Sunday, July 22, 2007

Transit Village - Princeton Packet - Public Outcry Forces Hillier to Reconsider

Published in the Princeton Packet, June 8, 2007

Hillier issues strong warning on redevelopment's prospects
Politics may scuttle ambitious West Windsor train station-area project, he says

By: Greg Forester , Staff Writer

[Rendering shows new Princeton Junction train station and the "Bowl" area under the tracks, looking west toward the "West Windsor Walk" promenade and the planned residential units and mixed-use construction.]
WEST WINDSOR — The Princeton Junction redevelopment project is in trouble, according to architect J. Robert Hillier, who suggested this week that his firm might resign from the planning process.

Hillier warned township officials and the public that the political atmosphere in town was harming his firm's ability to satisfy the town's desires for the project.

"We feel that what was a positive process has been derailed by a contentious election and an increasingly divisive political environment — and we think it has jeopardized the project," Hillier said at Monday's combined Planning Board and Township Council meeting. "We are deeply concerned that it may not be possible to deliver a plan that will satisfy all of the competing demands of an increasingly polarized client."

Mr. Hillier said the current project is definitely viable, but needs advocates and champions in the community.

"This project needs those, and right now I don't know if there's anybody here that wants to build a transit village," Mr. Hillier said.

Mr. Hillier suggested the possibility that his firm could resign from the project, and allow another firm to attempt to deliver what the township wanted. "It's clear we're not satisfying West Windsor, and when you have a client you're not satisfying, you are happy to step aside," Mr. Hillier said.

These warnings from Mr. Hillier come during a political climate that saw the election of Will Anklowitz, George Borek, and Charlie Morgan, who ran on a "Best 4 West Windsor" slate with a platform aligned against the inclusion of 1,000 new homes in town.

Mr. Morgan said he did not think the project was in jeopardy, and that it would be unfortunate for Hillier Architecture to withdraw from the project.

"The fact of the matter is the best answer is not for Hillier to leave, but to restart the process," said Mr. Morgan. "We need to re-engage the public the way we promised."
Mayor Shing Fu-Hsueh said he hopes Mr. Hillier and his firm would stay on with the project, warning that the project was still only in the early stages.

"Mr. Hillier has done an outstanding job up to this point, and his firm has tried to understand what the community really wanted and needed," said Mayor Hsueh. "Bob Hillier was able to bring many different ideas into one plan, and in the next phase the council and the Planning Board need to provide a more specific direction so the project can move forward."

Following Mr. Hillier's warning to the crowd gathered at the Grover Middle School for the meeting, variations on the original plan of 1,000 residential units were introduced.

They included plans for 250, 500, and 750 residential units, along with a more detailed analysis of the original 1,000-unit plan.

The presentation displayed financial analyses by Economic Research Associates that purported decreasing financial benefits for the township with decreases in the number of residential units.

"I saw so much out there that might be outright wrong," said Mr. Morgan, of the presentations. "It was based on assumptions, and we need a process where we have access to assumptions."
Some of Hillier's presentation included changes made to the original plan that seemed to satisfy the demands of resident's identified in earlier portions of the process.

These included the addition of a pedestrian walkway connecting parking decks on the west side of the tracks and the New York-bound platform on the east and the removal of a roadway connecting Alexander Road and the Sherbrook Estates neighborhood, which pleased Councilman Will Anklowitz.

"Mr. Hillier did the right thing about the realignment of Sherbrook Drive with Alexander Road," said Mr. Anklowitz. "I look forward to discussing other details and concerns with Mr. Hillier."

The audience of residents and township officials were also treated to artists' renderings of what the downtown area near the train station and along Route 571 would look like as a mixed-use town center.

There has been discussion of a second joint meeting of the Planning Board and Township Council at Grover Middle School for June 18, but that meeting date is expected to be rescheduled according to officials from Hillier.

Comment Added: Friday June 08, 2007 at 06:06 AM EST

Politics May Scuttle Transit Village

It would be unfortunate for the residents of West Windsor and surrounding communities who use the train station in Princeton Junction if the Hillier firm took their leave of the job they were given to do in planning West Windsor's future land use around our train station.

What is moving forward, showing signs that the public is being heard, is a process that isn't perfect but that should not be derailed. It is imcumbent for the Town Council members, the Mayor's office and the Planning Board to work together for the regional and local development that this unavoidable, because like it or not, this is a transit village. More commuters will be coming our way whether or not this village is ever built.

New Jersey Transit should be required to be part of the process and to pay a fair share for their increased ridership due to the expansion. Bringing forth economic transparency in the process and working together with the Town Council is a must for the township administration. And residents are responsible too for becoming involved in this process.

Civility without threats among all public officials is the most important factor in finding consensus in the community. I do hope that this is not the end of the discussion. West Windsor could be a place with a center that we all want to visit if this works.

--Beth Feehan, Princeton Jct, NJ

West Windsor plan in need of useful formula



Prolonged observation of the controversy over West Windsor's proposed redevelopment plan for Princeton Junction makes it all too clear that the 800-pound gorilla in the meeting room is housing.

Opponents, whose desires range from less than 1,000 units to no housing at all, are understandably worried about the impact of more residents on local schools, transportation and municipal services. At the same time, many of them favor the plan's other promised improvements, including a pedestrian-friendly town center around the Princeton Junction rail station, a pedestrian walkway to connect parking decks on the west side of the NJ Transit tracks and the New York-bound platform on the east, and the elimination of the roadway which now links Alexander Road and Sherbrook Estates.

But, as the project's chief architect, J. Robert Hiller, warned Wednesday night, the economic feasibility of the plan rests on achieving a mix of office, retail and residential elements that would make the finished project a fiscal boon rather than burden for West Windsor. According to Economic Research Associates' analysis, the potential boon shrinks as the number of housing units is reduced.

That assumption is met with skepticism from housing opponents, including the new council majority, prompting Mr. Hillier to complain that the "open and positive" planning process is now jeopardized by "an increasingly divisive political environment."

We sympathize with Mr. Hillier's dilemma but there is nothing wrong with an open process of the kind he has led being superceded by the open process known as an election.
Elections have consequences, not all of them intended. And a consequence of West Windsor's election may be that the broadly supported benefits of redevelopment end up getting vanquished along with the housing.

Perhaps with this in mind, the new council majority is now suggesting that the charrette process start afresh, with Mr. Hillier's firm still in the lead.

That is worth a try and we would suggest one particular exercise to address the skepticism surrounding the necessity of housing in the plan. Why not assemble a panel of commercial and residential real estate experts to participate in an open public forum — with questions from the audience — on the market forces that would ultimately determine the economic impact of redevelopment in West Windsor?

The panelists' views may or may not reinforce the assumptions presented by Mr. Hillier. But the public's understanding and sense of participation might help build a viable consensus around a feasible formula.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.