The Princeton Council will hold a virtual public hearing tonight, Dec. 21, on plans to make Witherspoon Street a one-way street for good.
Business owners along the affected stretch of Witherspoon Steet are divided about the proposal, with retail business owners and “grab and go” eateries opposing the move, and sit-down restaurant owners supporting it. Landlords who own property along the stretch of the street that will be affected are divided on the issue.
Some residents wanted the road to be closed and turned into a pedestrian-only plaza. Others wanted the street to remain a two-way street. Officials said the compromise they decided on was to keep the street one way. Some residents say the move to a one-way street will be a win for pedestrians, and that the town should put pedestrians first.
Witherspoon Street is one of the main north-south traffic arteries in town. A traffic consultant recommended that the flow of traffic be north to south for the permanent configuration, which is the opposite of what the traffic flow has been since the road was converted to a one-way street in June. At a recent Zoom meeting with business owners, a consultant said the north-to-south configuration was recommended because of the burden a south-to-north configuration would be on area roads like Chambers Street, Spring Street, Vandeventer Avenue, and the Palmer Square area. But officials have decided to make the flow of traffic remain as it is, with modifications to other streets in town. The direction of South Tulane Street will be reversed from the current south to north to become a one-way only street going north to south, and vehicles on Tulane wanting to turn onto Nassau Street will be allowed to make right turns only. Drivers on Chambers Street will also be allowed to only make right turns onto Nassau Street.
Business owners on Witherspoon Street clearly feel there are winners and losers with the changes. Some business owners fear that more traffic restrictions will deter visitors from coming into town. Sit-down restaurant owners and some officials have argued it will make the street a dining destination and mean more business. One official has told business owners in discussions about the changes that Princeton should be for Princetonians and that a reduction in out-of-town visitors would be a welcome move. But many of the businesses in the center of town depend on non-residents for 50 to 75 percent of their business. The same officials told some business owners the town could survive for two years without their tax revenue if they leave.
Officials have pointed to places like Somerville and Red Bank as successes when it comes to reviving downtown business districts. Business owners who oppose the move counter that Princeton is not the same as those towns, and that those towns didn’t close off one of their main arteries create pedestrian-only zones. Officials have countered that the creation of pedestrian plazas in those towns reduced or eliminated store vacancies. But some business owners say those types of developments have killed off high-end retail and cafes, making the areas more suitable for sit-down restaurants and hookah bars.
The town’s traffic study consultant said at a recent council meeting that the north-to-south traffic configuration would drive more traffic onto Vandeventer Avenue, with the worst-case scenario during rush hour that drivers would have to wait seven or eight minutes on Vandeventer to be able to drive across Nassau Street or make a turn at the light. Officials have discussed whether it would be possible to tweak the timing of the pedestrian signal at Nassau and Vandeventer. Right now the pedestrian phase is 42 seconds. The cycle could possibly be reduced to 34 to 38 seconds, officials said.
At the last council meeting when the issue was discussed, Alchemist and Barrister owner Frank Armenante said the one-way street with dining would creating an inviting approach in town for university students and staff across the street. He said the change should be made permanent with a goal of beautification, cleanliness, safety, a friendly street design, and flexible truck access for deliveries.
Andrew Siegel of Hamilton Jewelers said the shift to a one-way street has been good for restaurants and bars but has been an unsuccessful experiment for retail and quick-service business owners. He also said the week of Christman was a bad week for a public hearing because it is the busiest time of year for many of the businesses affected by the changes. Officials said they had to vote on the change this week because of a deadline for a state grant for the project.