Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Update on Westminster's New Parking Lot

What's missing from this picture? Of course, there are three mature pin oaks gone and a whole lot of grass has been stripped away, but what's been removed is not at issue here so much as what has yet to be installed.

The risk inherent in clearing so much land is that a big rain will come along and wash exposed soil into the stormwater drains. That silt-laden runoff then turns the local creek brown and affects the well-being of aquatic life. Standard for this sort of  construction site is silt fencing, which is designed to catch the silt before it leaves the site.

Walking by the site a week ago with my raison de marcher--a cairn terrier poodle mix named Leo--I noticed the denuded site was distinctly unswathed, and later emailed the borough engineer, Jack West, who then emailed the county.

A day or two later, the contractor working for Westminster Choir College had the silt fencing in place. It's that black strip in the foreground, with the lower portion partly buried in the ground so that runoff will flow through it rather than underneath it. A pain to install and to remove later on, and only partially effective, silt fencing can easily be "forgotten" during construction.
But at least it's in place now, in a ring around the development site,
with additional fabric layed over the stormdrains that lead to Harry's Brook.
Meanwhile, more piping for the underground cistern arrived.
Because there wasn't room for a regular retention basin to catch and hold runoff from the parking lot, rainwater will flow into this underground network of pipes, where it will be retained for awhile to reduce the flashiness of downstream flooding.
Here's what it looks like as of today. During the contentious design process back in the fall of 2009, when the neighbors made the case against installing any new parking lot, I provided some input. If memory serves, the end result of those difficult planning board meetings was a smaller parking lot, with more buffer on the neighbors' side of the field, and less obtrusive lighting. We couldn't talk Westminster Choir College out of spending lots of money on a new lot, but helped them figure out how to use less of the field without sacrificing new parking spaces.

Neighbors had suggested adding spaces on the middle school side of the Westminster property instead of near residences, but a consultant for the Choir College said this field is classified as a wetland. Hopefully, that means it can never be developed.

In addition to being a fine place for kids to run while their older siblings are taking music lessons,
this field recently sprouted the "Westminster Community Garden". Another part of the field would serve well as the safety valve for mega-storm runoff from Walnut Lane and the high school, to prevent future flooding of the performing arts center (see post from August, 2011).

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Trash Returns as Frog

Always nice to be greeted by neighbors as I pass by. One neighbor a few doors up is often out on her porch, and consistently calls out "How are you today?" over the din of the traffic.

And who's this, looking so upbeat on a fine spring day, from his/her post on a bench on Hawthorn Ave? Could it be a frog from the high school wetland that's found new digs?
Or maybe a metamorphosis of the material world, a second life for the timeworn. Old gloves never looked so happy. Go reconfigure.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Smoyer Park Community Gardens

Another of Princeton's stealth public services is the community gardens that can be rented for $21/season by residents who otherwise lack access to the magical powers of direct sunlight. (You can find the service mentioned briefly on page 10 of the Rec. Dept.'s 2012 Spring/Summer Activity Catalog.)The 10 X 10 plots in the photo are located out at the back entrance to the township's Smoyer Park.
There's a deer fence around the gardens,
and the little solar-powered beepers are reportedly pretty good at keeping the groundhogs away.

For anyone interested in a garden plot, the Johns Street gardens are all taken, but as of today there's still one plot available out at Smoyer Park. (head out Snowden Lane, turn right on Herrontown Rd, and pull in to the back parking lot to take a look). For more info, call the Princeton Recreation office at 921-9480 and ask for Vikki.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Westminster Gets Its New Parking Lot

What's this? Has Westminster Choir College decided to erect play structures in the parking lot for the amusement of its younger students? Not exactly.

A day or two prior, three stumps appeared where three healthy oak trees had been. Princeton has been losing many red oaks and pin oaks to bacterial leaf scorch, but these trees were cut down for a different reason.

In the fall of 2009, this field next to the parking lot became a flashpoint for controversy when Rider University, of which Westminster is a part, proposed expanding its parking lot. The neighbors along Linden Lane, in the distance in the photo, fought the proposal at planning board meetings.

It seemed to me that the field was better suited to become a wetland to catch the surrounding runoff, and the last thing the world needs in the age of climate change is another parking lot. The neighbors would be looking out on pavement and the glare of streetlights where before an open field had stretched. Couldn't the students catch a shuttle from Rider to Westminster?

After the planning board approved the project, a neighbor's will provided funding for legal efforts to stop the construction. Those efforts continued until recently, judging from a phone call I got from a lawyer asking what stream the field's runoff flows into (Harry's Brook).

But the tyranny of car culture continues to sabotage efforts to circumvent it. Westminster made the case that its students often had no choice but to drive, and then scramble for parking spaces on local streets, competing with high school students and neighbors for scarce spaces. The uncertainty of parking often led to students being late for class.

Within a day or two of the oaks coming down, the fence went up.

 Topsoil was scraped into a pile at the edge of the field.

People have been worried about the parking lot increasing runoff from the area. In fact, if memory from the planning board presentations serves, runoff from the parking lot will filter through several narrow raingarden-like plantings, then drain into an underground matrix of three-foot-wide tubes that will serve as an elaborate retention basin beneath the pavement.

There's going to be a whole lot of digging going on to bury these pipes.

After a storm, the collected runoff will then slowly drain out of the pipes through smaller openings and flow underground through the town's stormwater system down to Harry's Brook, which runs parallel to Hamilton Avenue a few blocks away.

Westminster will plant a berm along the back of the Linden Lane houses as a visual buffer, and students won't have to burn extra gas searching for parking spaces compromised by dumpings of yardwaste. We'll see if some arrangement was made to keep the lighting pointed down towards the ground.

 Here, by the way, is the stream the runoff will flow to. Harry's Brook "daylights" at Harrison Street and Hamilton Avenue, after traveling underground from its beginnings at Palmer Square (and the bottom floor of the borough parking lot next to the library, which used to be a pond--thus the name Spring Street).

Back when kids had more free-range childhoods, without electronic distractions or air conditioning, hot summer days could be made cooler and more fun by exploring the insides of piped streams.

If Westminster has some pipes left over, there's a precedent for using them for playground equipment after all.

Friday, May 18, 2012

National Bike Month/Week/Day

 With National Bike Month (May), Bike to Work Week (May 14-18), Bike to Work Day (May 18), and Bike to School Day (oops, missed it, May 9), things can get pretty confusing. Better to bike every day and hope it coincides with one or another designated calendar event.

For instance, I was doing my usual pedaled puddle jump to get groceries two days ago when I saw many bicyclists converging at the Princeton Shopping Center parking lot. The purpose was to take part in the national Ride of Silence, "in honor of those who have been injured or killed while cycling on public roadways."
For Anchor House in Trenton, this year's ride of silence had particular significance, given the loss of long time rider Doug McCune last year in an accident during the last day of the the 2011 Anchor House Ride.

Tomorrow, May 19, hundreds of bicyclists will be staying overnight in Princeton as part of the Climate Ride, a ride from New York to Washington, D.C. The mission of Climate Ride is  "to inspire and empower citizens to work toward a new energy future. We use sport as a means to change lives and build an effective, citizen-based sustainability movement.

Here is their website's description of the ride's first day, from New York City to Princeton:


"Climate Riders will depart from Manhattan’s spectacular urban landscape, riding en masse through New York City.
A ferry awaits to transport our group across New York Harbor to Atlantic Highlands, NJ. After disembarking, we'll enjoy a tasty picnic, before hopping on our bikes and pedaling into rural countryside of the Garden State. Quiet roads weave past small farms on the way to tonight’s destination, Princeton, NJ, home to Princeton University. In the evening, we'll gather in a ivy-covered McCosh hall on the Princeton campus to hear from some of our expert speakers." 

A past post of photos of the campout on the YMCA lawn, can be found here. In colonial times, Princeton, specifically an inn on Gulick Farm in eastern Princeton, was the stopover for travelers riding by horse from Philadelphia to New York. It's about 50 miles from either city to here.

Impassable Sidewalks

What's a pedestrian to do? Though sidewalks are built within the street right of way, it's the homeowner's responsibility to keep the sidewalk clear. This sort of neglect is particularly common when the sidewalk is located on the back side of the property, where the homeowner seldom goes.

In this particular case, even when the owners are made aware, and have a landscape crew that could easily clear the vegetation, nothing gets done. That's poison ivy at the upper right.

It's possible to go through an evolution from neglect of one's piece of the pedestrian puzzle to actually taking some pride in giving Princeton's increasing numbers of passers by clear passage.

An expanded version of this post, including identification of the many species of plants eager to grow into this void in attention, can be found at this link.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Garden Care and Activation Energy

A few years back, there was the gardening equivalent of a barn raising at the Princeton public high school, in which some 40 volunteers converged to build 15 raised beds for students to grow vegetables. They were used the first year, not so much the second, and this year they looked completely abandoned when I helped by daughter and her friend to plant one of the 15 raised beds a month ago.
Turned out that looks were deceptive. The grass I took for weeds in some of the beds is actually an experiment with winter wheat. And most of the other raised beds were soon planted by the horticultural students.

But as dry days piled up, a flaw became apparent. There was no easy access to water for the gardens. Making inquiries, I heard back that the spigot on the wall nearby was broken and would be hard to fix.

So it looked like the spigot was going to remain broken, and each watering would require going into the school, finding someone to unlock a custodial closet, push a hose out a window, go back out, water, then go back in to shut off the water and retrieve the hose.

In chemistry, there's something called "activation energy", which is the initial dollop of energy required to get a chemical reaction to take place. People need a similar sort of activation energy to do what needs to be done. For example, the repeated annoyance of a squeaky door may or may not finally lead to a search for some oil to lubricate the hinges. My observation has been that people are much more willing to tolerate repeated annoyance than to take action to prevent the annoyance from recurring.

Thus, even though the process required each time to water the gardens was very inconvenient, it was not sufficiently onerous to overcome the resistance to repairing the broken spigot. The likely result would be that any budding high school gardener would finally get tired of the inconvenience, give up on the watering, the plants would wither and the community investment in the 15 raised beds would be for naught.

So, I persevered, sent a couple more emails, and left a phone message for the head janitor, trying to be congenially persuasive. This input of "activation energy" doesn't always bring results, but in this case the head janitor turned out to be a very nice guy.

His crew took a look at the spigot, came up with a fix and found a hose. Now, the ongoing convenience of the water supply will reduce the energy needed to "activate" the garden's caretakers every time they remember the garden needs watering. It doesn't guarantee success, but makes it much more likely.

Community activators (never much liked the term "activist") push against walls of resistance, hoping one or another will finally budge and some positive change can take place. Usually, the walls don't budge, but in this case a little extra push, and a resourceful staff, was enough to make the wall bear water.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

New Map Proves World Is Upside Down

Let's start with the basics. Where is Princeton?

As can be seen clearly on this map (or not so clearly--I took this photo on a very hazy day), Princeton is on the west coast of the United States.

It was long assumed that our country was south of Canada, but a fresh look at the data has proven this not to be the case. Now that up is the new down, Princetonians will need to adopt a west coast mentality. Some good news for those seeking stability in these topsy-turvy times: Central Jersey remains central no matter which way is up. And the map below shows definitively what few hereabouts would contest, that Princeton is located at the center of the world.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Art Walk in Princeton Tomorrow

Art Walk is a bit of a stealth event in downtown Princeton. If you missed the first two, you can catch the third tomorrow, Thursday. It's an elaboration of the university art museum's Thursday evening programming, and involves coordination with many town institutions and businesses.

As part of Art Walk, from 6-8pm, the Labyrinth Bookstore on Nassau St. will be hosting my group, the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble. I write all the music, with names like Scrambled Eggs, Fresh Paint, Crying It Out and Forgotten Memories. Labyrinth will provide tea and coffee, or you can bring your own. You'll find us on the lower level, but the music drifts up the stairs to the main floor if you want to take it in while browsing.

The university art museum website has more info about Art Walk, including a Sustainable Fashion Design Competition starting at 5pm. By sustainable, I assume they mean the sort of clothing that looks great while reducing dependency on fuel to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Another great opportunity to hear our music and socialize is a potluck/performance on Saturday, May 19, at a private music room across Route 1 a short ways. That one starts at 7, with a couple sets starting at 8pm. Please send me an email for details (If you move your cursor over to the right edge of this blog, some labels will pop out. One is called "about me", and includes my email address.)

The Back Side of Communiversity

 To find Communiversity, jump on your bike and follow the traffic, which may not actually be moving, but is generally pointed in the right direction.
Soon you will speculate that cars are amassed elsewhere because they have been displaced by a mass takeover of downtown streets by pedestrians.
At first ignoring the copious material and intellectual offerings of the booths, I wandered Nassau Street to witness the result of lengthy email discussions months prior about how to finally get recycling integrated into the festival. Initial observations were not promising. 
But over towards Palmer Square, the long-called for had finally appeared--well-designed recycling receptacles paired with trash cans.
On the university side of Nassau St., an a cappella group called the Wildcats took advantage of favorable acoustics at Pyne Hall, recalling a time when streets and buildings were designed to flatter the human voice.
Student guards were posted in front of the feline guardians of Nassau Hall,
perhaps having heard that there was a loose cannon in the vicinity. 
I used the map of the Battle of Princeton to tell a friend-of-the-battlefield about the hican trees growing near the battlefield's farmhouse.    
Some of the most interesting music was tucked in between the booths. There was some hot dixieland happening on Nassau, and then a jazz singer on Witherspoon St. who said he came because he's friends with the food vendor. He packed his big band in a box, his jazz standards in a tiny ipod, and was so hip
he even got the furniture to adopt jazzy pozes.

After this pleasant making of the rounds, I transitioned abruptly into the public library's showing of The Call of Life, a gripping documentary about mass extinction. Half of the earth's species could blink out by mid-century, never to return. The executive producer of the film was on hand, and shared his thoughts on the predicament while a seemingly endless stream of cars passed by just outside the window of the second floor Princeton Room.

That's the reality lurking behind the back side of everyday life, stored well back in people's minds. There is the pleasure and necessity of the present, and then there's the collective consequence of all that seemingly sensible human activity, steadily unraveling the planet that has so quietly sustained us.

Communiversity offered the full gamut, a full expression of the two worlds we simultaneously inhabit. It represents in name and well-organized deed a one day coming together of community and university. That's quite a feat in and of itself. But even as a festival prospers, a call gains strength from the back side, along back streets and in a darkened movie room at the library, how to fuse present and future, which seem on such separate trajectories. To be fully aware is to inhabit both worlds, the bright light of the present and the dark extrapolations of the future, and seek improbable reconciliation--an ongoing Presenture, Futurent Lifestyle Festival.