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Local merchant group: New Princeton parking meter plan has had a devastating impact on downtown businesses

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To the Editor:

Our Princeton Merchants Association survey results (posted on our website), and public feedback show that the new parking plan has not been well received by residents, customers, visitors or employees, and has had a chillingly negative impact on the businesses in town through the holiday season and the first several months of 2019. The Princeton Council and professionals, on the advice of consultants, believe that there is not a shortage of parking spaces and may be pleased to hear that parking is freeing up, but the fact is, fewer people are coming to our downtown to shop. Our shopkeepers are struggling to keep their businesses open and commercial properties, which account for 20+% of our town’s tax base, are experiencing the highest vacancy rates in decades.

In collectively reviewing the current parking plan we want to propose a set of improvements that would honor the intent of the new plan, as articulated by Mayor Lempert, to serve first and foremost as a tool for economic development of Princeton’s vital downtown.

We are proposing revised parking rates as follows:

1st hr. — $1.50; 2nd hr. — $1.75; 3rd hr – $2.00

In comparison to similar towns:

Summit $1/hr. – Red Bank $1.50/hr. – Morristown $1/hr. – Westfield $1/2hr.

We fully recognize the importance of any fixes to the new system being budget-neutral and suggest the following to offset any shortfall:

Add a third hour @ $2.25 to the existing two-hour meters. The third hour is essential so customers don’t need to choose between a meal and shopping. The progressive structure incentivizes turn-over, an ambition of the parking overhaul for the downtown.

Raise the 10-hour meters from $.75 to $1.00 an hour

Begin metered parking at 8 a.m. instead of 9 a.m.

Raise the Dinky daily parking from $4 to $5 per day

Charge tour buses parked in town a fee commiserate to other regional tourist destinations. While you’re at it, maybe charge idling buses an environmental surcharge.

Revisit the loading zones to make them both business- and, during off-hours, customer-friendly by installing 30-minute meters: the timing for metered parking in loading zones may need to be site-specific and can be longer in some places than in others. We welcome the fact the town has begun looking into this change.

Increase capital expenditure account from existing parking revenues (est. $1m+ annual) to offset parking meter improvements

Create additional public proximity parking infrastructure with decks, lots and/or on-street parking. There is no doubt, we have a parking shortage.

Create permitted employee parking in walking distance as part of the current phase of revisions to the overall parking plan.

Do not convert our limited and scarce free parking to bike-lanes: this does little to change the nature of the bike-ride into town and it artificially pits the business community against environmentalists.

We welcome the April 15 work session at One Monument Hall and urge the mayor and council to realign the parking plan to encourage true economic development in our community.

Signed,

Jessica Durrie, Joanne Farrugia, Jon Lambert, Mimi Omiecinski, Cliff Simms, Dean Smith, Dorothea von Moltke, Lori Rabon and Jack Morrison on behalf of the members of the Princeton Merchant Association


Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

25 Comments

  1. As the discussions and debates re problems with the new parking system continue, business is continuing to decline and both local merchants and residents alike are growing discouraged that any minor changes would be enough to slow this downward trend. I honestly believe that the health of the downtown of Princeton is in danger of continued atrophy. Princeton, with all its cultural and intellectual advantages should be thriving, not witnessing the demise of the downtown as we know it.

  2. “No problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it”- Einstein. Thanks Princeton business owners for elevating Council’s understanding of reality. Before Council rushes to launch their next big idea, they need to embrace actions to fully protect the environmental & economic health of our town & citizens in all that they do. Deadlines for the conversion of municipal vehicles to electric/ hybrid/ alternative, conversion to zero/low VOC municipal supplies, hiring staff who can carpool, walk or bike to work, staggering staff hours to reduce local traffic at peak times & during road closures, foot & bike patrol for meter readers & police, and more are actions at the municipal level that will show that Princeton Council is properly engaged & modeling the healthy change they expect from others. Respectful maintenance, reuse, & repurposing of equipment & buildings owned by the town are essential in our beautiful, historic suburban town as well. Those are just tip of the iceberg (now coated with plastic particles) thoughts about the “behavior change” needed in Princeton. Had Council actually listened to working citizens & put the health of the planet first in their own work, we’d have fixed the old meters & be managing the details of a new system roll out as a community today. Folks wouldn’t have found cheaper, less stressful alternatives to downtown during the holidays, and mom & pop would still be able to feed the meters a few more coins, so granny could slowly do her shopping & still find the car. Agreeing with PLEASE who has also posted here too, world statistics from places & peoples far more progressive than Princeton indicate that vehicles are here to stay, & for many solid, healthy reasons there will always be folks who can’t reasonably be expected to walk or bike.

  3. Where is this notional army of cyclists who are presumed to be primed and at the ready to supplant drivers deterred by a dearth of parking? This whole line of reasoning seems predicated on some dubious theory that motorists will abandon their cars for bikes if only parking becomes a big enough hassle. I have lived in bicycle towns–Boulder, Co, for example–and, sorry, but Princeton is no bicycle town, much as some folks seem determined to pretend otherwise. Not even close. Abandon the pipe dream and face up to reality: This is suburban New Jersey. People here are irredeemably automobile-oriented.

  4. @anonymous I appreciate the tone of our conversation. You are asking good questions. I don’t claim to have complete answers. I’m just trying to point out that some premises and assumptions may cause us to errantly throw out solutions that might actually make sense.

    I’m not sure that Planet Princeton allows me to post links, so here are some references that will get you close via Google:

    A November 16 2018 Forbes Magazine article entitled “Cyclists Spend 40% More In London’s Shops Than Motorists”

    This article links to a study completed by Transport for London – not a wild-eyed advocacy organization – “Walking & Cycling: the economic benefits.”

    You are concerned about an analogy between London and Princeton, and reasonably so. This isn’t a definitive response, but note that some of the places mentioned in the London report are far from the City Center, in other words “suburban subcenters.”

    When streets were improved for pedestrians and cyclists in Bromley, London, the number of people walking in the streets increased by 93%. Bromley is 11 miles away from Victoria Station, or the distance from Penn Station in New York to Nutley, NJ.

    Similar study findings come from Portland, Oregon. Citylab has an article titled “Cyclists and Pedstrians can end up spending more each month than drivers.” This work summarizes academic research that appeared Consumer Behavior and Travel Mode Choices authored by Professor Kelly Clifton.

    To your point about potentially driving away auto customers from West Windsor — an excellent and reasonable question. My response would be, yes, it’s possible we could lose such customers from downtown, but we should balance that loss with the potential gain of regular visits from Princetonians who feel comfortable cycling to town (Harrison Street included) our streets are more accommodating.

    In other words, if we lose a West Windsor driver who spends 50 dollars twice a month might we replace her with five Princetonians who spend 10 dollars each five times a month?

    I’m not saying that this is the math, but we should be thinking not only about lost customers but customers gained as well, even if there spending patterns per purchase are not the same as each others.

    Again, I appreciate your engagement on this.

    Nat

  5. @Nat Thank you for your response. I would still like to know which studies you are referring to. It is not that we need a special study for Princeton, but we do want to use a study that is based on a similar type of town. Using studies that focused on Portland or LA or NYC will give flawed results. We don’t want to damage our town by making policy based upon those studies as those are very different places with much greater population density.

    Also, the claim keeps being made that bicyclists spend similar amounts of money at businesses as motorists. Even if this were true, we should be careful about how we use this fact. I believe many people believe that the motorists will choose to bike instead if we make parking aggravating enough, or expensive enough. What if, instead, those motorists drive elsewhere instead? And maybe I’m not being open enough, but I don’t see anyone from West Windsor biking to Princeton to do their shopping. Those are the motorists/shoppers who you would be turning away.

  6. @anonymous It seems to be a premise of many people’s comments that Princeton is not like other places.

    (by the way, to repeat, I absolutely want downtown Princeton to be full of successful businesses, retail, start-ups, local serving businesses, everything…and it needs to be reliable for customers to get to Princeton and employees, too.)

    I observe that Princeton, while special, is far from sui generis. You don’t need a special study for Princeton to assume that, as in other places, drivers are not greater spenders than cyclists.

    One point from these studies that helps explain this: cyclists and pedestrians tend to make smaller individual purchases than drivers, but more of them on a per person basis, a finding that makes sense to me based on my experience as a walker, biker, AND driver to town from my home 1.75 miles from Nassau/Witherspoon.

    Also, my personal experience is that I never have trouble parking in Princeton, especially when I bike and walk, but even when I drive. Neither the price nor fear about availability ever dissuades me from making a trip to town that I want to make.

    I don’t like car traffic, though, and I will avoid downtown if I think THAT will be a problem. One thing I absolutely know is that more parking and free parking will make both make traffic worse to no good result for merchants. Another basic geometry certainty is that you can get 100 cyclist/customers a lot closer to a store’s front door than 100 drivers.

    (Parenthetically, it takes me 25 minutes to bike from home to Princeton Junction train station at a leisurely pace. Compared to the motor vehicle delays now occurring on Harrison and Washington during Alexander Street repairs, it is a smart investment in time to make that trip.)

    Finally, as to weather: cycling is not an urban thing, though strangely it has become typecast as such. Cycling is much better suited to a town than a city in my personal opinion. I don’t know our weather statistics for cold and damp, but I doubt they are worse than other high cycling places in the world.

    There is practically no weather you can’t dress properly for, but no amount of cold or wet weather gear will save you from a driver who doesn’t see you due to fog, mist, dark, or distraction. Good, safe, facilities can save you from that risk, in any kind of weather.

  7. @Nat Where are the studies showing that in a small town, pedestrians and cyclists make purchases comparable to those of motorists? That idea keeps getting stated as fact when it seems to have only been seen in larger cities. It doesn’t seem possible that it could be true for a town like Princeton, especially during our many months of cold, damp weather.

  8. A couple of points:

    I hope people will reconsider language like “war on cars.” It’s inflammatory without being specific. Given that traffic deaths and pedestrian deaths are on the rise, and that the most vulnerable on our streets are those NOT in cars, the vulnerability is more on the side of the — frequently lower income — cyclists and pedestrian compared to car drivers, So the “war on cars” language, while possibly satisfying to write or say amongst friends, could be interpreted as quite insensitive from a lot of vantage points. As well as imprecise.

    Am I saying there are no bombthrower complete streets advocates whose language is comparably imprecise? Certainly there are, and I don’t defend those either. But I would propose language on both sides that allows debate and mutual understanding rather than errant conflict.

    Second: We need vibrant retail in town that meets residents’ and employees’ needs. Totally agree. But remember that studies show pedestrians and cyclists make purchases comparably to drivers on a per person basis. They are customers, too. So part of the equation includes these participants in the market.

    Third: I don’t understand why parking here is construed as a tax on coffee? I mean…the price of coffee is already a tax on coffee. If you’re paying $3-$5 dollars for a cup, you’re not really paying for the coffee, you’re paying for something else that’s more valuable, otherwise you’d make it at home. If you’re spending an hour in a coffee shop, then the cost of the cup of coffee isn’t the value to you, it’s the time in the coffee shop, which has much greater value. And you’re renting space in the cafe, perhaps, for a rate that’s not too different from the rate you’re renting the parking space – much more square footage, so arguably a much better deal!

    Fourth: the parking meter rollout has clearly been flawed. I think it was intended to be rolled out in parts, but since the overall policy requires all of its parts to work, phase 1 hasn’t worked as planned. Plus some other things. But flawed implementation is not the same as flawed policy, and the parking study originally prepared for the town was well done, well communicated, and made sense.

    There’s a lot more, but I’m already in TL;DR territory (“too long, didn’t read”), so I’ll satisfy myself with these…

    Communally and civically yours

  9. Parking is not the only problem. Why are so many people just walking and window shopping. Many days the Princeton CBD is packed with people. That is why there is such a problem finding a parking space. Observe the people on the street and you see that few people have bags in their hands. Coffee shops, restaurants and ice cream shops do good business.
    Can’t place heavy blame on parking if your store is not doing good. There is a huge amount of people walking the CBD. Why aren’t more people buying what the shops are selling?

  10. @Tineke While I would like to support bike lanes, the studies don’t support the claims you are making. All of the studies have been done in large cities. As Princeton is not a large city, one can’t use those studies to argue that bike lanes would benefit merchants over parking spaces. The merchants are not the ones who have made this into a confrontation. It is the anti-car, pro-bike crowd that is pushing for changes that may have a significant impact on businesses, yet wants to rely on studies that don’t apply to Princeton. I disagree with Ms. Crumiller’s position, but she was upfront that the parking decisions were part of a war on cars by the town of Princeton.

  11. I think the merchants have a solid list of suggested improvements, including the last one–please don’t remove the free parking on Hamilton east of Moore St., which is needed by residents and by retail workers who can’t afford the meters or the garages.
    P.S. Near the Garden Theater, all the parking on Vandeventer and eastward is already 3 hour.
    P.P.S. And the town said they will reimburse the unused money on Smart Cards (minus the 10% bonus you got and minus a handling fee).

  12. We’ve seen many food eateries come and go. Seriously, who needs a fad-restaurant on Nassau St or another ice cream place on Witherspoon? And why are Naussu Inn P/T employees given full-time parking privileges? Especially if they work at Princeton U during the week. Nassau Inn needs to be fair to customers over employees.
    And why not 3hr instead of 2hr near the theater? Makes no sense to have customers walk blocks for a venue they need to run out of to feed a meter. Oh wait, you can’t anymore.

  13. In the parking meetings I’ve attended, it was clear that a primary goal of Princeton’s parking strategy is to optimize turnover in order to support downtown merchants. If the parking rate is set too low, there is 100% occupancy and people complain they can’t find parking (or worse, they go away). If the parking rate is set too high, most parking spots remain empty which means fewer customers to businesses. The parking consultants say 85% occupancy is the sweet spot.

    If I understand correctly, the idea was to set the on-street parking rates, observe the occupancy for a while, and adjust the rates until that sweet 85% is achieved. Why second-guess the laws of supply and demand?

    As for the bike lane issue, it seems to me the merchants’ association are creating an unnecessarily adversarial framing. Multiple studies in many locations show that bike riders benefit merchants more than car drivers. [1] Bike riders include people who can’t drive a car, e.g. our children. Bike riders are customers, including those children. Bike riders are employees. Bike riders are students, faculty and staff of the University whose Revise Your Ride program discourages car use. And bike riders need and deserve a safe designated space on the public road.

    On-street parking is a small fraction of the total of more than 7,000 parking spots in the central business district. The Parking Study has shown than at least 30% of those spots are vacant at any given time. [2] What we need is better wayfinding so shoppers / diners can find those available spots. Of course, if it’s made safe enough to ride, local residents and visitors can reach downtown on our bikes and we don’t need car parking at all.

    [1] https://www.citylab.com/solutions/2015/03/the-complete-business-case-for-converting-street-parking-into-bike-lanes/387595/
    [2] See the Final Parking Study Report: https://www.princetonnj.gov/reports/princeton-parking-study

  14. The parking rates have gone up astronomically from the prior rates – not only in base increase, but also the surcharge on the meter for using the app/credit card, the fact most of the payment options you can’t reclaim monies if you depart early (except for the app that charges extra) and there is no discount for utilizing the app, like there was on the smart card. Factored all in, this dramatic and unprecedented increase is definitely contributing to the problem.

  15. No on starting metered parking earlier. How about start it later? If you start at 8:00 both Small World and Starbucks will feel it. I for one will not add a parking tax to my daily coffee. This is an example of how out of touch you are with the cause of the chilling negative effect on businesses. How about 9:30 and go back to 7:00 p.m. stop.

    No on raising the 10 hour metered parking. Town employees barley make anything after parking. You are taxing the wrong set of people here.

  16. It was a joy to visit downtown Princeton for shopping, dining, movie-going. It is nothing short of frustrating and maddening since the new parking meters, rates, and regulations have come into place. It has to be something VERY compelling to bring us to your town now. Council, do take heed – unless you do not want us in your town, in which case your mission is being accomplished.

    2 hr parking for the main shopping and dining blocks on Nassau Street? Paying until 9 pm required? I must add we can barely read the words/characters on the meters.

    In the past, we frequently attended special film presentations at the Garden theater – many of which are over 3 hours long. We had always been fortunate to find a relatively close, metered parking spot. No point in attempting that now – I’d have to run out of the movie to avoid a ticket! So now, we go elsewhere. Such a shame – I used to love supporting the PGT.

    Thank you to Ms, Durrie and her co-writers for their well-reasoned letter to the editor, I hope you don’t mind if I note I believe you mean ‘commensurate’; i do, however, absolutely commiserate with you. I wish you success at the April 15th work session, May it produce a reasonable solution that does not further discourage visiting, buying, and dining in your town.

  17. The cost and parking meters are what they are but having to pay until 9:00 verses the old 7:00 is what bothers me.

  18. This must be devastating for the small business owners. Were they consulted before the powers that be implemented this inane plan? Another thought- stop validating parking at the library. How much money would that yield? It’s great that the council wants to encourage use of the library, but their main job is to run this town in a fiscally prudent manner. Which clearly they aren’t doing.

  19. I live in the next town & haven’t shopped or patronized a restaurant since they eliminated the smart card. By eliminating it AND refusing to reimburse for monies remaining on card was a poor strategic plan!!

  20. Remember, this is all part of the town council’s sustainability plan. We should reuse items that we have already bought. The town is encouraging reuse by discouraging consumption of new items with the higher parking fees. Once our core businesses go bankrupt, the town can then repurpose those buildings for affordable housing or off-street bike parking.

  21. If you want to charge me to park in your overpriced town, I’ll just happily drive to the next town and spend ALL of my money there. Why in the world would I pump a parking meter and net nothing when that money can be spent on buying something I need?

    Ultimately, the losers are business owners in town. Oh well, not my problem!

  22. Pfft, pay to park in Princeton? NO THANK YOU!!!

    I will just spend my money elsewhere instead of being TAXED just for visiting. That’s my PROGRESSIVE answer to your parking fees!!

  23. Visiting Princeton is no longer a pleasure-it is a frustrating driving/parking stressful experience. NOT worth the trip and effort I try to stay away!

  24. Wait, didn’t the council president say she wanted fewer people, like me, to drive to Princeton? Mission accomplished. Haven’t been there since.

  25. Just curious – why do down-town shoppers need to be punished at all? Surely shoppers should be welcomed and not treated like pests that need to be discouraged!

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