Princeton Charm Unfazed by Time or Tourists

ONE of Jerry Berner's challenges is to keep up with the various businesses that want to relocate to Palmer Square, a prominent downtown section of this picturesque community of 12,000 people.

Mr. Berner is vice president of operations for the Palmer Square Corporation, the management group for the seven-acre square. Of the 46 store sites located in Palmer Square, 43 are occupied. Lawyers are wrapping up lease arrangements on two of the three unoccupied units.

"This is just a very successful business and retail center," says Berner, who believes little could - or should - be done to improve the setting.

Strolling through downtown Princeton is a joy for any visitor, let alone retailers and urban planners. A walk takes one past small mom-and-pop stores, charming boutiques, some offices, and a few national retailers such as the Banana Republic and the Gap. Flowers are ubiquitous and streets are spotless. Tourists mix with college students from nearby Princeton University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Rider College, located near here.

Currently, Princeton's Palmer Square area includes about 124 apartment and town house units. That means that families are always around the square - adding to the area's safety and occupancy. Another 90 housing units are expected to be built in the next three years, Berner says.

For all its charm, change is slowly coming to Princeton. "The population mix is being transformed," says Penelope Edwards-Carter, town clerk for the borough. The borough of Princeton is surrounded by a slightly larger political jurisdiction, Princeton Township. All told, about 25,000 people live in the two jurisdictions. But overall population has dropped slightly during the past decade, according to the United States Census Bureau.

In addition to a large white population, Princeton has long had a significant black community, dating back to the mid-to-late 19th century. Many Asian students are attracted to local universities. And Hispanics are moving into the community, a significant number of them from Guatemala, Ms. Edwards-Carter says.

Moreover, Princeton has not been able to escape national economic patterns, notes Aubrey Huston, executive editor and business editor of the Princeton Packet, the local newspaper, published twice a week.

Many of the smaller shops in Palmer Square have been hit by competition from the large national retail chains located along Route 1, Mr. Huston says. Traffic congestion is often troublesome.

Huston says that most residents - despite occasional grumbles - would find it hard to live anywhere else. He notes that a recent street fair, in which local roads were closed off, drew huge crowds. "The challenge here is to manage the change," he says. "But there's a great ambience here that makes Princeton very special."

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