At a meeting Monday evening that Mayor Liz Lempert called “the first of its kind in Princeton,” new Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber sat at a table with Princeton Council for a public conversation about current and future University initiatives. But much of the discussion was about town/gown relations, which have suffered in recent years due to disagreements over the University’s $330 million Arts and Transit project and the relocation of the Dinky train station.
“The arts project is a very good project, and I’m proud of it,” Mr. Eisgruber said. “But I am regretful of the ruptures and scars that have been created.”
Mr. Eisgruber has spent much of his first few months in the job on a “listening tour,” he said, meeting with members of the University community on campus and traveling as far as Asia to hear suggestions about how to focus his presidency. The meeting with the municipality served as another stop on the tour.
“This place is home to me,” he said of Princeton. “I really do hope this can be the beginning of a more constructive relationship between the town and the University. I know that in the course of that relationship we are going to disagree sometimes, but I hope it will be within a context of respect and mutual interest.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, former Princeton Borough Mayor Yina Moore and Save the Dinky president Anita Garoniak appealed to Mr. Eisgruber to halt the construction project that is turning the train station buildings into a cafe and restaurant and moving the terminus 460 feet south of its current location.
“There is no overriding public good that justifies taking away Princeton’s in-town train station: The University can accomplish its goals without moving the station, and it has the resources to build its arts buildings with a train terminus on University Place,” Ms. Moore said.
Anton Lahnston, who chaired the Consolidation and Shared Services Study Commission, said he hoped the meeting was the beginning of an effort to “build a relationship with the University that I think has been fractured.” The present is “an opportune time to move forward together to build communication and trust,” he said, adding “I welcome you here and I’m really thrilled to have you here.”
Resident Peter Marks, the son of a University professor, said he grew up as a booster of the school. “But it’s been a long time since I’ve thought the University was a friend of people like me or town residents,” he told Mr. Eisgruber, adding, “It’s not necessary to make the residents feel as if they live in a land bank.”
Council member Lance Liverman, another Princeton native, recalled for Mr. Eisgruber the days when many local residents were employed by the University and free tickets for sports events were given to area children. Mr. Eisgruber, who praised the University’s Dillon League youth basketball program as a win-win for the school and the town, said “there may be other possibilities” of getting youth involved and tapping into local networks for employment.
Mr. Eisgruber was asked by Councilman Patrick Simon if he has given thought to how potential development along Alexander Street south of the Arts and Transit project is going to proceed. He responded that he hoped discussions on that topic would resume soon.
Not up for discussion Monday night were the negotiations between the University and the municipality on the school’s next voluntary payment to the town. Officials have met twice so far to talk about the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes), which was $2.475 million this year, but have yet to comment on the proceedings.