Recently, the Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC) asked the West Windsor Town Council to consider designating as an “Area in Need of Redevelopment” its 650-acre American Cyanamid property across the road from Quaker Bridge Mall. This follows a presentation last year where HHC proposed redeveloping the property as a master planned community similar to its Woodlands and Columbia Town Center projects.
HHC’s request has stirred strong feelings in West Windsor, but in Princeton only idle curiosity so far. Princetonians would do well to pay attention. The design of any future HHC project has the potential to make traffic worse and the Route 1 area more ugly (if done badly); or to support regional transit and multi-use trail connections, thereby increasing travel options for Princetonians and travelers to Princeton (if done well).
HHC has proposed to participate in a township-led planning process to arrive at a mutually agreeable development plan. If West Windsor entertains this proposal, one can imagine an outcome where a portion of the American Cyanamid site is set aside for open space, parks, and recreational facilities; where a mix of housing, office, and retail will be concentrated near Quaker Bridge Mall; and where multi-use trails will connect the property’s housing, office, and retail internally and externally to surrounding communities. See slide 12 here.
Opportunities for Princeton
It’s hardly necessary to detail Princeton’s traffic issues. There are lines to cross Route 1 in each direction by car and Quaker Bridge, Alexander, Washington Road, and Harrison Street each strain under their loads; options to cross Route 1 on foot, bike, and transit are various combinations of unpleasant, inconvenient, and unsafe; and car traffic into Princeton puts pressure on parking availability and bike and pedestrian safety downtown. New development along Route 1 that increased traffic pressure further would obviously be a concern for Princetonians.
But what if the redevelopment of the American Cyanamid site made it easier to move back and forth across Route 1 by foot, bike, and transit?
For HHC, good connections from its property to regional transportation will be a fundamental need, and it’s hard to imagine HHC being successful if it doesn’t invest in transit shuttle services and multi-use paths to connect employees and residents back and forth to the Princeton Junction train station. Further in the future, one can even imagine the construction of a new station at Quaker Bridge Road, following the precedent established at the North Brunswick town center development.
If a route for transit to the Carnegie Center and Princeton Junction Station can be reserved during American Cyanamid site planning, it might ultimately be possible to connect it with updated transit along the Dinky right of way. Such a connection would be a benefit for Princetonians compared to current Dinky service, which prioritizes New York-bound commuting over local trip-making (of which there is a fair amount (see slide 7). It would also make it easier for visitors to Princeton to arrive somehow other than car.
Connecting the Dinky to transit along Route 1 is not a new idea – [see, for example, here and here (slide 8)] – and of course it would be more complicated than just “connecting”. But HHC’s desire for regional transit connection, and its need for plan approvals, provides an opportunity to breathe life into the embers of this possibility.
Quaker Bridge-Canal Connection
Good connections to regional multi-use trails are also a matter of self-interest for HHC and of potential mutual interest for Princeton and West Windsor. HHC could improve the distinctiveness of its project, and provide benefits to Princeton and West Windsor alike, by providing high-quality connections across Route 1 to the D&R Canal trail on the one side and to Mercer County Park (across the Northeast Corridor rail tracks) on the other. Having continuous trail links from Princeton to destinations at and across Route 1 would be a significant new local amenity.
Other new connections to Princeton could be made by bike trail along the Dinky right of way. If West Windsor, Princeton University, and Princeton municipality were to collectively prioritize this, a high-quality, auto-free trail route could be made from Princeton across Route 1 to multiple destinations. This would also give travelers to Princeton another option besides the car for visiting town center businesses.
Three things would be needed for this connection to work: (1) a continuous connection from the American Cyanamid site to land along the Dinky right of way, either along the existing trail through Carnegie Center or along the wetlands at Duck Pond Park and connecting to the multi-use path along Bear Brook Rd. (or both); (2) Completion of the Dinky Line Trail which is proposed in the West Windsor master plan to link Princeton Junction station to Princeton along/near the Dinky tracks and is about 70% built between Vaughn Drive and Route 1 (ride into the office parks to see it); and (3) Construction of a multi-use trail bridge across Route 1 at the Dinky rail bridge, connecting to a trail along the Dinky right of way towards Princeton.
Again, these are not new ideas, but the combination of Howard Hughes’ self interest with regional plan priorities provides an opportunity for Princeton and West Windsor to collaborate to spark progress
How to Achieve These Things
The first point goes without saying, but must be said anyway: the decision whether and how to move forward at the American Cyanamid site is West Windsor’s and West Windsor’s alone. By suggesting that Princetonians could benefit from, and should care about, what happens in West Windsor, I am in no way suggesting that Princeton should in any way “interfere.”
That said, there are positions that Princeton could take that would help West Windsor better evaluate its options. For example, if Princeton were to support on-road improvements along Quaker Bridge Road into town – or to support improvements to the D & R Canal path from Quaker Bridge towards town – then West Windsor might be in a stronger position to seek trail improvements across Route 1 as part of the Howard Hughes project, because the benefits of such an improvement would then be greater than just the Route 1 crossing itself.
Alternatively, if Princeton were to support a multi-use trail along the Dinky from Route 1 into Princeton, and to join West Windsor in seeking funding for a trail crossing of Route 1 at the Dinky Bridge – then West Windsor might be in a stronger position to seek multi-use trail improvements from the Howard Hughes project east towards Alexander Road and the Dinky alignment, for the same reasons as above.
Princeton could take similar stances to support West Windsor advocating enhanced transit connections from American Cyanamid to Princeton Junction Station, potentially by advocating more detailed planning of future transit connections between Princeton and locations south of Route 1.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that these issues are as relevant to Princeton University as they are to the Princeton municipality. To the extent the University shares community goals of reducing auto traffic into Princeton (and into the campus), it may also make sense for the University to consider these points from a planning and community outreach perspective as well, and joining the Princeton Community in advocating improvements of mutual interest.
Monday Morning Update
A reader from Lawrence with Lawrence Planning Board experience shared the following new information over the weekend. “[T]he site plan for the Quakerbridge Mall expansion that was approved in Lawrence ~5-6 years ago includes a provision for the mall to construct a bike/ped path over US-1. This would be cantilevered off the more southern existing bridge … and connect through Yorkshire Village to Province Line Road. The mall’s obligation to build this would be triggered when they hit 100,000 square feet of new construction, which they have yet to do.” See the image below for the route.