College towns that are considered the best in the nation have pedestrianized downtown areas. Every summer, Princeton closes streets around Palmer Square for events like Communiversity and Princeton JazzFeast- events that are wildly popular, and bring thousands of people into town. Despite this, for most of the year, a huge amount of space around Palmer Square is given over to on-street parking, encouraging drivers to circle the downtown looking for a convenient park, increasing pedestrian-car conflicts and limiting space available for outdoor dining, art and street performances. This raises the question: why doesn’t Princeton pedestrianize the streets around Palmer Square permanently? And the answer is…it already happened, but Princeton failed to make it stick!
In 1972, Princeton Regional Planning Board commissioned a report from planner, Charles K. Agle, entitled ‘A New Life For The Center Of Princeton’. Mr Agle knew the town well. He was a Princeton U. graduate, and in 1957, he said,
“Princeton is the most threatened small community in the United States…precisely in the center of the greatest concentration of population in the world.”
He warned that daily car traffic through the town could soon exceed 20,000 vehicles per day, and exhorted Borough and Township planners to take steps to maintain the town’s livable character, including collaborating with nearby towns to establish a permanent Green Belt around Princeton. Considering Mr Agle’s views, it’s not surprising that his 1972 plan proposed what modern-day planners would call ‘putting cars in their place‘.
Agle’s plan proposed a Princeton “free of parking meters and on-street parking.” Sidewalks would be widened and land would be planted with extra trees and shrubs. Witherspoon Street would become a pedestrian mall between Nassau Street and Hulfish. And where would the cars go to park? To a network of parking garages, so that they would be hidden away from shoppers. The plan attracted great interest from the public and members of the Central Business District (CBD) community. Nicolas Carnevale, president of the Chamber of Commerce observed, “The Chamber is behind it, and a lot of people are pushing for it”. As part of the planning effort emerging from the Agle report, a proposal was made in 1973 to close streets around Palmer Square to vehicular traffic. Sure enough, on May 5 1973, parts of Palmer Square closed to cars.
The backlash came quickly. Letter writers to ‘Town Topics’ complained about the loss of on-street parking, and called the plan ‘foolishness’. Others expressed fear at the idea of groups gathering in Palmer Square, and suggested that true pedestrians walked from one place to another, and would not linger in public plazas. Perhaps in light of this opposition, the Borough made the decision to reopen Palmer Square to traffic in June of 1973. At the time, Borough Mayor Robert Cawley said, “The closing did not create horrendous traffic problems, and traffic isn’t the reason for opening it again.” Instead, he said- presumably referring to the closed portions streets- “there wasn’t any way to make that black asphalt temporarily attractive.” He expressed optimism that a new way of pedestrianizing Palmer Square would come about soon. It never did.
Meanwhile the Agle plan encountered increasing objections from area merchants, who worried that deliveries would become too difficult if streets were closed. By 1974, the Central Business District was discussing alternative approaches. The parking garages envisaged by the Agle plan did get built- starting with the parking structure at Chambers Street. But the parking garages did not become a replacement for on-street parking. Instead they became an addition to on-street parking. Princeton successfully made room for more cars- but added no extra space for pedestrians. Today, Palmer Square remains an enlarged traffic circle, with the central, grassy, park-like area cut off by an ever-flowing stream of cars prowling for on-street parking. Sidewalk cafes exist in Princeton- but none are on Palmer Square. But you can park your car there.
What have been the benefits of planning for cars? In 1957, Charles Agle warned that there was a risk that the total number of cars passing through Princeton could exceed 20,000 vehicles per day. In 2013, more than 180,000 cars passed through Princeton per day.
Have your say: would you like a pedestrianized Palmer Square? Can you remember the one-month-long car-free trial in May 1973? If you know more about this story, definitely let us know using the comments box below!