On Monday night, Princeton Council unanimously voted to advance a new design concept for the downtown blocks of Witherspoon Street, between Nassau St and Green Street (Map) (Council Meeting Agenda Packet). The Princeton Engineering Department has been consulting on a new street layout for Witherspoon Street since February 2020. As noted in a report to Council from chief municipal engineer, Deanna Stockton, the most popular option in a public poll conducted in 2020 was for a fully-pedestrianized area. In response to intense lobbying from downtown businesses, the town instead voted in December of last year to maintain one-way traffic in a northbound direction. A second lane would be dedicated to loading and/or parking, to serve local businesses.
The Princeton Engineering Department has engaged in approximately thirty different public meetings about the proposed Witherspoon Street redesign, including multiple meetings specifically with downtown merchants. The latest concept plan for Witherspoon Street is the result of the Engineering Department trying to balance all the different voices that have been heard regarding the redesign of the street. The plan proposes a single 12-ft lane of traffic, in line with the Council resolution of December 2020. A second 10-ft street lane would be shared between loading, bike parking, and outdoor dining (see illustration above). The street lanes would be lined with new street trees, in dedicated planting boxes, and ‘green spaces’ designed to capture stormwater run-off and reduce flooding.
An advantage of the new street layout is that it would allow for substantially wider sidewalks on Witherspoon Street. The enlarged sidewalk areas would allow for increased pedestrian movement, street performers, art, and outdoor dining. The Engineering Department shared examples of what the new sidewalks might look like, based on other streets in Princeton. The new, enlarged 14-18 ft sidewalks on Witherspoon Street would be similar to those on Nassau Street, instead of the cramped paths that exist today. The new design would allow for the street to be closed entirely to traffic for special events or on regular occasions, depending on future plans by the town.
Princeton Mayor Mark Freda previously expressed concerns that the altered circulation pattern on Witherspoon Street might have insufficient width for fire trucks to operate, but municipal engineers and consultants presented slides indicating that sufficient space would be available. The new design is also flexible enough to allow for future conversion of the street back to two-way traffic, if the one-way circulation proves to be too problematic. Mayor Freda expressed concern that the potential cost of such a conversion ($800K) was too high. Council member David Cohen also expressed concern that insufficient year-round bicycle parking was planned. In meetings with town staff, local residents had asked for improved bike parking.
Ultimately, Council voted unanimously to advance the new design concept, which will take advantage of an NJDOT grant for funding, with construction intended to being in 2022. The plan may disappoint bike advocates, however, as once again no bike facilities are planned as part of the street re-design. In public comment, several local resident expressed optimism that the plan might make Princeton better, or potentially “a magnetic attraction” for visitors.
Video of the Council meeting is available below. The Witherspoon St discussion begins at 0:07:56.