With $1 million of state funding on the line, Princeton Council has agreed a last-minute change to the proposed new intersection design at Witherspoon St and Nassau St. The decision was made at a special Council meeting this morning, which was held ahead of an October 8 deadline to respond to the state Department of Transportation (NJDOT). The new intersection will have curb extensions to approved safety for pedestrians (see previous report from March at walkableprinceton.com). There was disagreement, however, about how wide Witherspoon St should be at the point where it meets Nassau St. The town had hoped for a pedestrian-friendly 13.5-ft street width, but NJDOT are apparently insisting on a wider 22-ft width, to make life easier for trucks turning into Witherpoon St from Nassau St.
It’s not entirely clear how the miscommunication between the town and NJDOT happened. The town’s engineers have apparently been working with the state all summer with a plan featuring a 13.5-ft street width. The issue was extensively debated at a previous Council meeting on Sep 28, when the issue of truck movements was considered in detail. At that meeting, Mayor Mark Freda expressed concern that the street would be too narrow to accommodate turning trucks. After some discussion about how the design had been modified to enable truck turns, there was a consensus to stick with the 13.5-ft street width. This width was understood to be acceptable to the state, but Council heard today that if the width was not increased to 22-ft, then the state would not approve the million-dollar project. Faced with an immediate deadline to respond, Council approved the change.
Street safety expert Lisa Serieyssol and local resident Tineke Theo expressed dismay about the sudden change in the plan. Chief municipal engineer Deanna Stockton and planner Michael LaPlace advised that they are considering options involving different types of bollards (see slide, at top, from engineers’ presentation), which might be used to ‘neck down’ Witherspoon St from a 22-ft width at the intersection at Nassau St to a 13.5-ft width further along the block. Some kind of bollards – potentially retractable bollards – might also be used to dedicate the blocks of Witherspoon St in the Central Business District as a pedestrian plaza either seasonally or on weekends / special occasions.
The question of the future design of Witherspoon St away from the intersection was also on the agenda at today’s Council meeting. The municipal engineers have been reconsidering their design for a one-way circulation pattern for Witherspoon St with wider sidewalks in the light of comments made last week by visiting urbanist Jeff Speck. Speck had urged more pedestrianization on Witherspoon St, potentially extending the pedestrian area as far as the intersection with Paul Robeson Place, and for a more flexible, curb-less design with stormwater collected in the middle of the street. The engineers are intending to brief Council in more detail about their considerations of Speck’s comments at the regular Council meeting on Monday night (October 11), at which point action may be taken on any design changes.
Council member Mia Sacks said that the Jeff Speck ‘flex-design’ was actually Council’s first choice for a design for Witherspoon St. She pointed out the advantages, of being able to switch easily between different uses of the street. Council had been led to believe that a design similar to Speck’s recommendation was not possible, but that they were reconsidering now, “at the eleventh hour and fifty-night minute” because of Speck’s compelling presentation. However Sacks warned that it is not looking likely that the design will be able to be changed substantially along the lines that Jeff Speck advised, becuase of challenges with managing stormwater. We will hear more on Monday night.
A video of the Council meeting is not available at this time but will be added here when it is made available on the municipal website.