Traditions must begin somewhere, not all traditions are old. We are thankful that since March 2020, reading Princeton Perspectives has become a valued tradition for many to stay on top of important local news. With the War in Israel and Gaza and next year’s Presidential election topping most national headlines, we hardly hear mention of some of the big local stories that happened throughout 2023. We’ve covered a large variety of them for you and, as we take a look back, we will update you on how things have changed.
STATE OF THE ECONOMY
In the January issue, What’s it Like Here? – Local Updates on National News, we shared the latest about the rising inflation that was affecting everyone in the article How National Political Issues are Playing Out at the State and Local Levels. Prices across the U.S. had increased by 7.1% over 2022 and in the New Jersey area, were up 5.9%. Today, “Core” CPI inflation is up nearly 4% over the year for the Garden State. That number comes from the change in prices of goods and services, excluding those from volatile sectors like energy and food.
When it comes to food, prices had risen 8.6% in the region as the year began. Nearly a year later, the cost of a loaf of bread has risen another $0.15 or 8%. Though ground beef in the northeast region has gotten slightly cheaper, the cost of food overall has seen an increase. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows throughout the year, food prices in our area went up 3.5%. The increase is even higher if you like to dine out, up 5.7%.
Fueling up appears to be better on the wallet. Gas prices fell slightly at the start of 2023, to $3.35 per gallon. It was at that same price even a month ago, but today, it looks like the price average has dropped. According to the U.S. Joint Economics Committee, December 2023 gas prices average $3.24 per gallon (though that is still $0.02 higher than the national average).
As 2023 began, the housing market was also suffering from the lowest number of mortgage applications seen since 1996, said to be largely tied into the high mortgage rates. Our area was noted to be between 5.375% to 6.99% at the start of the year. Unfortunately, today, these rates have not improved. At their highest since 2000, someone in NJ can get a 7.42% interest rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage and 6.76% for a 15-year fixed mortgage.
AN AFFORDABLE HOME?
With mortgage rates so high, it’s been a difficult time for many to purchase a home. But Princeton is working on bridging that gap by offering even more housing opportunities for those on a limited budget. In March, in the issue Change Can Be Hard. How Do We Know If It’s The Right Choice?, we heard from two of Princeton’s elected officials in the article How Affordable Housing Gets Added into Town is a Complex Decision. There is a mandate to build affordable housing, and if you are unclear on why or how that works, I suggest you read our previous article. A total of 753 units are required by law to become available by 2025, but as Mayor Mark Freda and Councilwoman Michele Pirone Lambros each shared, there is a lot to consider about how to meet the requirements.
When the most recent affordable housing obligation was handed down, Princeton received credit for 244 previously constructed units (including sites like Merwick Stanworth and Avalon Bay on Witherspoon). Princeton has also taken the initiative to authorize construction of multi-unit apartment buildings to meet the remaining need. Building is underway on either side of Princeton Shopping Center, aiming to add a total of 69 affordable units to the mix of market-rate ones. Just down the street on Terhune Road is a new Avalon Bay property at the old Thanet site. It should add 15 affordable living spaces. In addition, a 100% affordable senior housing development is set to go up on that site as well, adding 80 units (and the rental applications for those have just become available!). Not too far away on Herrontown Road, former site of SAVE Animal Shelter, this municipally sponsored development is expected to create 64 affordable units. Twenty-five more apartments added to the already existing Princeton Community Village, another of the 100% affordable Housing sites in town, will improve the supply. And the Franklin Maple site, which will be municipally sponsored, adds 80 more affordable units and will also be site to some additional housing. Phew!
Zoning changes around town, such as affordable housing overlay zones, are additionally providing opportunities for multi-family homes with some affordable spaces for new residents. One example is on Terhune Road that will bring 6 affordable apartments for sale. With the bonus credit received for rental units, Princeton has now built or planned a total of 797 affordable living spaces – an excess of 44 over the current requirement that should offset whatever future mandates are set forth. Should the 238-unit proposal at the old Seminary site be approved, that could add affordable spaces to the mix as well. More to come!
UPHEAVAL AT PRINCETON PUBLIC SCHOOLS
With additional housing comes additional students, and Princeton is already struggling with overcrowding at all of its schools. The April issue of Princeton Perspectives shared many changes happening throughout the school system. In the issue A Caring Community Divided – What is Happening at Princeton’s Schools? we informed of community perspectives to deal with current and future elementary enrollment issues in the article Elementary Families Share Ideas as They Look Towards District Changes.
The district unveiled several options for construction/changes to the elementary and middle schools in October and the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education was set to vote on moving forward with a middle school expansion as well as expansion of Community Park (CP) School, to welcome 5 classes per grade. Concern from educators and the community prompted the Board to direct the architect to further explore the option of making CP a 4-class-per-grade school while doing the same to Littlebrook Elementary (LB). It was revealed this week, at their December 12th meeting, that with 1,100 new residential units planned across town and the already tight enrollment concerns, the recommendation now is the latter one – which ultimately will not only include CP and LB changes, but will add space at the middle school, with some minor work at the high school and demolition of the older section of the Valley Road administration building as well. Though the concepts are out, they are still defining and better refining the specifics. A planned community forum will be held on Saturday, January 6th, offering a chance for more feedback. If approved by the board, this will still require a referendum vote in November 2024, with the goal of having the new spaces ready for use in September 2027.
Meanwhile, the April issue also included the article The Community Wants to Know: A Conversation with Frank Chmiel, an interview with then Princeton High School (PHS) Principal Frank Chmiel after he was put on leave, later terminated. In August, Assistant Principal Cecilia Birge was promoted to fill his role as Principal at PHS. And in November, our Perspectives Revisited updated you on more senior staffing changes, with Superintendent Carol Kelley’s abrupt October resignation followed by mid-November’s board vote to instate Kathie Foster as Acting Superintendent through August 2024.
Board President Dafna Kendal tells Princeton Perspectives they have not yet discussed the search for a new superintendent. That is expected to take place in January, once the two newly elected board members join their ranks. They will also have to consider filling another vacant spot next year as Rebecca Gold, Princeton’s Assistant Superintendent for Human Relations, will be leaving after her contract ends in June. That search is expected to begin soon as well.
In other school news, the technology department has made public their quest to unionize as they reach out to the state for help, citing the district is not providing proper staffing and other needs to enable them to do their job sufficiently. Will this lead to changes? We will keep you posted.
CONSTRUCTION HERE AND EVERYWHERE!
If you’re driving to a school, or anywhere else in town, it is not unusual to see a construction area along nearly every route you take around Princeton. In the June issue, Trials and Tribulations Around Town: What’s the Best Way to Move Forward?, we detailed several of the projects and their impacts on the community in the article Construction and Traffic and Parking…Oh Boy! The Impacts are Being Felt Around Town. The good news is many of them have anticipated spring 2024 completion dates, so there is relief in sight.
Partial or full road closures have been frequent as the Graduate Hotel and the new Triumph Brewing Company buildings go up downtown. Triumph, however, is done with exterior work so it will cause no further construction closures on any street around Palmer Square. Though there remain a lot of variables, the design team is finishing up, and they are working on the furnishings with hopes of opening in early 2024. The Graduate, at the corner of Nassau and Chambers Streets, is proceeding on schedule, still on track for a spring 2024 opening.
The Witherspoon Street Improvements Project completed Phase I from Nassau to Green Streets in June. Phase II, from Green Street to Leigh Avenue is now underway. The major work is completed, but final paving, adding striping and markings on the pavement, installing raised sidewalks, landscaping, lighting and signage are still on the docket. Though this is not expected to be completed until May, Phase III will begin sometime between January and March. This will take the transformation all the way down to Valley Road.
As you’ve maneuvered around the streets, you’ve likely noticed parking downtown has taken a hit with all of these projects. It has additionally been complicated by contractors working in the Spring Street Garage. On Friday, that work will take a temporary halt through the holidays, with waterproofing coating and parking stall striping occurring in the spring.
As I described above, Princeton’s Council has been working with new developers to include affordable housing units in new building construction. The creation of each comes with other concerns as it relates to street closures, traffic changes and more. The area of Harrison and Terhune Streets can be affected with three complexes going up nearby. On Stockton Street (Route 206) buildings came down at the Princeton Seminary, and a final proposal has been made to add 238 units there. Will that add to the traffic back-ups already surrounding the area? Council members tell us it will not, but details are yet to come.
“A traffic study will be required when an application for site plan approval is submitted – the proposal is one step in the process of development of a redevelopment plan. That plan needs to be approved before site plan applications can be made,” explains Assistant Municipal Engineer Jim Purcell.
As PSE&G continues its Gas System Modernization Program, various roadways will be closed throughout the remainder of this year and through 2024. The natural gas main replacements are being done with an effort to minimize traffic disruption. For example, when it is time to begin work on state highways like Nassau or Stockton Streets, there will be efforts to complete them at night to allow for traffic flow throughout the day. Those locations are expected to start early next year.
How does one stay on top of all of this? Municipal Nixle alerts regarding road closures and emergencies have gotten more descriptive, an attempt to minimize the frustrations. If you haven’t already, you can sign up to receive these messages by texting your zip code to 888777. The Engineering website is also updated with the latest in happenings, so you can be prepared as you travel around.
THE WAR WAGES ON
In late November, there was an extended ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, as both sides laid down their arms, hostages were released by Hamas, and prisoners released by Israel. We wrote about the local impacts of this war in the November issue Understanding & Supporting Others During This Trying Time. In the article The Rise in Jew-Hatred is Felt Near and Far we explained at that time the number of reported antisemitic incidents across the US had increased 388% from the same time last year. Now, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) says that over the past two months it has recorded the most antisemitic incidents in a two-month period since they started tracking such instances in 1979 – 2,031 have been recorded across the country. Anti-Israel rallies with overt antisemitism have taken place in Princeton and New Brunswick, both also home to major universities. In fact, 73% of Jewish students across the country claim to have witnessed or been victim to an antisemitic attack on campus this school year. On Tuesday, Rutgers University (RU) was added to the list of schools that are being investigated by the federal government for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination at institutions that receive federal funding. This, just a day after RU suspended Students for Justice in Palestine Organization, citing it posed a “substantial and immediate threat to the safety and well-being of others.” RU follows Columbia, Brandeis and George Washington Universities in doing the same.
As we conclude 2023 and look to 2024, we hope for some happier news. We will continue to provide any necessary updates to these big stories, and we also promise to continue to delve into the stories and issues impacting our community the most! We hope you will continue the tradition of reading Princeton Perspectives for the most in-depth information.
Lisa Jacknow spent years working in national and local news in and around New York City before moving to Princeton. Working as both a TV producer and news reporter, Lisa came to this area to focus on the local news of Mercer County at WZBN-TV. In recent years, she got immersed in the Princeton community by serving leadership roles at local schools in addition to volunteering for other local non-profits. In her free time, Lisa loves to spend time with her family, play tennis, sing and play the piano. A graduate of the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, Lisa was raised just north of Boston, Massachusetts but has lived in the tri-state area since college. She is excited to be Editor and head writer for Princeton Perspectives!