Op-ed: The streets belong to the people

empty Witherspoon Street
An empty Witherspoon Street in March after the COVID-19 pandemic began. File photo by Krystal Knapp.

By Richard K. Rein

With evidence suggesting that the spread of the Covid-19 virus is less likely outdoors than indoors, people in cities and towns all over the world are looking at their streets and sidewalks in a new light. Instead of reopening restaurants, bars, and coffee shops and hoping that the returning patrons can maintain safe distances in crowded interior spaces, people are suggesting that sidewalks and even streets be made available for properly spaced, outside dining.

Your favorite restaurant probably has tables sitting less than – not to be indelicate – spitting distance apart. In a “new normal,” as we wait for testing and vaccine development, a restaurateur might be able to maintain safe dining distances by spreading out his tables on the inside and making up some of the lost capacity with outdoor seating. With summer just beginning and people anxious to break free of their home confinement, now seems like the ideal time to test the concept.

Imagine an outdoor food court on Witherspoon Street, just below Nassau Street in the heart of Princeton. By taking away parking spaces and replacing them with “parklets,” one of which already has been used to great success in that section of town, places like Agricola, Mezzaluna, Small World Coffee, Mamouns, Jules Thin Crust Pizza, and Alchemist & Barrister could offer al fresco dining. A take-out place like Olive’s could also have a space where patrons could eat their sandwiches outside.

If you believe that a time of crisis is also the time for some bold thinking, then you could expand the test to the portion of Witherspoon Street from Hulfish to Wiggins/Paul Robeson Place. Mistral and the Witherspoon Bread Company could have al fresco seating in similar parklets in the parking spaces in front of their venues.

So far, the most disruptive measure we have imagined is the loss of some parking spots on both sides of Witherspoon Street. If you think a 100-year event like the pandemic deserves an even more radical response, then consider this. In addition to removing parking, also close Witherspoon Street to traffic from Nassau to Spring Street, and from Hulfish to Wiggins/Paul Robeson. Allow traffic to flow from Hulfish Street to the small section of Witherspoon Street that connects to Spring Street. You could even increase traffic flow for Spring Street merchants by allowing two-way traffic on Spring Street, which is actually a little wider than nearby Park Place, a street that has always accommodated two-way traffic.

At this point let’s acknowledge the cries in the background: “No, you cannot close a road – it will put everyone out of business.” We will get to the objections in a minute. First, let’s complete the thought and imagine what we would gain. Hinds Plaza, with its movable chairs and tables, could be extended into the street in front of the library for the general public and patrons of the library’s cafes and other nearby takeout places. The Witherspoon Grill, which already has some al fresco dining, and Kristine’s, could be allowed to expand their outdoor area into the temporarily enlarged Hinds Plaza.

By doing this you will have created two outdoor food courts in one of the most prime pieces of real estate in the town. It’s easy to imagine some cleverly constructed “parklets” that are semi-enclosed on three sides, allowing for plenty of ventilation, with roofs that provide shelter from the rain and sun. It’s also easy to imagine small performance spaces at either end of Witherspoon. The Arts Council, which has years of experience closing off Witherspoon Street and programming events there for the annual one-day Communiversity festival, would have some valuable input.

But listen to those cries: “No, you cannot close a road – it will put everyone out of business!”

Well, last time I looked, everyone already is pretty much out of business. But how will deliveries be made to reopened stores and restaurants? The street could be left open for deliveries from closing time at night until, say, 11:30 the next morning. A delivery truck arriving at another time could use the space on Nassau Street at the top of Witherspoon Street, which could be designated a loading zone. The same could be done with the space along Wiggins/Paul Robeson Place at the other end of the street. What about emergency vehicles? Keep a 12-foot lane in the center of Witherspoon Street free of tables and chairs. It would provide emergency access but also function as a third sidewalk. If this outdoor food court is as popular as some other spaces in other towns, that interior walk would be much appreciated.

But what do you say to the motorists who use that section of Witherspoon Street for their route to work, or for their parking when they run errands in town? Is it our right to take that away?

Yes, it is. The flaw in the question is the use of the word “their.” It’s not their route or their parking. It’s ours — the town’s – and we are represented by elected officials with a due process for managing these resources. We, the town, can either give space to motorists free of charge (in the case of the travel lanes) or make them pay a small hourly rental fee for its use (the parking spaces). “The streets belong to the people,” some protesters chanted at the 1968 Democratic Convention. It’s still true today. But it’s also true that our thinking about streets should be informed by empirical research. If this plan made travel in and through the central business district impossibly clogged, that would be an important factor to consider when evaluating it. If this plan resulted in the three nearby parking garages being filled to capacity, that would be another consideration.

I doubt that either of those consequences would occur, but only a test will tell for sure. What if the plan does not harm the town and proves successful for merchants and restaurateurs in the central business district? What if some owner wants to continue the experiment, and reclaim his parking space next summer for some additional al fresco dining? To answer we should again correct the pronoun: That’s our space, not his. Now is not the time to charge a struggling restaurant for use of the public space. But in the future, we could consider that a single metered space in that section of town, if it were occupied for every metered hour every day of the week, is worth about $131 a week in revenue to the town. Would a restaurateur be willing to pay that much, or more, to use that space and that parklet for several additional dining tables during the outdoor dining season?

Now that we are seeing our streets and sidewalks in a new light, it’s a question worth asking.

Richard K. Rein, a Park Place resident, writes about urban issues at www.ReinReports.com. His e-mail is rein@ReinReports.com. 


  1. Great idea. Pre-Covid, Media PA closed its main street every Wed night in the summer. All the restaurants had tables out in the road. It was fantastic.

  2. The time is right for this to happen. Change the one way traffic on Spring Street & we’re ready to go.Truck and van deliveries between 6-8am. It’s doable.

  3. I think this is a great start to an idea, but I also think it needs to be better planned out. It can’t only benefit restaurants adjacent to Hinds Plaza or Witherspoon. As those are public spaces, it has to be a benefit provided more equally to all food purveyors downtown.

    1. Yes, it is important to support all businesses. Some Princeton restaurants have existing outdoor areas they can spill onto, like Mediterra and Yankee Tavern, and there is the park between Winberries and Chez Alice as well as the Green on Palmer Square. It would be helpful if the sidewalks/parking spots along Nassau Street could be used but there are state limitations due to it being a State Highway–perhaps these could be modified in light of the necessity to jumpstart our economic engine post-covid?

  4. Excellent points! Princeton is taking steps in this direction so it is wonderful to read support for these concepts. The more that our government and businesses hear that this is the approach the Princeton community wants, the more successful this effort will be.

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