Mayor Frieda and Council Members,
PCRD remains concerned that there will not be sufficient opportunities for meaningful collaborative dialogue among stakeholders in the redevelopment process for the Tennent Roberts Whitelely properties, a development that will be standing for decades to come and could substantially redefine a historic section of town.
PCRD and most private residents in the Mercer Hill neighborhood and widespread locations in Princeton have vigorously supported collaborative interaction and dialogue among all major stakeholders as a key to the successful redevelopment of these TRW. Since its formation in early 2021, PCRD has reached out to the mayor, council members, planning staff members, the contracted developer [Herring Properties], and the owner [Princeton Theological Seminary] for constructive dialogue.
In an October 22, 2021 letter to Herring Properties and PCRD, counsel to Princeton stated
“The purpose of this letter is to advise all of you that Princeton has determined that any redevelopment of the Property must be the result of a collaborative effort between [Herring Properties], [PCRD], the neighborhood, and the Property Owner as appropriate.”
“Princeton believes that those with immediate and direct interest in the redevelopment of the Property, including the [Herring Properties], [PCRD], and other impacted neighbors, should work together to achieve a mutually acceptable plan.”
In response, PCRD redoubled its efforts, working with neighbors and engaging with the other stakeholders.
During the past two-plus years, some progress has been made in holding productive small group and one-on-one discussions. However, getting there has required tenacity and the response, in large part, has been vague, non-committal, and sometimes contradictory.
PCRD welcomed the two recent “Roundtable” public discussions about TRW property redevelopment sponsored by the Princeton Planning Department. However, these meetings have evoked questions and concerns about the underlying processes guiding the meetings and opportunities for meaningful dialogue.
With the objective of improving collaboration to yield the best solutions for redeveloping the TRW properties, we are seeking answers to the following questions.
1. What was the objective of the recent “Roundtable” phase of the planning process?
For perspective, during the first round of TRW development, a strategic initiative led by Princeton Theological Seminary, they began by holding informal meetings with neighborhood households in January 2018 to inform them of their intentions and gain feedback. The Seminary simultaneously started meetings with Planning staff members as part of the building application process.
In December 2018, large format dialogue between private residents, Princeton town officials and staff, and the Seminary began. Meetings were led by an Ad Hoc committee representing the Planning Staff in the absence of a head of the Planning Department, supported by LRP Consulting led by Jim Constantine.
Fast forwarding to the present, the two Roundtable meetings were preceded by several meetings between Herring Property and PCRD representatives, as well as others. PCRD was forthright in defining its wishes, vision for, and concerns about TRW redevelopment. Herring Properties was receptive and civil but limited in sharing specific plan intentions and details. We were not advised of pre-application planning meetings Herring Properties held with town staff and officials. However, Council President Mia Sacks indicated in the May 6th, 2023, Roundtable meeting that Herring Properties has undertaken to date a formidable amount of planning work. Why was PCRD, and perhaps other interested parties, not informed of these meetings nor the outcome?
Council President Sacks concluded the May 6th meeting saying that the Council’s goal was to lead and complete a phase of work by the end of 2023 that would produce a detailed plan of what Herring Properties is proposing. Left unexplained is the process that will guide the work by Council, staff and others during the next seven months, i.e., what specifically is the goal, i.e., how detailed the plans will be, will there be options, and will there be the promised collaborative effort that is documented in the letter to PCRD dated October 2021? What will be shared with PCRD and the public and at what level of detail? What is the work plan, timetable, decision points, criteria, and basis for recommendations?
2. Who is leading this phase?
This hands-on approach by the Council is substantially different from the process employed in PTS’s round one TRW initiative. What is currently happening behind closed doors between Council and the developer is a mystery, as is the process going forward. Can you provide a timeline for the community so we are aware of the actions being taken now as well as the next steps for public input?
3. What meeting format(s) will best serve this phase of the redevelopment process?
Large format public meetings are standard procedure in governing Princeton, one PCRD supports and in which it participates. However, this format has limitations such as 3-minute timeframe for public responses, few if any opportunities for more comprehensive PowerPoint presentations by the public. Moreover, it is not suitable for negotiating differences. These differences are often better served by a small executive member subcommittee representing the large stakeholder groups. Would this alternative be given careful consideration by the Mayor and Council?
4. What is the overarching work plan for the entire redevelopment process?
The PTS round one initiative to redevelop the TRW campus was weakened by the absence of a “start to finish” plan (objectives, workplan, timetables, decision points, criteria, etc.) that sets expectations and fosters meaningful preparation from all stakeholders. Consequently, participants in public meetings were unprepared meeting to meeting, subjects such as traffic problems in the neighborhood were the dominant subject for months, and participation in public meetings by major stakeholders lacked coordination or rationale. As a result, deep frustrations were felt by all.
PCRD reviewed this concern with Mayor Freda and separately with Bernard Hvozdovic, (the town administrator) in early 2021 and received a commitment to correct this shortcoming with the impending TRW round two redevelopment process. We ask that the mayor and/or administrator fulfill this commitment while work, led by Council, is undertaken in the coming months.
5. Lessons learned and implications from the March 18th and May 6th Roundtable meetings.
With due respect to all who worked hard to prepare for and conduct the two public Roundtable meetings, we offer a few suggestions on how meeting management could be improved to elevate success and be applied to future meetings.
Clearly define the objective of each meeting and list core agenda Items.
Bridge to subsequent meetings with a recap of what happened in the last meeting. If essential to the subsequent meeting, drill down on key takeaways, new learning, and value to the process goals.
Plan each meeting’s content with focus on subjects of primary importance, explaining why they take precedence and why other subjects are not being addressed.
Make sure key subjects are well defined and understood, e.g., Density and Affordable Housing.
Control public comments on single subjects if the number of comments appear to outweigh fresh insights and/or shortchange other important subjects.
PCRD suggests that a small group from PCRD meet with Mayor Freda, Council President Sacks, and Justin Lesko to review this document and arrive at solutions that will satisfy the interests of all parties in responsibly redeveloping the TRW properties.
Thanks for your attention to this matter.
Jo Butler and Karen O’Connell, PCRD