THE CRANBURY PRESERVATION PROJECT
This report summarizes the Cranbury Preservation Project, an initiative sponsored by the Cranbury Historical and Preservation Society. The initiative, undertaken in fall 2001 and spring 2002, consisted of a series of interviews, a community meeting, and a team site visit. This report summarizes each phase of the Preservation Project; describes Cranbury’s most important characteristics as a historic community; offers principles to help guide Cranbury in protecting those characteristics as the community plans for change; and provides specific recommendations consistent with those principles.
Introduction: Cranbury’s Special Assets
There is no doubt that Cranbury is a special place to live. With its 300+-year history, well-preserved downtown, and protected agriculture and open space, the township is an oasis of beauty in a landscape of sprawl.
As a colonial village, Cranbury functioned as a stage stop along the route from Philadelphia to New York. The village grew up around the Cranberry Mills, erected c. 1737, and was originally a one-street linear community of mixed residential and commercial uses. Cranbury thrived by providing social and economic support to the surrounding farm country. The rural community and surrounding farmers were mutually dependent—one for produce, the other for services.
The major growth of Cranbury occurred during the second and third quarters of the 19th century along a north-south spine. Over time, civic uses were developed west of Main Street (the old school/current town hall, and school and library). There are more than 200 major buildings in the Cranbury Historic District. Fewer than 20 percent of these structures were built after the 1930s. Cranbury’s listing in the National Register of Historic Places (1980) marks its importance as the "best preserved 19th century village in Middlesex County."
The nomination states that, "while there are many small 19th century cross-road villages or small mill towns in New Jersey, few are in such an undisturbed environment as that of Cranbury." Cranbury’s National Register listing is testimony to the integrity of the community—not only of its historic buildings and tight street pattern but also of its agricultural setting. The historic relationship between the village and surrounding farmland has been maintained, reflected in the sharp edge between the two land uses to the west and north of town. Cranbury’s historic buildings are enhanced by the preservation of the agricultural context in which the village was established and grew. As Sam Stokes has written, "the significance of Cranbury’s historic district is inextricably tied to its agricultural setting." In addition, most of the surrounding farmland in the township retains much of its historic appearance and also its traditional use—farming. A village and rural surroundings with such integrity are rare in New Jersey.
As a local historic district, the community has taken measures to guide the rehabilitation of historic structures. Perhaps Cranbury’s most remarkable achievement to date is its success in preserving agricultural and open space lands within the township; some 2,000 out of 3,114 acres have been protected. This statistic probably ranks Cranbury within the top one percent of communities nationwide in terms of conservation accomplished. Even more noteworthy, some of the tracts that have been preserved—Barclay, West, and Wright, for example—create the distinctive sharp edge between village and open space. The West tract offers a wonderful opportunity as an open-space park or nature preserve. And the Wright tract provides Cranbury with the ability to extend the axis of civic functions while maintaining both the historic character of the community and the sharp edge between village and open space; in a sense it allows Cranbury to recapture the 19th century edge to the village. (Italics for emphasis.)
Located only a few miles from the New Jersey Turnpike, Cranbury retains a rural atmosphere, with a lake, streams and woodlands accessible within the township boundaries. Many of the vistas on the edge of town have been protected, and the approaches into town are, for the most part, free of franchise restaurants, gas stations, and other "road rash" of sprawl. It is critical that Cranbury build on its remarkable preservation achievements with careful planning and additional preservation so that what has been gained will not be compromised or lost.
Twenty-one Cranbury residents were interviewed for this project in fall/winter 2001-2002, most in person but a few by telephone. The interviewees were selected by the Cranbury Historical and Preservation Society to represent the voices of leadership and various interest groups within the community. Most have been residents for more than 15 years. All described Cranbury as a wonderful place to live, using such adjectives as, "small, historic, attractive, quiet, walkable, bucolic, scenic, safe, democratic, quaint, friendly, involved, civic-minded, and family-oriented." Many expressed gratitude for the community’s preserved open space and the commitment of its citizens. The fact that Cranbury has one K-8 school is an important element to community identity and attractiveness.
Issues Confronting Cranbury
The interviews revealed four major issues of concern:
1. Continued farmland and open space preservation
2. The viability of the downtown
3. Traffic volume, speed, and circulation
4. Development of the Wright property
Farmland and open space preservation - Many said this was the #1 priority for Cranbury; the township should aggressively move to protect its remaining parcels of farmland and open space. The arguments put forth were that (1) if we’re going to allow warehouses east of Route 130, we must continue to acquire farmland or open space land, or development rights thereto, to the west and south; and (2) we’ve come so far, we should not stop now.
Downtown viability - Residents lament the loss of downtown businesses (grocery, drug store, dry cleaners) and love the pizza parlor, bakery, Teddy’s, and the hardware store. Although most interviewed expressed concern about the downtown’s future, they don’t want Cranbury to become a tourist destination; they want mostly local-serving businesses.
There was little agreement about why the downtown has declined. Some of those interviewed hypothesized that there is a lack of adequate parking (although many asserted that there is no parking problem). Some speculated that a few businesses are poorly run in a competitive market where Main Street has to vie with the Mall. Others cited a lack of a critical physical mass in the downtown, believing that the commercial district needs to be expanded. Several people suggested general ways to approach the problem: provide more parking; recruit new businesses; and improve the appearance of downtown.
One unresolved concern raised through the interviews is who, or what entity, is responsible for downtown improvement? It’s not the township committee; it’s not the Cranbury Business & Professional Association; and there is no Chamber of Commerce.
Traffic - Many expressed concern about the morning traffic congestion at Schoolhouse Lane; traffic backs up; and pedestrian safety is an issue. Interviewees were either pro or con about the proposed new cut-through at Park Place to make traffic one-way in the morning. Some felt that morning traffic was a non-issue—temporary and relatively insignificant. Other traffic concerns expressed included speeding through town and a lack of enforcement; the heavy volume of commuter traffic cutting through Cranbury; and truck traffic.
Development of the Wright Property - The development of the 12 acres of the Wright property owned by the township is an issue confronting the community which could have a significant impact on the character of the historic district, traffic and circulation though the community, and the viability of the downtown.
Interviewees proposed several uses for the property, but there was considerable disagreement about what was most needed. Among the uses advocated were: additional parking, a Babe Ruth ballfield, a new library, and a community center—which could be an arts center, a senior center, or a multi-purpose facility (including a library).
In addition to these four issues, others raised included:
• Sidewalks need to be improved
• Number and size of warehouses
• Need more pedestrian and bicycle linkages or greenways
• Planning for future park space
• Need for a new police station.
The community meeting of January 31, 2002, included a lively discussion of issues confronting Cranbury. In addition to those already discussed through the interview summary, the meeting introduced the following concerns: the changing demographics of the community (a younger and wealthier population); buffering the community from Route 130; re-routing Route 535; the need for trails to link outlying subdivisions with downtown; preservation of the water tower; a proliferation of signage; overhead wires and antennas in the historic district; and the scale of new development.
Team Site Visit
On February 28 and March 1, 2002, a team of community planning specialists visited Cranbury. The team was composed of Jim Klein, a landscape architect with Lardner/Klein, P.C.; Linda Harper, a downtown development consultant; and Shelley Mastran, preservation consultant. During the two-day visit, the team toured the community and interviewed representatives of the Cranbury Historic and Preservation Society, the town planner and town engineer, and representatives of the business and political community.
Based on this site visit and their experience with other communities, and as a basis for their input on the planning recommendations that follow, Klein and Harper made the following observations about Cranbury:
• The system of open space that Cranbury has created helps to define the experience of living in the community. Three steam valleys form the backbone of the open space and cut all the way through the township. It is important that Cranbury’s residential areas and downtown maintain a strong connection to the open space system.
• Cranbury is a linear town with a perpendicular line of civic space, roughly midway up the spine, established by the Town Hall, school, and library. Downtown enhancement and the development of the Wright tract for civic use should reinforce this essential pattern on the land.
• It is difficult for the outsider to discern the boundaries of "downtown," in part because residential and commercial buildings co-mingle, as they have since colonial days, and in part because no deliberate effort has been made to mark such boundaries.
• Downtown appears to have a number of "anchors," including the school, Town Hall, and post office, as well as the hardware store and restaurants. Although businesses are changing from pure retail to more service-oriented enterprises, there are few vacancies. People with entrepreneurial spirit and business expertise seem to abound in town; however, they are not currently enticed to open new businesses.
• The parade of families walking, and even driving, to school each day is a real community asset. Despite people’s impatience with the traffic, they should be delighted their children can walk to school with a high degree of safety. The fact that children and parents come to downtown daily provides an opportunity for downtown enhancement.
Over the last several decades Cranbury has achieved a great deal in historic preservation, land conservation, and the protection of its community character. It has much to celebrate. Now the community appears to be on the threshold of a planning effort that holds great promise for achieving township goals. Fortunately, because there is limited space upon which to build in Cranbury, the community’s future population growth will be limited. This fact allows the township to plan with the assurance that its efforts will not be blind-sided by unexpected residential change.
It is critical that Cranbury build upon the assets celebrated in its National Register nomination in any future planning efforts. As the nomination states, "It is...[its] assemblage of buildings—historically and architecturally—which makes Cranbury an attractive entity unique
from any other contemporary villages. It is this identity which sets Cranbury aside from its nearby surroundings of look-alike suburbs and modern commercial developments creating a significant historical village." The mix of commercial and residential uses along a main spine, the number of well-preserved buildings, the axis of civic uses, and the protected farmland and open space—these are the assets that must be built upon and not compromised in future planning decisions.
Cranbury’s next challenges include:
• how to use the open space the community has fought so hard to preserve to enhance daily life for residents
• how to design the linkage between the village core and the civic uses of the Wright property
• how to link existing residential neighborhoods to the village core.
Unless the community proceeds carefully and plans comprehensively for these challenges, the very achievements that Cranbury has fought so hard for could be jeopardized.
The following recommendations are based on the interviews, community meeting, and team site visit.
1. Continue the long-standing deliberate effort to protect Cranbury’s remaining farmland and open space.
Work with landowners to take advantage of the New Jersey Farmland Preservation Program (purchase of development rights); or acquire land in fee, if appropriate. Explore using other nonprofit organizations and public programs, such as the Delaware & Raritan Greenway, Green Acres, the Crossroads of the American Revolution project, and others to help preserve remaining parcels of farmland and open space. The remaining agricultural and open-space parcels—Updike and Fischer in particular—are critical to retaining the sharp edge of the village and to connecting Cranbury’s existing residential communities to the system of open space.
2. Proceed slowly with the planning and development of the Wright property, and integrate and balance its planning for civic uses with planning for downtown improvements, traffic circulation, and parking. The tract must be used, designed and protected in such a way that Cranbury maintains its historic character as a 18th and 19th century rural village and unique sense of place.
• Just because the land is available doesn’t mean it has to be developed now, or developed all at once.
• Work to develop a process through which the school, township government, and business leaders can work with citizens to build community consensus about what civic uses are desired and appropriate to meet the long-term needs of the community.
• Plan the civic uses of the property comprehensively with an eye to the character of the historic district and adjacent open space. Ensure that whatever is developed on the property is architecturally compatible with the historic district and preserves the community’s sense of openness and scenic beauty on the west side of town. Design any new construction to complement historic township buildings and to be compatible with the size, scale, height, proportion, color, material, setback, and setting of buildings in the historic district.
• Consider the impact of particular uses for the Wright property on downtown vitality and traffic circulation. The volume and flow of traffic associated with various uses are critical considerations, and safe and appropriate access to the property is a paramount concern. The Wright Tract should be a logical extension of the existing town. The most appropriate way for the core of Cranbury to connect with the Wright property is through an extension of perpendicular streets and passageways that complements the downtown.
The Wright property should be accessed by extending Park Place and Prospect Street (perpendicular to each other). All uses for the Wright property should be clustered at the existing edge of the village. A new passageway west of Main Street might provide parking and rear access to existing buildings. Any street extensions should be two-way, narrow (18 feet wide), and lined with trees—park-like roadways. Although they should be generally straight, they can curve, if necessary, to avoid compromising any existing structures or trees. As Sam Stokes wrote in 1987, "the trees along the streets are an integral part of the streetscapes.... The scale of the village would be destroyed by any road widenings and tree cuttings that might be necessitated by increased traffic."
• Redesign the parking lot near the tennis courts and Town Hall to create more park and open space in front of Town Hall, rather than asphalt.
• The surfaces of all new streets, passageways, walks, and parking areas should be appropriate to the historic character of the village. Asphalt should be avoided at all costs.
3. Enhance Cranbury’s walkability, and improve traffic flow through non-drastic design measures.
Traffic volume, speed, and circulation have been identified as key issues in Cranbury. Some fairly drastic measures have been proposed to address these issues, including: building an access road to the Wright property by extending Wheatfield Road; establishing a one-way street to the school via Park Place and a one-way exit via Schoolhouse Lane; paving an access road to the school through the West property; and building new parking lots (except what may be needed for civic uses on the Wright property). However, such drastic measures would not be appropriate, as they would threaten to destroy or seriously compromise the character of the historic village. In addition, there is no guarantee these measures would solve the traffic problems, and they could well create new ones.
On the other hand, there are a number of non-drastic measures that would address the traffic problems, including:
• Shorten the crossing distance at each of the three major crosswalks on Main Street. Main Street is a very wide road. Curb extensions should be built so that each crosswalk is only 22 feet wide (two 11-foot-wide lanes). This will reduce the crossing time by more than one-half and eliminate the ambiguity between when a pedestrian is waiting to cross the street or just standing by the side of the road. (This strategy is currently being pursued by a number of historic communities, including Rocky Hill, New Jersey, and Middleburg, Virginia.)
• A policy of staggering bus and passenger-car traffic to and from the school is now being implemented. If it is not entirely successful, the school might create an alternate way for the buses to leave the school grounds. Either they could wait until the automobile "rush" is over, or a small gravel access road could be built to connect to the drive just south of the school—for buses only.
• Reinforce the school’s drop-off policy. Although the school does not endorse using Main Street as a drop-off location, some parents continue to do so. Encourage parents driving to school from the south not to park on the east side of Main Street and let their children out to cross at Schoolhouse Lane. This is dangerous and contributes to congestion.
(It should be remembered that, to some extent, Cranbury is protected from the impact of drastic transportation design measures by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act. When federal funds are involved in transportation (as they almost always are through federal funding to the state), under Section 106, agencies must consider the effects of any "undertaking" on properties listed in, or eligible for listing in, the National Register of Historic Places. Section 4(f) prohibits federal approval or funding for transportation projects that use historic properties unless there is no feasible or prudent alternative.)
Other transportation-related recommendations for Cranbury include:
• Reinforce the 25-mile-an-hour speed zones with landscaping, neighborhood-scaled entrances, changes in paved street widths (narrowing), and other measures to increase the prominence of the pedestrian. Narrowing can be accomplished through such traffic-calming measures as neckdowns, curb extensions, and splitter medians.
• Improve the gateways into Cranbury (e.g., the Main Street approach from the south off Route 130, the Main Street approach from the north off Route 130, and others) with signage, landscaping, or other design features.
• Improve the appearance of Route 130 with landscaping, more appropriate lighting, improved roadside details, and better signage directing trucks to specific destinations. A truck wayfinding system (truck route) would be very helpful, so that trucks do not come into downtown by mistake. Truck traffic through Cranbury threatens its village ambiance and causes damage to historic buildings.
Cranbury should work with Middlesex County and the New Jersey Department of Transportation to develop "context-sensitive design" projects for Cranbury. (New Jersey is one of five states working with the Federal Highway Administration to broaden highway design criteria and engage in innovative transportation projects.) Approach the county, as well as the DOT and appropriate consultants, as necessary, in designing curb extensions (discussed above) and other traffic calming measures; a gateway design project; and/or buffers along the Route 130 corridor.
Although the county highway engineers may be reluctant to explore traffic calming measures, the DOT, the Federal Highway Administration, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) all have provided guidance on appropriate and successful
ways such measures can be implemented. The township should advocate strongly for flexibility in street design for all new and existing streets.
4. Develop an enhanced trail system that links Cranbury’s neighborhoods, downtown, and open space and enhances the community’s walkability.
Cranbury needs more pathways for bicycle and pedestrian use. Bicycle use should be encouraged along Main Street with four-foot-wide bicycle lanes designed in a way that is compatible with existing parking. Such lanes also serve to narrow the street and slow traffic. In accordance with guidelines from the American Association of State Highway and Traffic Officials (AASHTO), numerous communities have established such bicycle lanes—e.g., Centerville, Delaware.
Given the current status of protected property in the township and the recent acceleration of warehouse development east of Route 130, Cranbury should review its existing plan to create a pathway system. Ideally, pathways should be constructed along each of the creek systems. A multi-use path might connect north to south just west of the Updike Tract, the Wright Tract, and the Barclay Tract north. Additionally, the developing pathway system through the industrial areas east of Route 130 needs to be connected with pathways along the three creeks. This will create a network of pedestrian and bicycle access that will link residential neighborhoods, the downtown, and employment areas.
Staff from the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) program can be consulted to work with the township on a long-term recreational assessment and greenways plan. RTCA staff can help determine community recreational and trail requirements and can plan and design a system of greenways.
5. Consider delineating Cranbury’s downtown more clearly, encourage facade improvements to commercial buildings, and develop creative business partnerships to capitalize on existing space and market potential.
Several measures can be taken to enhance Cranbury’s downtown visual and economic vitality.
• Consider ways to delineate Cranbury’s downtown core more clearly. This might be accomplished by using signs with a common logo or style, resurfacing the sidewalk with a distinctive material, or installing special street lighting. These measures may encourage downtown investment and facade improvements. None of these design elements should be overdone, however. In Cranbury, "less is more," in keeping with the historic mixed-use character of the downtown.
• Provide education, technical assistance, or incentives for facade improvements to commercial structures. As the National Register nomination states, "Main Street in Cranbury has functioned as the commercial center of the village from the 19th century. Many of the mid and late 19th century buildings are still extant, although the integrity of some have been jeopardized over recent years with unsympathetic alterations to the first floor store front facades." These unsympathetic alterations would be the target of a facade improvement program.
• Establish greater density in the downtown by using space in creative ways or creating business partnerships. For example, businesses might explore diversification, as the hardware store has done (selling gifts, providing a UPS pick-up point, running a repair business), making every square foot make money. Compatible businesses might share space, as some entrepreneurs in Cranbury already do. Rear entrances can provide access to additional businesses.
• Explore with the bank the possibility of developing retail uses for the building and its adjoining parking lot. Because retail uses need high visibility and street frontage, the bank should be used for retail rather than for a public purpose. There may be ample space on the bank property for some offices to share the space with retailers.
• Take advantage of the proximity of the downtown core to the school and town hall and the fact that children (and often parents) come there daily. Events, festivals, arts facilities and stores, recreation, and other links between the school and downtown can heighten the importance and vitality of the area.
Cranbury should create a new public-private entity to undertake downtown improvement. This partnership might, for example, actively recruit desired businesses into the downtown, encourage creative business arrangements, develop a facade improvement program, and establish a co-op grocery store. The partnership might hire a consultant with experience in the Main Street approach developed by the National Main Street Center to work with the entity and downtown businesses on organization, promotion, economic restructuring, and design issues. This strategy has been very successful for thousands of communities throughout the country facing economic, design, and organizational issues.
Consideration should be given to pursuing Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) Transportation Enhancements grants through the New Jersey DOT for streetscape improvements, undergrounding wires, and consolidating signage.
6. Refine existing historic district guidelines and develop voluntary design guidelines for new development.
Design guidelines can be a powerful tool for protecting the historic character of a community. Modifications to historic buildings and new construction should be compatible with historic architecture—complementing, rather than imitating, historic design features. These features include size, scale, height, proportion, color, materials, setting, and setback of buildings.
Continue to work with the consultant hired to review existing historic district design guidelines and update and revise them, as appropriate. For all historic properties that the township acquires and resells, implement design guidelines through deed restrictions.
Conduct an inventory of historic farm structures in the township and amend the National Register nomination to include them (or nominate a new thematic rural historic district.) Develop design guidelines for these historic farm structures. (In the short run, it might be helpful to develop voluntary design guidelines for historic farm structures throughout the township.)
Finally, voluntary guidance for new residential, commercial, and municipal construction should be developed to ensure that the development of the Wright property and any future subdivisions are compatible with the historic village.
Technical Assistance and Funding Sources
• Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) Transportation Enhancements
Since 1991, states must set aside 10 percent of Federal Highway funds for Transportation Enhancements. These include, among others, the following types of projects: pedestrian and bicycle facilities, acquisition of scenic or historic easements and sites, landscaping and scenic beautification, historic preservation, and rehabilitation of historic transportation buildings.
Bob Goslin, Transportation Enhancements Manager, 609-530-3640; email@example.com
Randy Prescott, FHWA Contact, 609-637-4235; RANDY.PRESCOTT@fhwa.dot.gov
• Context-Sensitive Design, New Jersey DOT
New Jersey is one of five states working to develop road design alternatives to DOT "business-as-usual." The following staff can help with traffic-calming, gateway design, and other creative transportation applications.
Bill Beetle, Planning, 609-530-2866
Gary Toth, Bureau of Project Scope Development, 609-530-5262
Dick Dunn, Bureau of Design, 609-530-2733
• National Park Service, Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program, Philadelphia Support Office
RTCA staff can provide technical assistance (at no cost to the community) on trail building, stream improvement, and parks. The program works with communities to facilitate public meetings, decision making, and planning.
Contact: Helen Mahan, 215-597-6483; Helen_Mahan@nps.gov
• National Trust for Historic Preservation Grants/Programs
• Preservation Services Fund (PSF) Grants - These are small grants to non-profit organizations to conduct feasibility studies, prepare educational materials, hold workshops, and various other preservation-related initiatives.
Contact: Leigh Seyfert, Northeast Regional Office, 617-523-0885; firstname.lastname@example.org
• Your Town: Designing Its Future Program - This program, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, is a series of workshops for rural community leaders to work on design solutions for community problems. Four workshops are funded each year. If Cranbury qualified, $18,000 would be provided to prepare a design workshop tailored specifically to the community’s design needs.
Contact: Shelley Mastran, 703-734-1742; email@example.com
• Main Street New Jersey
The state’s Main Street program is a source of design assistance for downtown revitalization issues. See: www.state.nj.us/dca/dhcr/msnj.htm.
• National Endowment for the Arts
The Endowment has a number of grant programs for nonprofit organizations promoting the arts, culture and heritage. For example, it provides Access Grants to organizations for Heritage and Preservation to keep cultural heritage intact through recovering and preserving artistic achievements. It is possible that an NEA grant could help fund activities in the downtown.
Contact: Susan Begley, 202-682-5796; firstname.lastname@example.org
In summary, Cranbury should not lose sight of the significance of its historic district, its accomplishments in farmland and open space preservation, and the characteristics that make it a special place to live. With all that Cranbury has achieved in preservation and conservation, and with the high level of commitment of its leadership and citizenry, there is great promise that the community will pull together to achieve a collective vision for the future that protects the township’s finest assets.
To quote from the National Register nomination, "Cranbury embodies the hopes and aspirations of the nation in the mid-19th century. Optimism, faith, and reasoned growth are part of what Cranbury represented and continues to represent." This should be the credo for Cranbury’s next steps forward.
Shelley S. Mastran