The Princeton Council voted unanimously on Monday night to approve a design concept plan for Mary Moss Park, a park located in the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood that will be expanded with funding from Mercer County.
The town has been working on the plans for the park expansion since 2012, and two public meetings were held earlier this year to get feedback from residents about the new design. The town was able to purchase a lot adjacent to the park with county open space funding. A second lot was originally slated to be used for the expansion, but a small group of residents convinced the town to use the lot for affordable housing.
The recreation department held two public forums about the expansion plans earlier this year, promoted the forums in the press, and mailed notices about the meetings to people who lived in the neighborhood.
Recreation Director Ben Stentz said the design plan reflects feedback from residents who said they wanted a bigger playground area at the park, more landscaping, and more seating areas at the park, which is located at the corner of John Street and Lytle Street.
Rumors that the name of the park will be changed are untrue, and Stentz said the goal of the expansion is to continue to honor and commemorate the legacy of resident Mary Moss.
“This is a chance to upgrade the facility, make it more safe, more accessible, and more fun,” Stentz said. “The goal is to make the park relevant for another 90 years after we are gone, balancing respect for the past with planning for the future.”
The dilapidated wading pool at the park will be removed and replaced with a water spray park. Some residents of the town objected to the removal of the wading pool, but younger residents with children expressed excitement about the change.
Even with added footage, this will still be a small piece of property,” Stentz said of the expanded park. “A small number of residents want to keep the wading pool, but the pool cannot stay there.”
To meet health code regulations and be accessible to children with disabilities, a new wading pool would need to be twice as long and have a zero-depth entry area, Stentz said. The pool does not have a lifeguard. The Community Park Pool is within walking distance of the neighborhood and children are monitored there and taught to swim safely. The Community Park Pool offers scholarships to families that can’t afford the membership fees. This year about 80 families from the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood have applied for scholarships. Stentz said no one has been turned away from the pool because of an inability to pay the membership fees.
“It’s not wise to duplicate what we have so close by,” he said. “Philosophically why would we build a wading pool, and send a message to kids in the neighborhood that they should stay there to swim?”
Dodds Lane resident Daniel Harris said taking away the wading pool would be removing part of the history of segregated African American life. He claimed taking away the wading pool would be like the town taking away African American homes in the past to expand Palmer Square. He then said Princeton is still acting like “the northern most of southern cities.”
Library Place resident John Heilner said the town should not rush to finalize a design, and called on the town to give up more of the park property so that a second unit of affordable housing can be built. Heilner and a small group of residents calling themselves the Jackson Historic District Committee convinced the town last fall to let one of the two lots next to the park be used for affordable housing. About $250,000 from the town’s affordable housing trust fund was used to purchase that lot, and Habitat for Humanity will have to raise the money to build a house on the lot. Only one two-bedroom unit can be built on the lot because of the size of the property. Heilner said a second unit could be built that would be “slightly overlaid” on the lot that has been earmarked for the expanded park. “I can’t imagine why you can’t shift the park slightly,” he said.
Alexi Assmus of Maple Street said the town should be able to raise the money for a second affordable housing unit. “We can raise money for five-story hospital, so why can’t we raise money for affordable housing?” she said.
Dempsey Avenue resident Kip Cherry claimed there has been no open public process to review plans for the park.
Resident Bernadine Hines said the project was being fast-tracked. She said residents from the neighborhood had little say in the project and outsiders participated in the public meetings.
Resident Hendricks Davis said the town has not explained why the expansion is needed.
Several residents from the neighborhood spoke in favor of the project.
“We can’t be afraid of change,” said Carol Liverman.
Leighton Newlin said he initially opposed the changes, but was supportive after hearing the presentation Monday night by Stentz. “I came here tonight thinking wading pool or bust. But the most important thing is that people want to see the legacy and memory of Mary Moss continue, no matter what the design,” he said.
Kristina Corvin said the renovations would make a good park even more special. “This will impact a large number of people in a positive way,” she said.
“I was born and raised here, and splashed in that wading pool with my four children,” said Ashanti Thompson. “But the key thing, as was said, is to keep the legacy of Mary Moss going. This will bring the community together a little more bring people from outside.”
Mercer County Freeholder Andrew Koontz, who also serves on the town’s recreation board, said the county gave the funding to the town for the expanded park and the spray ground. “Princeton needs to act as a good faith partner with the county and use the funding as promised, for the spray ground,” he said.
Council President Lance Liverman said residents in any other place “would grab something” this great. “I feel in my heart this will be a bonus for community,” he said.
Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said the town needs more parks for little kids.
A committee will now work on looking at what materials to use at the park. “We’ve received a lot of feeedback via email, surveys, and community meetings, primarily from people who live in the neighborhood,” Stentz said. Residents from the neighborhood will help develop historical information to be displayed at the park, he said.