Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 14
 
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
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Consolidation, Town-Gown Relations, Dominate Saturday Morning Discussion

Matthew Hersh

If you listened carefully to the wants of roughly 100 Princeton residents who showed up on a Saturday morning at the Princeton Public Library, here’s what you might have found: they want one Princeton, not two; they want a downtown that is small-business-friendly; they want growth, but not too much, or none at all; they want/don’t want Princeton University; they want a place in town to buy their underwear.

Residents did not hold back Saturday morning at the library, as Princeton Future, a community-based organization that focuses on in-town issues, sought to start a discussion on housing, economy, town-gown relations, diversity, and sustainability. In four hours, much was discussed, little was resolved, but that result, said organizers, was by design.

Likening the discussion process to a “three-act play,” Robert Geddes, a former dean of the Princeton University School of Architecture and current chair of the Princeton Future council, said looking deep into the future of the community would require “creative plans.”

After pointing to the recently-released, 180-page Princeton University campus plan that examines growth of the 380-acre campus over its 250-year evolution while eyeing an immediate track toward the campus of 2016, Mr. Geddes compared it to the Princeton Community Master Plan, the municipal document that outlines long-term community philosophies and goals; his point was that the two should work in tandem.

In that regard, the impact of the University’s proposed Arts and Transit Neighborhood near University Place would represent something of a linchpin in the tie between institutional and municipal planning. The PU arts neighborhood plan, which includes significant changes to the area’s infrastructure, including a 460-foot southern relocation of the Dinky station, said Kevin Wilkes, a member of the Princeton Future council. “The University’s request to relocate the Dinky station approximately 400 feet south from its existing location would need to be evaluated,” Mr. Wilkes said, quoting the Princeton Community Master Plan, and adding that Princeton Future’s aim is to “organize and focus the discussion on these topics.”

Princeton University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee, representing the PU campus plan Saturday morning, said that working with municipal government, such as PU-financed construction of affordable housing units on Leigh Avenue, and keeping graduate housing on the tax rolls, were pivotal in holistic community planning.

Some residents, however, contended that the financial contributions of the University, the largest employer in the Princetons, were not enough. In FY2007, PU paid $3.7 million and $4.4 million to Princeton Borough and Township, respectively, in local taxes, and paid roughly $1 million to the Borough and $9,000 to the Township in voluntary contributions during that time. Those contributions, some residents have contended, need to increase.

But Mr. Durkee pointed to the school’s contributions “beyond annual dollars,” citing the covering of the cost of the soon-to-be-launched Princeton Borough jitney through the fall, financial contributions to the planned skate park in Princeton Township, and toward other community projects. He did not close the door on the possibility of increased contributions in the future: “We have increased our annual contribution and it increases every year. We are prepared to have conversations on financial contributions.”

Anne Neumann, a Borough resident and a longtime critic of the University’s voluntary gifts, said that the school should appropriate a portion of its $15.8 billion endowment for community contributions. In the past Ms. Neumann has also called for the University to keep all its properties on the tax rolls, bucking the national standard for non-profit, tax-exempt, academic institutions.

Mr. Geddes, however, refuted Ms. Neumann’s assertion, calling for a “new mind-set” in the town-gown approach. “It would be a remarkable result of this meeting if, in fact, we left with a sense of openness,” Mr. Geddes said.

A majority of those in attendance also supported the possibilities of municipal consolidation between the Borough and Township —a prospect that has been rejected each time it was up for a referendum. If consolidation does come up for a revote, however, there should be careful consideration on shared services, said Marvin Reed, chairman of the Master Plan Subcommittee of the Regional Planning Board of Princeton, as well as a member of the state’s consolidation commission that examines municipal mergers and shared services.

“If there’s renewed interest in town, we should look into [consolidation],” Mr. Reed said. “But you have to look at it as a merger, not as a hostile takeover,” he said, adding that districts would be established as a means of preserving neighborhood character throughout what is now the Borough and Township.

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Princeton Future will hold a second meeting on April 19 at 9 a.m. at the Princeton Public Library’s Community Room to continue its town-wide discussion, this time focusing on sustainability, diversity, and process.

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