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Why we can’t calm down. #3

At the recent Planning Board meeting for the unveiling of the Draft Master Plan, residents who performed personal crash courses poring over the 270-plus page document in order to offer thoughtful feedback were told to “calm down” – not only when one member said the quiet part out loud, but in attitude, and when the Chairwoman advised at the end of the meeting that the only feedback that would be considered were factual errors.

Everyone in attendance witnessed the disconnect between the preparation of the Historic Preservation Element of the Plan and members of the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), a commission established by state statute. It was baffling, shocking, and disappointing. Was HPC accused of identifying too many sites as historic?

Did the Steering Committee of the Planning Board identify sites as historic without consulting with HPC?

How did the Jugtown Historic District end up with a housing overlay? The plan calls to raise the height limits and allow penthouses for buildings in the historic Central Business District (CBD), essentially by-passing HPC and changing the very nature of the quaint college town that attracts thousands of visitors a year.

Not an insignificant aside: the plan calls for renaming the CBD as the “Downtown District”. This seemingly small change – what’s in a name? – is actually a cultural gaffe.

Black residents of the historic Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood refer to the CBD as “uptown” because, well, they had to walk up Witherspoon St. to get there.

So a change in name is an immediate erasure of this important bit of the town’s racial history. Most residents outside of the historic Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood refer to the CBD as “town” or “in town” – both charming and accurate colloquialisms that allow room for the continued protection of “uptown”.

But “Downtown District” makes clear what the Planning Board sees as the future of town, something very different than the small block of shops and offices that exists there today.

Janet Stern, a member of the Shade Tree Commission, expressed her concern for the town’s declining tree canopy. Yes, there has been disease and invasion of various invasive insects that have taken a toll on the tree canopy. But development has taken a toll, too. The Plan predicts in stark detail that Princeton will get hotter and wetter, and it gives lip service to the important role old-growth trees play in mitigating the ill effects of climate change.

Why is it lip service? Because the Plan prioritizes growth. “Calm down, there are protections,” we heard.

But ask the Shade Tree Commission whether they felt their input was considered in the plans for The Alice, the apartment complex at the north end of the shopping center.

In an effort to avoid a repeat of that experience, they asked whether they could provide input on the redevelopment of the Tennent-Roberts-Whiteley sites before the plan was presented, and they were rebuffed.

Ask the Recreation Commission about their input to the dog park. Or the proposed turf field.

Or members of the now defunct Site Plan Review Advisory Board about the value of their input.

If the town is going to ask talented, dedicated people to volunteer their time and treasure, the least we can do is respect their input. True collaboration takes time and effort, but without it, we will lose a valuable resource and the outcome is less than optimal.

This brings us back to the November 9th virtual meeting. There were many discrepancies and legitimate inconsistencies highlighted that are giving cause for genuine concern to homeowners. The plea from the committee, essentially suggesting that everything will be addressed after approval, is not reassuring and is not acceptable for a document that will stand as a record for 10+ years, long after all the committee members have changed.

The urgency with which the approval of this document is being pursued has no rational basis; this is an update to an existing plan.

The committee needs to show through its actions, by addressing the public's input and, where relevant, reconciling it with this plan to demonstrate that the voices of the public matter.

This is essential if this is to be truly accepted as a document that has had public input.

Failure to do so could open the gates to years of legal challenges from both the public and developers -- none of which would be of benefit to Princeton's taxpayers.

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