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Princeton Council primary election: What you need to know

(l-r) Independent candidate Adam Bierman, newcomer Michelle Pirone Lambros, incumbent Tim Quinn, and newcomer Mia Sacks at a forum at the First Baptist Church last month.

The polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 4, for the 2019 primary election. If you are unsure of your polling location, you can look it up on the New Jersey Voter Information website by entering your address.

In Princeton, the only contested primary is the Princeton Council race. Three progressive Democrats are seeking the party’s nomination to run for the two seats up for grabs on the council. The council term is three years. There is no Republican primary. In past years the GOP has sometimes had write-in candidates in the primary. Progressive Democrat Adam Bierman has decided to run as an independent to protest the endorsement process in Princeton, and will face the winners of the primary in the general election in November.

Incumbent Tim Quinn will try to survive a challenge in the Democratic primary by newcomers Mia Sacks and Michelle Pirone Lambros, who have both waged vigorous campaigns. In case you are still undecided, following are comments made by the Democratic primary candidates at a forum last month. The comments have been edited for brevity’s sake.

Affordable housing and the Witherspoon Jackson Neighborhood

Pirone Lambros: It’s important that we find creative solutions when we’re building a new development, and also new municipal revenue. If we can offset residential property taxes — because the residential property taxes are pushing working-class and middle-class people out of all the neighborhoods in Princeton — we need to find other revenue sources to do that. The university is one source that we need to leverage better and the second source is driving the commercial property taxes that help offset residential property taxes. When we’re doing new development, we need to do mix use smart growth projects that provide jobs, opportunities, and services so we are taking care of our working class and middles class so that we have a diverse, mixed population. Let’s have more ability to build duplexes, triplexes, and also auxiliary housing so that people can earn additional revenue for their homes by having cottages and in-law suites. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to hold our population.

Quinn: We need to get the zoning right — get the zoning to match the reality on the ground. We need to get the parking right regarding on-street parking. We have to get rid of this ridiculous overnight parking ban. We have to let people park on the street and we have to reach the right balance of permit parking between businesses and neighbors. We also have to do some of the work that I’ve been doing on the neighborhood character initiative, which is this idea of converting your home into a multi-unit owner-occupied residence.

Sacks: Bob Hillier along with the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood Corporation have really phenomenal plans for investing in African American-owned businesses in this neighborhood. The neighborhood needs to be rezoned for that. Part of the vibrancy of the neighborhood was that the residents could live and shop and play and commune with one another and that provided the social capital that was that was an economic driver, and that has been lost. Mercer County has offered small business grants and I hope Witherspoon-Jackson will be taking advantage of that. Governor Murphy’s focus on high-tech and leveraging the example of the Google lab on Nassau Street — I would love to see more of that located in the Witherspoon-Jackson. As part of the neighborhood character initiative there does need to be a priority on making duplexes and accessory dwelling units available quickly. Having lived outside of Princeton for quite some time I was shocked at how white it is and I think when you live here, you you lose track of how it is increasingly less diverse. Even though the population has grown, the African American population has declined. We need to look at why.

COAH Housing and the legal settlement with Fair Share Housing

Quinn: I think council’s focus has been on the best outcome for Princeton, which it is getting just the right number of affordable units. I know that the talking points from the Fair Share Housing Center have been that somehow the council’s trying to keep out black and brown people by dragging its feet on this. I can tell you that that is not true. This narrative that we’re trying to keep people out is not true. I think we want to get it right, and land is more valuable in Princeton than it is in other communities and there is a scarcity of land in Princeton when compared to West Windsor or Robbinsville or other communities that settled, so getting it right is important. We are very close to possibly getting an agreement. But with Fair Share Housing, a lot of times the goalposts are moved and when the goalposts move, we are going to move but keep our commitment to doing what’s right for Princeton to reach a number and sites that welcome people into smart growth walkable communities that are near public transit and near possible employment sources.

Sacks: In terms of whether the length of the process reflected on some sort of attempt by the municipality to create a fence around Princeton, I can understand how people would have that impression from the outside looking in. I do think that the length was unfortunate, but that’s not my sense of it. And I think it’s now a moot point because we’re now at the end of the process and we have to look at what happens going forward. What I’m most concerned about is what we do next and I think it is counterproductive to have a town in which you say, okay people you can live in our town through the COAH process, but you have to live way out there where you are not seen and heard and we don’t have to interact with you and we’re not going to shop with you. You’re welcome to live in our town as long as you’re not not integrated into our social network. And that is what smart growth is actually — building affordable housing so that it’s integrated into our town center so that children in particular, which is another of my largest concerns, are not stigmatized. If you live in a complex that’s entirely affordable housing, children who go to school are labeled as part of an affordable housing complex, and I don’t think that’s ideal. I think it’s very important to decouple the parking requirement. If we just take that one step it will give us much more leeway for building affordable housing in a to a smart growth model.

Pirone Lambros: I don’t believe the mediation process is part of a plan to postpone or not have diversity in town. Everyone has social justice in mind and the best interest of the residents in mind, and having affordable housing be throughout the town, with the town having a mixed, diverse population. What I would like to speak to is the need to leverage these new developments to make sure that we get as much as we can from the developers coming in. Make 20 percent of units affordable. Maybe you can also leverage 30 percent for workforce housing. I really like the idea because you can have housing for the firefighters, for police, for nurses, for service workers who need to be close by, and then the other part 50 percent market rate. We can also look at micro units for singles so that we’re not adding more classrooms. We can look at senior housing for people who want to stay in Princeton, but downsize and sell their home and stay here. We need to look at keeping down our costs as well as building.

Princeton University’s payments in lieu of taxes

Sacks: The new council will be negotiating a new pilot with university and I look forward to being involved with that. I do think that the best way to secure a deal that’s a win-win for both sides is not to vilify the other entity and to berate them. I think it’s to come into it in a positive way and reiterate that we are married. As I have said before, the university of the town cannot get divorced. We both benefit. The town would not be the town without the university. We’d be a boring suburban town. The university has given tremendous history and life and intellectual diversity and cultural vibrancy to the town. That said, they do put a tremendous burden on our services, on our roads, on on on our staff. I do think that there is tremendous amount more that they could do, but I think the way to do that is not by making them the enemy, it’s by working with them in ways that both sides benefit and there are so many possibilities for us to do that in in ways that we benefit and they would benefit. Google lab — I think we should replicate that throughout town. I’m excited in all the ways we can work with university in particular. I’ve I have gotten them involved with looking at how they can bring some of their abilities and expertise to the school district with facilities.

Pirone Lambros: I have a finance and business negotiating background and I can be pretty tenacious. There are a lot of new factors now that we need to look at including the firefighters, but in general looking at what the centers of profit are at the university and whether or not they are being taxed. In addition to that, getting a better deal on the voluntary payment. The third piece — we need to find projects with the university that we can partner with them on. A large institution like that wants to see where their money is going and we need to give them an exact accounting for where the money’s going. If they put their name on it and we partner together, who cares what we name it or how much control we have. We just need to get these projects done. Let’s use their utilize resources. They’re doing a business incubator. We can also look at best practices in other towns and see what they’re doing in Boston and Providence in terms of voluntary payments so that we can then leverage that too.

Quinn: The university is ready to begin negotiations with the town and we expect it will be starting either late this year or possibly early next year. We need a clear understanding — each side needs a clear understanding of how we benefit each other. We need to determine how the payments that were part of the settlement that are going to our most vulnerable homeowners right now — how those are going to be folded into the upcoming agreement. I see the current agreement as a floor, and how far we go up (is the issue.) We need to recognize too that the quality of life of the town is important to the university. It helps attract faculty and students. We need to welcome the university into the economic life and development of the town. The first step is the hotel piece — the new hotel and conference center. They’re not going to build it, but we can partner with them to bring someone in who will build it.

The Mercer County budget

Pirone Lambros: I’m running for Princeton Council, so the first deep dive I would do is looking at the municipal budget and understanding that, and looking at the line items as part of my fiscal responsibility I’m elected for. In terms of the county, I think that working together to improve shared services, whatever we can do to save money, working together and not vilifying the county in order to make it a better working relationship is important. In terms of activism to understand and to have a Citizen’s Finance Advisory Committee type of organization for the county would be something that citizens would have to advocate for it. But I think it would be the same as the new council trying to get into the budget of the school district. You need to keep those lines of communications between you. But you have to keep those lines pretty delineated, otherwise everyone is telling everyone else how to do their jobs.

Quinn: The most shocking thing to me to come out of the the CFAC (Citizens’ Finance Advisory Committee) analysis of the county was that it was acknowledged at the top that it was an incomplete analysis that was based on partial data. They didn’t have all the information that they needed, and they qualified it at the time. This the problem. The county needs to be more transparent about its budgeting process and make information available to citizens. You can go on to the website of any municipality and find budget information that our citizens could not find on the county budget. As far as the percentage that we pay to the county, land is worth more in Princeton. Real estate sells for higher prices than it does elsewhere in the county. There’s an equalization formula that sets the county tax and it’s based on property sales and land values. So I think we need to work with other municipalities as well and the county on the transparency issues. I look at the money that I’m sending to the county — I’d like to think is going to help a kid in Trenton or Ewing or one of the two dozen kids in Princeton who go to Mercer County Community College every year. So I agree that we need to a clear understanding of what we get for our money, but we’re not getting nothing.

Sacks: I totally agree that I would love for our to feel that our taxpayer dollars are going to help kids in Trenton. Unfortunately, we don’t know because the information that would verify that is not available. And what we’re asking for the county is to set the same standard of transparent accountable governance for themselves that we set for ourselves in Princeton. We’re not perfect but we have a CFAC that has worked really hard in recent years to go over every aspect of our budget, and certainly as a candidate I will focus on doing zero-based budgeting and looking at every service and seeing if it’s truly what the community wants. However, I also feel as an elected representative it’s my responsibility to advocate for you at the county level, and it is unfortunate that the initial exchange was played out on the newspaper. But what we’re asking the county is for an independent auditor to evaluate whether the formula that’s being applied to Princeton is fair, and we also would like — I don’t think it’s unreasonable — to ask for timely updated documents that are on the website that are not upside down or illegible are out of date. I just don’t think that’s unreasonable. There are people who do this for a living the living these sort of comparative analyses. It is not unreasonable that we would ask the county for an audit to provide a full accounting.

Would you support a neighborhood economic development development plan for the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood?

Quinn: I know that the Witherspoon Economic Development Corporation has contracted with a planner and we’re going to get that planner together with our new planner, who is back in town and who is from Princeton. We’re going to see how we can make this happen. You know that I think the last of the businesses to leave was was the barbershop, and knowing what barber shops mean to the social life of African American communities….I fully support Mayor Moore’s vision and I’m already starting to make the connections that are necessary. Experience matters.

Pirone Lambros – Yes. you’ve got a lot of development opportunities along the corridor on Witherspoon Street. There are some buildings that need to be invested in. The Franklin lot is going to be developed into affordable housing, but we can leverage that and have additional services. We need an urgent care center here. We need a laundromat. We need food businesses. We need a pharmacy. This was a black and Italian and Irish community mid-century. People had their own businesses. Every other door was some other restaurant, there were gardeners, and my family did all kinds of construction. They pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and they had retail stores, and that’s how they they they moved up. Unfortunately now, the black community and the Italian community both represent eight percent each of the population in Princeton. It used to be a lot higher than that. We have this this need to have more small businesses. We talked about incubators. We talked about Phil Murphy’s policy of putting together small business loans for small business start-ups. We need to attract that investment to Princeton. That’s what we need to do in this municipal government. For elected officials that’s your job.

Sacks: I would just Echo everyone’s comments. I think we all agree. The zoning and parking and planning are already very much in the works…I think that my responsibility on council is to support your vision. I will support your plans and goals and visions for the neighborhood. Let me know how I can best support you on council. I am really excited about what’s happening in this neighborhood. I think it could be a major economic driver for the whole town and a model for the rest of the state

On Vacant Businesses in town

Quinn: There are number of forces that council has no control over. I walk my neighborhood every Monday morning, walking my dog when recycling out and I imagine that my neighborhood, Jugtown, is not that much different from this neighborhood and other neighborhoods, and you can count the number of Amazon Prime boxes that are being recycled, and you can see that there are some forces that the town has no control over, but there are other forces that we can. The future of downtown, or in this case uptown, is more an experiential uptown with a focus on public spaces and experiences and not transactions. I think it’s easy to say what have you done in your two and a half years on council to prevent the flight of of stores from downtown when there are 13 empty storefronts right now in the in the uptown area, and it’s probably a similar number that were there five years ago and 10 years ago. These are retail forces. The council can support changing the zoning to allow more uses in those in those in those buildings. I personally would love to see Woolworth back on Nassau Street. But Woolworth isn’t coming back.

Sacks: We can all wax nostalgic about Hulit’s Shoes and so on. Part of smart growth is that we start start our discussion with the ability to have those goods and services near to us. Amazon is the elephant in the room. It’s it’s not going to happen in 6 months…We very much need to update our master plan to reflect the consolidated, united Princeton. I proposed the inclusion of a new element to the master plan which would focus on economic development. And I think that kind of comprehensive approach (is needed). None of us really have the answers because it’s the big picture. There’s parking. There’s the Amazon phenomenon. There is one thing that is not talked about enough and that is the rents that are being charged. The property owners are very upset about the parking rates, but I think sometimes that’s an attempt to deflect attention from the extraordinary high rates that they charge for rent. So let’s also be aware of the motivations of people from different sectors of the community to focus attention on certain things.

Pirone Lambros: If you go to Montclair, Morristown other towns, they have Amazon too and they’re full. Morristown charges double in rent. One of the biggest obstacles is we have too many barriers to entry for new businesses to get started here. Our permitting processes is onerous and expensive, and too time consuming. We can fix that. That’s something in our power and we can fix it quickly. We’re talking about it at the economic development committee. The process is moving slowly and we need to move quicker. There needs to be a sense of urgency. We can’t be dismissive that it is just Amazon and the greedy landlords. I don’t buy that for a minute. Amazon is everywhere and others towns are thriving. We could be thriving. We should be thriving. We are Princeton and we have so much to offer. There needs to be more more investment and we need to streamline. It’s great to put the economic development plan in our master plan, but let’s get it off the books, get off paper and let’s get it started. Let’s do what we need to make it happen.

A Separate Master Plans for the Witherspoon Jackson Neighborhood

Quinn:I would challenge the accuracy of the underlying assumption that the re-examination of the master plan is a perfunctory exercise and that it has been rushed through by the members of the master plan subcommittee. There were several meetings that were open to the public that were hours long where this was discussed. It came to the planning board where there was a robust discussion and community involvement. A separate master plan for Witherspon Jackson — I don’t know. I would have to study the issue a little more. I would have to speak with our with our planner to get his thoughts on it. I think that before the master plan that we need to get the zoning right. A separate element of the master plan for each neighborhood is intriguing to me. I’d certainly like to see a separate element for my neighborhood. But all of this stuff takes time. People think that government should be able to maneuver like a speedboat and it actually more maneuvers like a battleship or an aircraft carrier. The stakes are high in Princeton. We have a citizenry that wants to be heard. Everyone’s for rapid change, but in Princeton the stakes are high with a highly educated community and every neighborhood wants to be heard. Part of what happened with the school referendum was that they didn’t take the time to have real engagement on a basic level. It’s easy to say yes, I support it in concept if it’s possible to have neighborhood elements in the master plan, but I’m not a planner and I don’t know the answer to that and I’d be leading you down the wrong path if I said yes let’s do it.

Sacks: I would support that. A master plan is a way of translating community goals and aspirations into land use laws and that’s exactly where we should be doing it. I think the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood is the most at risk at the moment. So it should be a priority for inclusion in the master plan. I think it also provides the most economic potential and it’s consistent with my interest in providing an economic action plan that will be an additional element master plan as many other communities have long had. We are behind in our master plan. The community element master plan — if that would have been revised before the referendum — we would have been in much better shape. If you read the community element of the masterplan, it talks about a Princeton from 1992. There’s not a single sentence in that entire element that reflects the current reality in Princeton. And the master plan is essentially the body of law that decision-makers base their policy on, and it’s what the planning board makes their decisions based on. It is essential that we get it right at a time when Princeton is going through a tremendous change. The master plan is what will enable the community to have a direct voice in shaping where we grow, how we grow, who’s able to stay and who’s able to come.

Pirone Lambros: The master plan references two Princetons. Our zoning ordinances have two Princetons. We need to harmonize that. The master plan should take into account the Witherspoon Jackson community because it’s different. In terms of the economic development, do we want to do special improvement districts? In terms of stretched resources, that’s what was my idea about, utilizing university experts for doing a 50-year master plan. I’ll go back to the the parking. In terms of the roll out of the parking meters, it was not executed properly to say the least, and this is a matter of not listening to the stakeholders. We’re listening to consultants. We paid $150,000 for parking meter studies. There were also a lot of meetings with the stakeholders, with businesses, and the result was rolled out. I was in those meetings and it was not rolled out the way we discussed. I wanted to mention that because when we talked about executing on plans, we need to think about the stakeholders. I love the idea of working with the communities when we’re doing is master plan so that when we roll out, we’re rolling out to that will really taking into account the stakeholders in a community.

The municipality’s relationship with the Princeton Public Schools

Sacks: I think it should be a very close relationship. I understand often and when you’re running for municipal office, the easy answer is to say well, I’m not running for school board. So I believe that as a municipal official advocating in the same way that I would advocate for you at the county level I believe that advocating at the state level for school funding reform is essential for us here in Princeton. We are a growing community and we should have the support of the state. It’s been so unfortunate that we turn against one another rather than coming together and going to Trenton and saying this is unacceptable. This is this is how it’s playing out in our community this pattern of being divided against one another is a very dysfunctional pattern…In terms of planning for affordable housing and accommodating that in the schools, to say there’s a separation of church and state, so to speak, that would be a totally counterproductive approach.

Pirone Lambros: With the referendum last year, you had a referendum that was based on erroneous information in terms of what the growth was going to be. We didn’t even have a decision yet on what our affordablee housing obligation would be. I know there are quarterly meetings. When it comes to the big ticket items, a lot more coordination needs to take place. We need to move into shared services. I don’t know why we haven’t done it yet. There have been years of talk. We have analysis paralysis here. We could have solved the composting issue earlier if we were talking about shared services earlier. Valley Road a blight. It is full of asbestos. It need to come down. We need come to an agreement. Why can’t we coordinate that? We could put a school there and have room for the municipality. Let’s sell borough hall to a private investor who will make it a hotel and a ratable. We have underutillization in a town where there is high value and few places to develop.

Quinn: I am the first elected official on the council who also was elected to serve on the board of education. Part of my motivation in running for council was to bridge the gap between the board of education and and council at the time that I was serving on the board while the municipality was consolidating. There was a lot of there were a lot of wild statements made about the schools and the school budget and and all the money that was being wasted in the schools. And you know, I knew it not to be true. I knew that the school budget reflected the community values. The town is built on education. Education is a community value that is reflected in our budget and is of the utmost importance to me personally. Now, there are nine people who are elected to the board of education and I respect their role and I want to work collaboratively with them on shared services is moving forward. We’re hiring a consultant and we don’t have the staff to do that study ourselves and we’re looking beyond just the public works function. We’re looking at how we can share services with the schools. The time is right, and we need the right team in place in order to make it happen.

Sacks: Michelle and I both had the same idea of using Valley Road for shared offices between the municipality and the school district so that we would have the recreation department and the facilities department all working together. I think if they’re all under one roof that will help streamline economic efficiencies and staff efficiencies. There were a lot of lessons learned from the referendum…I am part of the master plan subcommittee and we’ve been meeting regularly with the school board to coordinate plans to discuss what sites are available for affordable housing, and what sites are available should there need to be more schools, or should we be capitalizing on our existing school spaces and build up? There are lots of options, but they’re being discussed. There will be a new facilities director and that is something that was heard by the school board and by the facilities committee, and that’s going to make a big difference in the final analysis with referendum. There was a compromise that was reached and in my personal opinion and involved, given the growth of mold in all of the schools in the past few years for us to deny them air conditioning is just unacceptable.

Rent control

Pirone Lambros: Bring in more revenue. Advocate for a higher ceiling for the senior tax freeze. Advocate for property assessment reform. In other states there are other solutions.

Quinn: We have started discussions about rent control and are looking at other towns in New Jersey who are doing that. We need to make sure senior are aware of rehabilitation grants that are available to them.

Sacks: There is no Princeton preference for affordable housing. If we could come up with some legislation for senior for renting, this would be one creative way we could help people remain in town.

What services would you cut?

Pirone Lambros: We need to look at what vehicles we are using, how many vehicles we have, what we own. We need to look at staff positions. I’ve been looking at the revenue side to see how we can still afford our services. We’re actually about to increase services because we are about to pay firefighters. From speaking to volunteer firefighters, we are not doing enough to recruit firefighters. When you start using paid firefighters you start to lose volunteers. So we are actually going in the wrong direction when it comes to services.

Quinn: Yes, $250,000 of our cable franchise fees has been going straight into TV 30. This was a model when cable television was brand new. We’ve offered TV 30 an off-ramp to municipal funding. All of our non-statutory groups, we’ve sent a message that they need to up their fundraising. Princeton is not alone in terms of losing firefighters. This is the result of the loss of the middle class in our town.

Sacks: We pay more for services than many other municipalities, but my understanding is when we put it to the residents, there is never a willingness to cut. I would be willing to cut whatever there is a consensus to cut. I would be willing to run a town hall where we all put little stickies up on all the services and talk about what we want to cut.

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.

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