the speed of their development based on that.
But they are all coming in with their plans. So they are spending money to at least develop plans to get an approval.
I’m not complaining if they do it slowly. I wish they would build the commercial part first before they build a residential part. Right now, that one and then the one by the train station are definitely coming son.
There are approvals for four buildings at the Ellsworth Shopping Center. He has finished two, and he has rented all the apartments on top. Sean (Ellsworth) told me that he rented it within a week, and a half of those who rented don’t even have a car. That’s ideal for us. That’s the whole attraction of being close to the train station.
WWP: Council is going to be considering a redevelopment of a conglomeration of parcels that were bought up by a developer on Route 1 north near Washington Road. Can you talk about what’s happening there?
HM: I’m told the developer has been buying properties since 2007, so he had had some discussions with Mayor Hsueh. I don’t know what those discussions were. When I became mayor, they came up with the proposal to build three businesses there, and because the frontage is on Route 1 it made sense to me.
I said to go ahead at least show me a plan to see whether that will work. Of course, people living next to it don’t like anything being developed there, and I can understand their point of view.
So they did come and make a lot of comments in the council meeting, and as a result of that, we did amend the ordinance to put in five or six conditions that provides some kind of protection to the neighbors, especially the neighbors that are right next to it.
There is a requirement of putting in a very tall berm. There is a restriction on the hours of operation. There are four or five conditions that were a direct result of input from the residents in that area.
I believe that project will make that area look better and will help even the neighbors rather than hurt because right now it doesn’t look good. And as someone pointed out to me, once the state expands Route 1, the noise from Route 1 is going to be 50 times more than the noise that this development will generate.
Putting a buffer between the two properties will protect them from the noise throughout the day. I mean at night this thing may generate more noise than Route 1, but during the day it’s going to be positive for them in the sense that it will at least buffer the noise coming from Route 1.
At night we have put restrictions that it’s open only from, I believe, 5 a.m. to midnight, so that helps them a little bit. Currently, the area doesn’t look good at all. We don’t know yet what the uses will be there, but I think it will be much nicer.
WWP: Do you know what’s going in there yet?
HM: It’s really a Catch-22. Until you have the zoning and ordinance in place, no business wants to commit to the developer.
So the developer needs to know that the zoning is in place before you can approach and sign on the dotted line. The neighbors want to know what’s going there before the ordinance is passed so that they will feel comfortable.
But the developer can’t tell them what’s going there until he knows what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. It’s a delicate balance for the mayor and the council to walk, but I believe that we have provided them as much protection as we can. One of the things I keep telling them is that that’s by far the smallest development happening in town.
I mean if you look at everything else going, even next to Rite Aid, the development there is larger than the development going on Route 1. And in that corner, if you take those that project plus what’s happening at Ellsworth’s, that’s definitely so much larger than whatever is happening at Route 1.
In that stretch (of Princeton-Hightstown Road) there are gas stations with a total of probably 24 pumps, and at least two of them are open 24 hours a day. And one has a convenience store that’s open 24 hours a day.
So it’s not as if we are picking on any particular section of town. It’s happening all over, and I keep telling folks that unless we can generate some commercial development, they will say the taxes are not affordable, and they will have to move.
That’s why there’s an effort to attempt to generate commercial development to take some sting out of all the taxes that are coming because of the kids coming into the school district.
WWP: What’s going on with the county and the improvements to Route 571/Princeton-Hightstown Road through downtown Princeton Junction?
HM: They were supposed to come back last summer. Then they said the fall, and they haven’t come back. I’m going to go and talk to the county executive.
They have done a study and we gave them some comments, so they gave it back to the contractor who did the study for them. I was a little disappointed that they haven’t gotten back to the township.
They’re going to do it in two phases. One from Cranbury Road up to Alexander Road, and then from Alexander to High School South. We are requesting them to hold an open house where people can come and see the plans, ask questions and understand what they are trying to do. Then we will go ahead with the project.
Actually, the county owes us three different projects, and none of them have moved as fast as I would have liked. One is 571, the second is the intersection of Clarksville and North Post road. People want a dedicated left-turn lane there. They’re doing a study.
The county has told me flat out that the intersection is at capacity. So whatever changes they do are going to make will be a marginal improvement, not magical. They have finished the study, but they haven’t come back with the solution there.
And then we have agreement with the county to add a dedicated right turn lane to Edinburg Road at the intersection with Old Trenton Road where the deli (Village Pantry) is. That also hasn’t moved as fast as I would have liked. We are sharing expenses on the project.
The county is going to pay 50% of expenses. They are doing engineering studies there, and the delay may have more to do with Jersey Central Power and Light because they’re supposed to move one of the light poles and that hasn’t happened. But I’m hoping to get it done.
WWP: As you know, everybody is concerned about taxes, and the budget season is coming up. What do you anticipate people are going to see this year?
HM: The tax rate will be relatively stable. Since I got elected as mayor, I have said I just want to be honest budgeting. So we are trying to take less and less from surplus every year and budget as honestly as we possibly can on both the expenses and the revenues.
In my first year, we generated over $600,000 surplus. That essentially covered all the deficits of the last four years that the township had generated, so we are back to where we were five years ago as far as the surplus is concerned. Last year’s books are closed, but I still haven’t looked at all the numbers.
I am optimistic we will generate surplus this year also, which will make budgeting a little easier in the coming year. I expect not to raise taxes either this year or next year.
WWP: Are there any big impacts that you know of in terms of revenues or expenses?
HM: Not that I know of right now. Last year we had three or four that increased by roughly $40,000 each, but not this year yet. I mean, I haven’t done a full budget.
Actually, we are meeting this Friday to go over the first parts of the budget, so after Friday I’ll know much better. But nothing out of the ordinary. Thankfully even the health care premium is controlled or a little less than what it was last year. So that’s a good help.
WWP: Will the legal budget be a little smaller since you settled the affordable housing litigation?
HM: We still have a few loose ends to tie in there, but yeah, I’m hoping the legal budget will be a lot less than what it was last year.
Again, on that front, we try to manage as best as we can. When we don’t need a lawyer at the council meeting, we request him not to come, because really I’m at most meetings.
I served as school board president nine years and never needed a lawyer at the meeting. So hopefully we are managing the legal budget in that sense by reducing the need for lawyers at various places.
WWP: You mentioned solar. What kind of solar initiatives has the town considered?
HM: We approved solar canopies at Carnegie Center, so they are going to have five different parking lots with solar. The one at the mosque (on Old Trenton Road) is already up. We are encouraging people to do something. It generates cleaner energy and is better for the tenant. It’s a win-win for everybody.
WWP: Lawrence Township recently put up solar canopies in the parking lot at their municipal building/police station. The project is actually providing about 85% of the power that they need for in the municipal building and the police building and it was paid for by the solar company. Do you think West Windsor would consider something like that?
HM: Absolutely. I have put out feelers that if there’s any company who is interested in doing that in the municipal center.
WWP: Apparently, the solar company somehow gets to profit off the project, and that’s why they do it at no cost. Lawrence township says that its saving upwards of $60,000 a year in energy costs.
HM: That’s not bad for no outlay out of pocket. If there’s anybody who is interested in doing it at the municipal building, I’ll be happy to talk to them and get it done. There wouldn’t be much impact on residents, there’s no houses nearby and it doesn’t take away any prime real estate. And in winter, the employees will be happy that they don’t have to clean off the car when it snows, and we won’t have to clean the parking lot that much.
WWP: After you were elected mayor you started the nonprofit West Windsor Gives Back. They’re now in their third year of activity and the past two they worked on projects to benefit the Princeton Junction Volunteer Fire Company and the West Windsor Police Department. How do you feel about how it’s worked out so far?
HM: I am really happy about it. To be very honest, the ladies involved in the project do all the work. I get the credit but only do a little, and they’ve done a fantastic job.
The only thing I feel bad about is the location where we hold the Mayor’s Ball fundraiser (Mercer County Park Marina and Boathouse). It’s restricted to only 150 people. The first year we were worried about whether we would be able to sell those tickets, and we sold out. In the second year, we sold out in literally two days.
The first year we did the police department and last year was the Princeton Junction Fire Company. This year we are going to raise money for the West Windsor Arts Council, and next year will be the West Windsor Fire Department for their 100th anniversary. West Windsor Gives Back also holds various events throughout the year. Small events where the community can come together.
Last year, because of the weather, the Dive Into Summer got postponed from early into the season into middle of the season, and that worked out great. A lot of people came to the pool, and lot of them didn’t even know that the pool existed, so that was a positive thing for the town and for the community.
Last year they introduced various members of the fire company at the Mayor’s Ball. It’s a shame that a lot of people in West Windsor don’t even know that we have two completely volunteer fire companies. We are fortunate to have such large volunteer fire companies, which saves the taxpayers a lot of money, and which give them service very quickly when a call goes out.
WWP: Just for clarification, all of the money that they raise—including the mayor’s ball—all goes to the nonprofit, right?
HM: Yes, 100 percent goes to the nonprofit. Because we wanted to avoid any conflict or even an appearance of conflict, West Windsor Gives Back doesn’t even have a bank account.
They don’t have a tax ID number. They don’t collect a single penny. For example, this year you have to write a check to the West Windsor Arts Council directly. All the money goes directly to the charity.
WWP: In the past, there was some controversy because the mayor at the time held a mayor’s ball that was a political fundraiser that raised funds for his re-election campaign.
HM: I wanted to be very transparent and very clear, and that’s exactly why I insisted that we not have any tax ID or nonprofit status or even touch the money. So for two years, we haven’t touched a single penny. Every penny that comes in comes directly in the name of the charity of that year, and it goes directly into their books. That way nobody can ask any questions as to what happened to the money.
WWP: In your 2018 State of the Township speech you mentioned building a sports complex in town. Has there been any progress made toward constructing it?
HM: That sports complex thing hasn’t moved on as I expected. That’s the unfortunate thing. It’s a little more involved than I originally thought, but there are a couple of different developers in town who own land, and who have approached me to build something like that.
There’s definitely need of an indoor sports facility, especially for soccer, and soccer folks are very much interested in that. I have put a few people in touch with each other. If not on the township property, it will happen someplace in town.
WWP: Do you have any other ideas to help create a stronger community in West Windsor?
HM: A couple of people have approached me about holding various events around town just to get people together, and I’m pursuing that idea.
For example, a group of ladies held karaoke night at the firehouse that was a fundraiser for the West Windsor fire station.
It doesn’t have to be fundraising. We just want to get people together to meet with each other and meet people who they don’t necessarily know.
There was a gentleman who used to hold meet-and-greets at the Hyatt. He, unfortunately, moved to India, so they don’t happen anymore. But those kinds of things are neat ideas because they bring people together.
We have Trunk or Treat at the park, and that generates a lot of community coming together.
At a lot of these events I go to, I realize how big the community is because there are a lot of people that I don’t recognize. That just tells me how big the community is. We will be talking about it more this year, flush out the idea, and we will do something.
WWP: What are some things that the town is doing to keep younger people interested in the community?
HM: To be very honest, it’s tough to keep college graduates invested in the town. My daughters, they want to go to cities like New York or San Francisco to work. It’s tough.
But on the flip, Boston Properties, which owns Carnegie Center, they tell me that they are trying to attract businesses where Millennials are working for them. Those people want to stay close to their work, so all the development that’s going to happen next to the Carnegie Center by Meadow Road should help attract young folks.
The train station development will attract a lot of young folks. There will be 12,000 square feet of retail, which will help them stay in the town.
There is zoning there for a brewery, and I think a lot of people want a brewery in town. Hopefully, we’ll be able to attract one.
So we are taking on baby steps to make it more attractive to live in West Windsor. We are trying to keep the small-town feeling, but when you have 30,000 residents and going on 35,000, that’s a little difficult to do.
One of the new police officers we hired is a graduate of WW-P. That makes me very happy and proud that one of the kids who went through our school system is coming back to serve the community. That’s the kind of things we hope that will happen.
On Alexander Road, there are four or five different sports kind of things. There is a ping-pong (Princeton Pong) and there is an ax-throwing place (Stumpy’s Hatchet House) that just opened there. I didn’t even know that was a sport. A lot of businesses in Carnegie Center have already booked parties there.
We are trying to do as many things like that as we can. Each one of them may not be big by itself, but together they will help us build the sense of the community.
WWP: Is there anything that you would like to talk about that hasn’t been touched on? Any messages you’d like to get out to the residents?
HM: People always ask me how I feel. I mean, I’m really happy. I always say nobody put a gun to my head. I wanted to do this. I ran because I wanted to be mayor. I thought I could do a good job, and I’m very happy that I got the opportunity to lead this community. This is a great community and people are involved and people should stay involved.
They should ask a lot of questions and demonstrate that we can work together. I mean not everybody is going to agree on everything. I mean, even the Penns Neck development.
They are people who say we don’t want anything you’d rather have it just like that. But once we explain that, “look something is going to happen,” They’re working with us.
Let’s be a model in this world, which is very polarized, to say that people with different philosophies can still work together. We may not agree on 100% of things, but at least we can work together to do something better for the community.
Just demonstrate what’s supposed to be a neighbor. Just be friendly. I mean you may disagree with them politically you may disagree with them on a particular issue, but everybody comes to their decision based on their prior experience, their upbringing, their own way of thinking.
In 99% of cases, there is no right or wrong way, it’s just through your perception and how you look at it. I’m very pleased that most people see that in West Windsor.
I’m very happy with the way things are going. People know each other, people support each other, and that’s a good thing for the community. That is what will build the sense of community as best as we can given the size of the town.