Kevin Riordan: In Princeton, a chance to share a new yoke

Posted: November 20, 2011

There's Princeton, and then there's Princeton.

After Princeton Borough and Princeton Township merge, only one Mercer County municipality will officially claim the famous name.

Voters on Nov. 8 approved consolidating the urbane village and the handsome suburb, which already are entwined by geography, history, shared services - and the powerful presence of the Princeton University campus, on the borough's Nassau Street.

Elections next November will select a single mayor and council to head the blended government of a bigger, and perhaps better, Borough of Princeton.

The two municipalities "have always been one," insists longtime township resident Ellen Petrone, 67, as she parks on the borough's famously charming Palmer Square. "Lots of people don't actually know where the border lies."

Or much care.

The borough (home to about 13,500) and the township that surrounds it (17,000 residents) "are the same," says Khirika Quinonez, a township resident from Nevada who acknowledges bewilderment at the intricacies of home rule in New Jersey.

"I don't see how [consolidation] is going to change anything," Quinonez tells me outside McCaffrey's, the go-to supermarket in the Princeton Shopping Center. Which is in the township.

A united Princeton, she says, will mean there "won't [be] one municipality inside of another, which is quite bizarre."

Such doughnut-hole jurisdictions - there are more than 20 in New Jersey, including Swedesboro and Woolwich in Gloucester County - are among the oddities those who support mergers hope to eliminate.

They also seek to save money, says Gina Genovese, executive director of Courage to Connect NJ, a nonprofit that encourages communities to consolidate, as Merchantville and Cherry Hill are considering.

Most of New Jersey's 566 municipalities don't appear to be in a hurry to absorb or be absorbed by their neighbors. The Princetons seem to me a special case.

Not so to Genovese.

"Princeton has ignited a movement. Since the vote, I've gotten inquiries from nine towns in seven counties," she says. "History has been made in Princeton."

It took a while. For decades, voters in the borough rejected attempts at consolidation, Bill Moran observes.

A customer-service manager for the Whole Earth Center, he sells organic goodies at the weekly farmers' market next to the combined borough-township library.

The bustling community anchor on Witherspoon Street is in the borough, where Moran, 72, was born.

"I voted no," he says. "But this is a great town, whether it's one town or two. I am hopeful for the best."

Consolidation won 85 percent of the vote in the township, but only 61 percent in the borough, where some residents feared a loss of identity, or "boroughness." Others believed the projected savings of $3.1 million was a fantasy.

An organization called Preserve Our Historic Borough campaigned strenuously against the merger.

"We'll be keeping an eye on the actual costs" of implementing the consolidation, says Kate Warren, the group's spokeswoman and a borough resident for 41 years.

Because downtown voters strongly opposed the marriage, she and her allies also will focus on how development, density, and other issues of the business district are addressed by the new mayor and council, to take office in January 2013.

But I find more merger fans than foes as I enjoy the lively mix of city energy and small-town coziness.

Great architecture, cool stores, tons of people . . . no wonder borough-ites are protective of the place.

"I'm stunned that it passed . . . but something shifted," says township resident Jennifer Jang, 41, shopping with her daughter, Kate, 7.

The communities already share a high school and middle school, she notes. "Princeton has a lot that yokes it together."

Borough resident Henrry Polanco, 20, says people generally don't make a distinction between the two.

Princeton, he says, is Princeton.

Cate Litvack agrees, and she ought to know: She has lived in both communities, and in 1988 and 1990 served as mayor of the township, where she now lives.

"I think there are far fewer people now who have that devotion to boroughness, or a fear of being swallowed up by the township," she says. "Most people don't say, 'I come from Princeton Township' or 'Princeton Borough.' They say, 'I live in Princeton.' "

And after next year, "They'll still say, 'I'm from Princeton.' "


Kevin Riordan:

Residents of Princeton Borough and Township discuss the impending merger of their communities. www.philly.com/princeton


Contact columnist Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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