Princeton Council may be about to tear up its plan for a redesign of Witherspoon Street after local business leaders and elected officials heard a talk last week from internationally-famous planner and urbanist, Jeff Speck. Invited by local business leaders to tour Princeton and offer comments on planning matters, Speck gave a lively talk to an audience of around 100 people at the Nassau Inn last Tuesday, followed by a second talk to the local merchant community on Wednesday. Speck’s talk, titled “Towards A More Walkable Princeton” touched on many hot-button issues, including permit parking, the new Graduate Hotel, and Princeton University’s new Environmental Sciences Complex off Prospect Ave. The audience were regularly moved to laughter and applause. But it was his comments on the Witherspoon Street redesign which may have most impact on local policy…
Witherspoon Street is due to be dug up for a sanitary sewer and utility modernization starting next year. The town has conducted an 18-month community engagement process featuring dozens of public meetings to try to establish what the best layout of Witherspoon St will be after the project is completed. The possibility of creating a fully-pedestrian layout for the blocks of Witherspoon St near Princeton University drew substantial public support, but some merchants preferred to restore two-way traffic with substantial street parking opportunities, similar to the street layout prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the end, Council agreed a compromise alternative, with one-way traffic heading north-bound, substantially-expanded sidewalks, and parking / loading bays on one side of the street. This concept was reviewed and approved by Council at their meeting just last week, and was supposed to go to the state Department of Transportation for final approval at the end of September. It is shown here:
Jeff Speck said that business leaders had asked him to review the Witherspoon St plan, and he thought it was ‘good’, but that he would do it another way. In particular, Speck said that the plan looked like it was a compromise designed by a committee (not really fair – it was a compromise designed by about four committees). He said he didn’t like the curb bulb-outs, because they created an irregular appearance, and potentially limited the flexibility in how the street would be used. He also objected to the proposed green stormwater retention installations, saying that they were out of place in a busy downtown environment.
Speck suggested that the town should consider something different. First, he argued that this part of Witherspoon Street should really be a pedestrian plaza. In fact, he argued that essentially the entire area of Witherspoon St from Nassau St to Paul Robeson place should be pedestrianized. Although he has been known as a skeptic of pedestrianized streets, Speck felt that all the elements for a successful walking street are present here, notably lots of young people from the university, and tourists. Speck said that the town should get rid of all the curbing to create a single, flat space. Lots of trees should be present, he said, ideally keeping the existing trees, but not ‘bioswales‘ or rain gardens. This space would allow pedestrians to occupy the entire street surface, as he expected that bollards would block motorized traffic entering “most of the time”. Alternatively, his plan is flexible enough to accommodate one-way traffic or even two-way traffic if the town ultimately decided to remove the bollards and allow that.
Despite the fact that the town’s plan was supposed to be sent to the New Jersey Department of Transportation for final approval this week, it seems that town leaders immediately began to investigate a completely new model based on Mr. Specks’ suggestions. As reported on Thursday at Tap Into Princeton, Mayor Freda and chief municipal engineer Deanna Stockton sat down with Speck immediately after his talk, to discuss how to implement his ideas. By Sunday, a special Council meeting had been scheduled for this Friday at the unusual time of 9.30 a.m. The purpose of the meeting, as confirmed by Council member David Cohen at the meeting of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee on Monday evening, is to consider whether Jeff Speck’s suggestions for Witherspoon St can replace or improve upon the town’s previous design. Cohen said that it may be too late to make radical changes to the plan, but a lot of people had liked the concept of a flexible, pedestrian-oriented space.
Unless the town can get some kind of extra-special exception from NJ Department of Transportation, then whatever Council agrees on Friday will be the final design that will shape Witherspoon St for years to come. If so, it could be an extraordinary turnaround after a painstaking 18-month public consultation. It seems impossible for stakeholders to view the plan that is under consideration ahead of the meeting, because the details are still being drawn up. There are good reasons to believe that the suggestions by Jeff Speck would make for a much better design. As he said himself, he has substantial experience in planning great places where businesses can thrive. If the new plan creates a delightful place where people can walk and linger, it could be great. If it is used as a pretext to cram cars back into Witherspoon St, that would be a shame, and ironic, given that Speck is a champion of walkability.
Details about the Friday Council Meeting about Witherspoon St via princetonnj.gov: Click here.
Jeff Speck’s full talk from Sep 28, 2021 at the Nassau Inn, can be viewed as a video at Vimeo.com at this link. (The whole video is well worth watching, with much of the material discussing Princeton specifically). His comments about Witherspoon St begin around 55′:00.