Op-ed: Proposed special improvement district will not benefit small businesses in Princeton

By Marco Cucchi, President of Thomas Sweet Chocolate

As a small business owner, I do not believe the creation of a Special Improvement District (SID) is a good idea for Princeton and may in fact be detrimental to small business owners, especially those in professional services. The feasibility study created by the municipality does not provide any justification to support the additional tax burden that will be levied on the residents or commercial tenants in the improvement district. Please take a moment to read the following concerns that I have regarding the creation of a SID in Princeton.

1. Lack of a “Call to Action” – The feasibility study contains no specific evidence showing that Princeton is in need of revitalization or a SID.  A mere three paragraphs of page 9 of the report address the current situation and the only rationale provided to create a SID is that there is a risk that the existing organizations such as the Princeton Merchants Association and the Chamber of Commerce, which have done an excellent job over many years, are largely volunteer and as a result may not be ‘sustainable.’

The report contains no study to show any recent reduction in foot traffic, automobile traffic, consumer spending, tourism, retail vacancy rates, or any other measure that would indicate a business problem for our community.  Moreover, if there is an undocumented problem, there is no indication that a SID would be the best solution.      

Additionally, the report fails to address the impact a SID will have on actual problems the town is facing such as auto traffic and parking.

2.  Redundancy – There are numerous redundancies between what the SID is claiming to address with efforts already being made by small-business owners, landlords such as Palmer Square, the Princeton Shopping Center, Princeton University, and other proactive landlords in town. The most notable examples of this have to do with marketing and beautification. 

Many landlords already charge tenants fees to cover marketing and beautification efforts for their properties.  For example, my landlord, Palmer Square Management, charges fees to their tenants to market their property in the media.  They also use the funds in the marketing budget to provide for special town events such as the Christmas Tree Lighting, Ice Skating on the Square, and weekly music festivals to draw traffic to our businesses.  The Princeton Shopping Center also holds events to promote their property and their tenants.

Implementing a SID will effectively require tenants of these forward-thinking landlords to pay twice for what is already being done in a highly effective manner.

3.  Poor Timing– Small Business owners are currently under significant pressure. The cost of running our businesses has increased significantly due to increases in labor costs (minimum wage has risen over 25% in 3 years), cost of goods (inflation is at a 40-year high), supply chain issues, and the remnants of COVID-19. This is not a time to implement yet another financial burden on us. The reason for vacancies on Nassau Street is not due to a lack of marketing, but to our inability to increase our prices at the rate consistent with the cost of doing business.

4. Taxation with a Lack of Representation – The proponents for the SID and the proposed make-up of the steering committee to run the SID is heavily skewed toward commercial landlords and contains no private citizens. Commercial landlords will be the people deciding how to utilize and spend tax-payer dollars. While these individuals are accomplished business people, they are NOT elected officials and their decision-making contains little oversight. The risk of the SID becoming self-serving to those who oversee it is a likely outcome.  

This ordinance is being rushed through the bureaucratic process without its proper due diligence and debate. It is my strong opinion that the proponents of the SID are the classic “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” The creation of a SID in Princeton is simply an additional tax that most small business owners and tenants will be forced to absorb and the primary beneficiaries of it will be a subset of commercial landlords who are probably the last people who need assistance during these challenging times.

 I urge all residents and business owners to send a quick note to the mayor’s office to ask that this resolution is not passed.   


  1. If true, I also object to more unelected people determining how tax money will be charged and spent. Why do we elect a mayor and council of any lobbyist or business can come along and direct town policy and budget? We seriously need to elect people who have the best interests of Princeton residents, families and town in mind. And to council: stick to a budget. The wild spending on any project without studying the impact on Princeton or the “lowly” taxpayer footing the bill has to stop. Tell me: how much is the one way Witherspoon Street walkable dream street costing in addition to nearly $5,000,000 for just the Phase 1 near Nassau asphalt and $50,000 for street lights?!!? Is this something we really needed for our small town? Pay attention residents, go to the council meetings and vote for the people who can think independently with you, your family and YOUR town in mind.

  2. There were three things that especially bothered me in the presentation. First of all, the SID has the right to “Accept, purchase, rehabilitate, sell, lease or manage property in the SID”. Three different people asked for clarification about this and were brushed off each time. Given that most supporters of the SID seem to be commercial landlords, this seems ripe for conflicts-of-interest. Also, if the group is disbanded after 5 years – which the presenters kept saying was possible – then who owns the real estate?

    Second, the main presenter spoke about his goal to turn Princeton into New Hope. If I wanted to live in New Hope, I would. If he wants to have a business in New Hope, then he should. I don’t think that anyone in Princeton wants to turn this town into New Hope.

    Finally, they are laser focused on bringing in more car traffic from out of town, which will require more parking. This SID proposal appeared less than a week after the parking commission was abandoned due to push back from the community. Coincidence? I think not.

    1. New Hope has a population of 2,500.

      We should be improving Princeton, not making it into something it is not.

      How about some decisions with basic common sense? Listening to the public and incorporating or considering the comments in a thoughtful way would be better instead of holding a public meeting as a formality toward rubber stamping an already decided agenda.

      Public meetings are revealing and will greatly inform you on why you should vote especially in local elections.

  3. The Central Business District businesses (proposed SID stakeholders) seem to be doing fine. Jazams’ owner, for example, states they are a residential and business taxpayer and boasts of a $10,000 donation to the community as a reason why Princeton should allow their employees to have permits to park on residential streets. If another business does not make such a donation to the town does that mean that they will not have access to the same employee permit parking? Will donations by SID members get them more goodwill from the council and mayor? There is a business in town that donates 1/2 of its profits to charity. Yes, one-half. You don’t hear the owner of that business bragging about the donation at public meetings. Bringing more traffic into town (a SID goal) before resolving CURRENT traffic and parking will have a negative effect on Princeton life and also on the environment and with the public safety of its pedestrians. Council needs to address CURRENT traffic and parking before being easily influenced to bring more traffic into our SMALL town. We are not a city, not urban, not large. Princeton residents cannot continue to pay more taxes to increase the bottom line of businesses or the university. At an average of $20,000 in taxes the residents pay their fair share. Note that if Princeton University paid it’s FAIR share on its properties and patents that each homeowner’s taxes would be reduced by a third. It has been six years so maybe Mr. Aran is up for hire. Meanwhile, please write to council members and the mayor asking them to stop introducing new ordinances, projects and businesses that will result in detrimental effects to Princeton small town life and ultimately an increase in residential fees and taxes.

  4. Perhaps it is time to set up a task to focus on how residents and merchants together want to see the town progress. What is our long-term vision? Personally, I am in favor of more density in downtown (with appropriate underground parking built to accommodate the additional residents) and think that this will better support merchants with local business so that they aren’t always looking to import shoppers, but I know that others are not in favor of such density.

    I want to support our merchants, but I don’t want to live in New Hope. Others I have seen voice an opinion want to preserve Princeton as it was, full stop. Others want to make it a cutesy tourist destination (more than it already is). Still others want to increase in-town density and increase its attractiveness as a walkable downtown. Let’s sit down and figure things out together rather than having one group dominate at the expense of the others. Surely we are capable of figuring this out.

    This back-and-forth between the different groups is getting tiring …

  5. Who is representing Princeton residents and taxpayers on this committee? I see no representation.

  6. We need to make Princeton equitable for all taxpaying Princeton residents. What should drive the priorities of the council? The BUDGET.

    Budgeting by priorities (BP) is based on the relationship between available funding and outcomes the community desires, increases transparency into how government policies translate into spending and focuses more on the outcomes of a funded program, service or activity rather than the inputs.

    In other words, council needs to set a budget PLAN and prioritize what the money should be focused on this year, the next and the next. A strategic long term plan. While it would be ideal to get grants from the state for every pet project that not achievable when grants are competitive. You cannot spend money on the possibility that a grant might be awarded.

    Please set priorities or we will forever have tax increases and budget gaps. Get the budget under control.

  7. A lot of the discussion around the proposed Business Improvement District has strayed from the facts and fallen into hyperbolic “What-if” statements. The reality is that Business Improvement Districts are nothing new and have been implemented across hundreds of municipalities; once implemented, they have rarely been rescinded because residents & businesses enjoy the benefits of Business Improvement Districts. New York City alone has 76. Other towns with vibrant main streets in New Jersey, such as Montclair and Millburn, also have Business Improvement Districts because coordinated programming efforts among commercial stakeholders produces results superior to a fragmented “everyone for themselves” assortment of interests.

    It is terrific that we live in a town where people are so involved in the community and public policy. If anyone wishes to see some examples of improvement districts in nearby New Jersey towns, here are links to their websites:




    1. Unlike the towns linked to, Princeton is declaring every commercial property in the entire town part of a special improvement district rather than one section of town such as the central business district. Other towns where that has been done are places that are a square mile like Hoboken. This is a way to tax businesses and let the big developers spend the money to fight policies that are bad for them and promote their properties in the center of town. Why should a lawyer or a small business have to pay an extra fee to support their agenda?

  8. In support: Are you saying that Princeton is not already vibrant? I don’t think that anyone is against having a vibrant business community, but no one has shown a compelling and strategic reason that we need an SID.

    I would absolutely support an SID in a part of town that lacks vibrancy and where such an instrument would make sense. However, I haven’t seen anything that is a compelling reason for the current proposal and I see a lot of risks for residents whose interests may not be 100% aligned with what the handful of merchants and landlords behind this proposal want. Especially around parking. And again, the ability for the SID to buy and own real estate creates a huge conflict-of-interest for landlords who are pushing this proposal, and the team presenting the SID proposal refused to address it except to say that it was boiler plate language yet they didn’t seem open to taking that piece out of the proposal and creating one that is specific to Princeton.

  9. “every commercial property in the entire town” Condominiums are commercial properties. Is Princeton going to tax all the people living in condominiums for the business improvement district? That would be madness. But maybe that’s what’s being proposed?

  10. 60 signed the letter in favor of the establishment of a Princeton SID, which each council member unanimously voted in favor of with a Yes. I wonder if the signers are all taxpaying residents of Princeton.

    (Taxes are going up 2-2.5 percent BTW although it could have been as much as 9 percent. Failure of council to stick to a budget is another issue. Go to the March Tax meeting for that. Vacating Monument Hall for new digs, $1,000,000 for Phase 1 of digital document conversion. So on for tax and spending.)

    Remember the 60 signatures on a letter in favor of a Princeton ordinance that affects the entire town and multiple zones.

    Remember just 60.

    ONLY 60.


  11. Sounds like something we’ve been hearing around Princeton:

    . “Because as we all know, elections matter. And when folks vote, they order what they want, and in this case they got what they asked for.” Harris added, laughing.

  12. Aubrey Haines of Princeton Properties organized the SID and is on the steering committee. He also pushed for the change to Witherspoon Street and organized the Jeff Speck meeting about more changes to Witherspoon at The Nassau Inn. Who paid for that? Mr. Haines might not have the best interests of Princeton residents in mind but might greater interest in his dozens of businesses profiting from changes.

    These changes are affecting the town and each residents taxes far beyond the budget of the SID. The town paid for a SID consultant, Stuart Kioerweis, and a SID attorney. Already those bills are footed by the town (you!) and not the SID. The Council is beholden to business owners, lobbyists and Princeton University but should be representing the residents who voted them in.

    Everyone please vote for better representation and for people not easily influenced. When council members respond with an attitude of “oh well, elections have consequences and you got what you voted for” you should worry. You are not represented as a taxpaying resident until the next election.

    Taxpayers are paying for school improvements, most recently $17,000,000 for roofing. It would have been considerate for the Council to offset the cost instead of spending part of the budget on the “temporary” change (now permanent) to Witherspoon that residents supported for the benefit of businesses due to the pandemic. What’s the bottom line of that project, which the state only pays $1 million? $6,000,000? $8,000,000? more?

    The goodwill of the average towns person is being taking advantage of along with their hard earned tax dollar. Please attend council and board meetings. It will be eye opening how your policy is decided and how your money is being spent without regard to a set budget or common sense. The Budget is introduced at the March 14 council meeting.

  13. What’s next?
    Maybe the taxpayer is going to have to pay for building and maintaining public restrooms.

    Public works already has its hands full trying to keep up with overflowing trash. What do you want Princeton to look like with the SID re-branding? Do you want it to continue to be a place for families and mom and pop business or the next downtown San Francisco or Seattle?

    Some changes will be permanent and irrevocable.

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