By Phyllis Teitelbaum
What does the Princeton Public Library have to do with consolidation? At first glance, there may seem to be no connection. But they are in fact closely linked because of a controversy over moving the library that occurred in the 1990’s.
Those who oppose consolidation say that the controversy over moving the library demonstrates the differences between the Borough and the Township and thus strengthens their arguments for defeating consolidation. Former Borough Mayor Marvin Reed, who supports consolidation, claims that the controversy had nothing to do with differences between the Borough and Township. Who is right?
The Princeton Public Library is jointly owned and supported by Princeton Borough and Princeton Township. As Princeton’s downtown became busier, parking became an issue. There was a surface parking lot right next to the library (where Hinds Plaza is now). Nevertheless, many who drove to the library considered it difficult to park near it. The controversy began when, in the late 1980’s, it became clear that the library needed to be renovated and expanded. One suggestion was that, instead of renovating it in place, it should be moved to a location like the Princeton Shopping Center, where parking would be easier. At that time, I had been living in Princeton Borough for over 10 years and was very interested in local affairs. I followed this controversy closely. I would summarize the arguments as follows:
1) Against moving: in order to keep Princeton’s downtown vibrant, it is essential to keep institutions like the library in the downtown. Moving institutions like the library to the Princeton Shopping Center would turn Princeton into an unattractive New Jersey suburb, instead of a lively town with a busy downtown.
2) For moving: those who drive to the library cannot fully utilize the library because of the difficulty of parking downtown. The need for easy parking overrides any concern about the downtown. Besides, the downtown won’t be harmed by moving the library.
Borough Council member David Goldfarb, who served on Borough Council throughout the controversy, says: “The basic conflict was between residents who wanted the library downtown and residents who wanted the library in the Shopping Center. Most, but not all in the first category were Borough residents, and most but not all in the second category were Township residents.”
The two governing bodies also took radically different positions on the issue. Borough Council insisted that the library should stay in the downtown. Township Committee insisted that it should be moved to the Shopping Center.
Thus, the controversy exemplifies the different views of Borough and Township residents about the downtown. David Goldfarb points out: “During all of the years of discussing the library, not one member of Township Committee ever expressed any concerns about the consequences to the downtown of moving the library to the Shopping Center.”
The controversy continued for many years, through most of the 1990’s. The expansion of the library was postponed because no agreement could be reached. According to David Goldfarb, “the conflict would have been resolved immediately if the Borough Council had agreed to move the Library to the Shopping Center. It took many years for the Township Committee to agree to keep it downtown and then only with the greatest reluctance after the Borough had agreed to build a garage and to provide free parking for library users.”
So why does former Borough Mayor Marvin Reed claim that the controversy had nothing to do with differences between the Borough and the Township? In an op-ed on PlanetPrinceton, he said: “I am proud of one of our community’s most recent accomplishments: the rebuilding of our Public Library. As Princeton Borough mayor, I presided over many of those decision-making meetings. I heard what people said. There were Borough residents who insisted that the Library had to remain downtown. But, I also heard Township residents stand up and say that location is the center of my town too. And yet, there were some Borough and Township voters who said it was more convenient for them to pick up and drop off books at the alternate location, the Harrison St. shopping center. Regardless of who favored which location it wasn’t a Borough v. Township thing. We were able to agree and the result is one wonderful community center.”
It seems clear that Marvin Reed is focusing on minority views–Township residents who wanted to keep the library downtown, and Borough residents who wanted the library moved to the Princeton Shopping Center. Only by focusing on minority views can he claim that it was not “a Borough v. Township thing.” We have no statistics to tell us how great the differences of opinion between Borough and Township residents were; there were no opinion polls and there was never a referendum on the issue. But, like David Goldfarb, I observed that most, but not all, people who argued for keeping the library in the downtown were Borough residents, and most, but not all, who argued for moving it were Township residents. In my view, it was in fact a Borough v. Township thing.
Those who oppose consolidation fear that, if consolidation wins, a new town council dominated by Township residents would have the kind of views that many Township residents had about moving the library. Post-consolidation, there would be no Borough Council to prevent institutions like the library being moved out of the downtown–to prevent the suburbanization of Princeton. The irony is that many Township residents chose to live in Princeton (perhaps subconsciously) because it is a real town with a real downtown, not an ordinary New Jersey suburb. And yet the library controversy demonstrates that many of them would make decisions that would destroy one of the important qualities that attracted them to live here. The controversy over the location of the library demonstrates that there are significant differences between the views of Borough residents and Township residents about the downtown, and that a consolidated Princeton that is dominated by Township views would seriously endanger Princeton’s downtown.
Phyllis Teitelbaum is a borough resident.