Princeton 2015: A Year of Progress and Protest
As town and University plans and projects progressed, protests helped define the year 2015. A sit-in by Princeton University students citing Woodrow Wilson’s racist beliefs drew national attention to the campus and the town. There were additional demonstrations in reaction to national events such as the murders at a church in Charleston, South Carolina and the more recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. On the University campus, at Hinds Plaza, and at marches through town, there were silent and not-so-silent demonstrations in support of gun control and related issues.
The town lost prominent personalities John and Alicia Nash, and Michael Graves this year. The fight continues over whether the Institute for Advanced Study can build faculty housing on land the Princeton Battlefield Society considers sacred. And a campaign to make the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood a historic district picked up steam toward the end of the year.
Three years since consolidating the former Borough and Township, Princeton has made major progress in harmonizing policies and ordinances. But some issues are still on the town’s “to do” list. According to state law, the town has until the end of 2017 to get the job done.
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert announced in November that she will run for a second term in the next election. Council President Bernie Miller said he will relinquish that post, but will continue to serve on the governing body. Tim Quinn, former school board president, announced that he will enter the Council race. The terms of Council members Jenny Crumiller and Patrick Simon will be up for renewal. While Ms. Crumiller has said she will run for another term, Mr. Simon has not yet decided whether to run for Council or mayor.
“I see no need either to rush my own decision or to ramp up a campaign at this early stage in the 2016 election cycle,” Mr. Simon said in an email. “The 2015 general election was only a few weeks ago. Launching so soon after that just feels like a Washington-style permanent campaign, and who needs that? The holidays are a time for all of us to focus on our families. I’ll announce my decision by the end of January. There will be more than enough time to campaign for local office next year.”
New Teachers’ Contract
After almost two years of negotiations, the school board and the teachers’ union finally, in early July, agreed on a new four-year contract for Princeton’s public school teachers.К
From the start of talks in the fall of 2013 between Princeton Public Schools Board of Education and the Princeton Regional Education Association until final settlement, there was much criticism directed at both sides from teachers, parents, students and taxpayers.
The agreement, retroactive to July 1, 2014 when the previous contract expired, includes a salary increase of 2.66 percent for 2014-15; 2.67 percent for 2015-16; 2.50 percent for 2016-17; and 2.63 percent for 2017-18.
Under the new agreement, unanimously approved by the Board, longevity pay will be eliminated in year four of the contract and incorporated into a new step system. The new contract also calls for teachers to continue to make health care contributions at the tier 4 level under Chapter 79 of New Jersey state law. Teachers who subscribe to the district’s health care benefits program will receive annual health care stipends for years two, three, and four of the contract.
The new contract requires two evening parent-teacher conferences and an additional staff development day each year.
Last spring and this fall, Princeton Public Schools were disrupted by “swatting” incidents, bogus threats of bombs, firearms or other explosives, on ten different occasions.
Students, teachers, parents, administrators and police officials shared feelings of frustration and anxiety in the face of what Princeton police chief Nick Sutter called ”acts of terrorism.”К
“The motivation is to disrupt,” Mr. Sutter explained, “to cause fear and anxiety, to scare people and disrupt our lives. These incidents are random and widespread across the entire country.”
School and police officials worked closely to refine their responses to these threats, from computer-generated recorded phone messages, usually phoned in to a particular school’s main office. Police and school administrators assessed the credibility of each threat and responded accordingly, in some cases calling for a lockdown in place and in others a complete evacuation of the school.
State Police and Mercer County Sheriff Department K-9 officers with dogs conducted searches of the schools on several occasions. No bombs were found.
“As frustrating as this is,” Mr. Sutter explained, “safety has to be the number one priority. If there’s any question of the legitimacy of the threat, we have to err on the side of safety.”
Local police continue to work with FBI cyber crimes experts and other state and federal authorities to combat these threats. Schools superintendent Steve Cochrane said that the prime suspects for this international “epidemic” were video game players scoring points for making threatening calls and disrupting schools. “It’s a game for them,” Mr. Cochrane said “but it’s not a game for us.”
A few months into demolition of the former Princeton Hospital building to make way for construction of the AvalonBay apartment complex on Witherspoon Street, a devastating fire at an AvalonBay apartment community in Edgewater, Bergen County compounded already existing worries in the community about safety of the demolition and construction processes at the local site. The blaze prompted Mayor Liz Lempert, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes and other officials to call for code review. While New Jersey authorities did not change the state fire codes, AvalonBay voluntarily upgraded its fire protection systems for the Princeton complex.
But concerns among neighbors have continued throughout the process. A worker was injured at the site in August after falling into an elevator shaft under construction. And the presence of harmful chemicals detected in September brought construction to a temporary halt while samples were sent out for further testing. Construction resumed, but residents still complained about noxious fumes and chemical smells. Municipal staff called in the county health department to help figure out the problem, which was eventually blamed on painting primer and top coat polyurethanes. At least one member of the community said those substances are “known carcinogens.” Construction of the 280-unit complex continues.
Princeton University Construction
The University unveiled its brand new Lakeside community for graduate students in June. Considered a big improvement over the now-demolished Hibben and Magie apartments, the new complex on Faculty Road has walking paths along the Lake, a common area for barbecuing, and environmentally sustainable elements all the way through. Across town on Bayard Lane, the old, one-story brick houses for faculty and staff are gone, replaced by a swath of multi-story apartments — some on the original foundations. That 326-unit complex is due to open in fall of 2016.
The Butler Tract, a bare-bones, barracks-like home to seven decades of graduate students and their families, is currently being demolished. The housing community off of South Harrison Street is set to be used temporarily for parking and ultimately for housing, though nothing is confirmed. At meetings held by the University, neighborhood residents have expressed concerns about the demolition process and the future of the tract.
The Arts and Transit development on Alexander Street continues on schedule. The arts buildings are on track to open in fall 2017. The former Dinky north station building will re-open as a bar in spring 2016, and the restaurant in the former south station building is scheduled to follow in spring 2017. Fenwick Hospitality Group, which owns the downtown restaurant Agricola, was chosen in November to operate the two locations.
Leslie Burger Retires
The longtime director of Princeton Public Library, Leslie Burger, announced she is stepping down after 16 years. Largely credited with shepherding the renovation and rebuilding of the library, Ms. Burger plans to move to Manhattan and continue the library consulting business she operates with her husband. Her final project is a $3 million reimagining and reconfiguring of the library’s second floor, financed primarily by private gifts and pledges. Ms. Burger’s replacement is Brett Bonfield, who comes to Princeton from the Collingswood Public Library.
Boychoir School’s Financial Woes
The famed training ground of young singers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April but managed to finish out the school year. In order to stay open, the school abandoned its traditional boarding school model, for the short term, and found a new home at the Rambling Pines Day Camp in Hopewell Township. Some 32 fourth-to-eighth-grade boys started the current school year in the fall, as an annual fund drive seeking $950,000 was begun.
Despite its money problems, the choir embarked on its schedule of tours and a series of performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra are planned for March.
Post Office Move
After nearly 80 years in a much beloved building on the Palmer Square green, the Princeton branch of the United States Post Office moved to a smaller location behind the new 7-Eleven store at 259 Nassau Street in November. The controversial move was part of a system-wide downsizing and was first announced in 2013.
The postal service ended up paying the town $85,000 to get the easement for land next to the former building, which is needed to complete the sale to the California-based LCOR Ventures. The company has yet to announce its final plans for the building, but a dining or retail establishment is widely considered to be likely.
Photo Credit: Jon Naar
Famous “starchitect” Michael Graves, a longtime Princeton resident, died March 12 at the age of 79. Mr. Graves, who was on the faculty of Princeton University for many years and ran his practice from an office on Nassau Street, was eulogized at his memorial service in Richardson Auditorium. Among those attending were fellow architects Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, and Robert A.M. Stern, critic Paul Goldberger, and many members of the local architectural community.
Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), said Mr. Graves “changed the rules and altered architectural debate,” and that his work “continued to confront and challenge us at the same time it continued to bring us joy.” Others praised Mr. Graves, who was paralyzed from the waist down after an illness in 2003, for his advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities and accessible design. President Obama appointed him to the United States Access Board in 2014. His recent designs included the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska.
A fellow of the AIA, Mr. Graves is credited with broadening the role of the architect in society and raising public interest in good design as essential to the quality of everyday life. His work extended from buildings to product design, and his firm continues to operate from the Nassau Street office.
Photo Courtesy of Princeton University
John and Alicia Nash
John Nash, 86,and Alicia Nash, 82, died on Saturday, May 23, when the taxi in which they were riding crashed on the New Jersey Turnpike. They were on their way home to Princeton Junction from Norway, where Mr. Nash, one of the greatest mathematicians of the past century, had received the Abel Prize for mathematics.
“John’s remarkable achievements inspired generations of mathematicians, economists , and scientists who were influenced by his brilliant, groundbreaking work in game theory,” Princeton University president Christopher E. Eisgruber said, “and the story of his life with Alicia moved millions of readers and moviegoers who marveled at their courage in the face of daunting challenges.”
Mr. Nash’s connection to Princeton University went back to 1950, when he earned his doctorate in mathematics and soon afterwards did the work that eventually won him the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics. Mr. Nash’s life story, including his long battle with paranoid schizophrenia, was told in the movie A Beautiful Mind.
Mr. Nash joined the Princeton University mathematics department as a senior research mathematician in 1995 and was a regular presence on campus until his death.
On October 24 Princeton University held a day-long tribute to the Nashes, with lectures on Mr. Nash’s legacy in mathematics, a talk by Sylvia Nasar, author of the book A Beautiful Mind, and an evening service of remembrance in the University Chapel.
AP Photo/Mel Evans
Princeton Professor Wins Nobel Prize
On October 12 Princeton University professor Angus Deaton was named by the Royal Swedish Academy as the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on “consumption, poverty and welfare.”
“His research concerns issues of immense importance for human welfare, not least in poor countries,” the Nobel committee said. “Deaton’s research has greatly influenced both practical policymaking and the scientific community. By emphasizing the links between individual consumption, decisions and outcomes for the whole economy, his work has helped transform modern microeconomics, macroeconomics and development economics.”
Mr. Deaton thanked Princeton University, where he has taught for more than 30 years, for providing him with a place to work “without having to worry about all the extraneous things that go on in universities.”
The author of several books on economics, including The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality (2013) Mr. Deaton described himself as the son of a coal miner with an interest in academics.” His working class upbringing “certainly gives a perspective on the world that you don’t necessarily get otherwise,” he said.
NJ Transit Cuts
NJ Transit’s announcement that it was cutting out the 655 bus route between Princeton and the University Medical Center at Plainsboro was unwelcome news for those who depend on the service to get them to and from work and medical appointments. The agency dispensed with the route as part of system-wide cost-cutting as its federal grant ran out.
But the municipality, the hospital, and Princeton University were able to come up with an alternative. Tiger Transit buses now carry passengers between the hospital and a stop on Palmer Square. An on-demand taxi service is also available free for patients who live within a half-mile of the old hospital on Witherspoon Street and have no other means of transportation.
Those big tour buses that visit Princeton on an almost daily basis and create hazards for motorists and pedestrians while they unload and load passengers are now subject to certain rules and regulations approved by Council this past year. Loading and unloading must now be done at the bus stop on Nassau Street at Palmer Square East, and the designated area for their parking is on Alexander Street opposite the Princeton train station parking lot.
Until the regulations were approved, buses often unloaded passengers near the busy corner of Nassau and Witherspoon streets, blocking visibility and taking up parking spaces. The buses also idled on side streets and drove around town while waiting to pick up their passengers, who were only in town for an hour or so.
PU Tax Exemption Case
Since four Princeton residents filed two lawsuits challenging the tax-exempt status of various properties at Princeton University two years ago, the question of whether the school should be tax-exempt has come before New Jersey Tax Court several times. In November, the court ruled against the school for the fifth time.
That ruling rejected the school’s claim that the burden of proof in the case should be on the four residents who filed the suit. The case was first tried after the 2010 Princeton property revaluation results were made available.
The residents who filed the suit say that certain University buildings have commercial functions, including retail food establishments, ticketing operations, and royalties for patents, and should therefore not be tax-exempt. The University contends that all of the money it makes is intended to support its educational mission, so it should not have to pay taxes on the buildings.
Council this month hired a new tax lawyer to represent the municipality in the lawsuit. Martin Allen, who successfully represented the municipality of Morristown in a similar case against Morristown Medical Center, will serve as special counsel for Princeton. The move came after the town’s regular tax lawyer sided with the school in court in the burden of proof question.
Protests Over Wilson Legacy
As protests reverberated from Ferguson, Missouri to the campuses of Yale, Columbia and Amherst, the Black Justice League (BJL) student group decided it was time for Princeton University to take a serious look at its racist legacy—starting with Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the most revered of all sons of Old Nassau.
Around noon on Wednesday, November 18, about 15 demonstrating students entered the Nassau Hall administration building and occupied the office of Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber for the next 32 hours, as other supporters camped outside.
Seeking a commitment from Mr. Eisgruber to improve the climate on campus for Afro-Americans and other marginalized groups, the protesters demanded: 1) that Wilson’s legacy at Princeton, where a residence college and the school of public and international affairs are named after him, be downgraded; 2) that affinity spaces and housing be created for minority groups; 3) that faculty and staff undergo cultural competency training; 4) that undergraduate course requirements be expanded to ensure that students learn more about marginalized cultures.
Tense hours of discussion and negotiation between BJL members and University officials ensued before Mr. Eisgruber finally signed an agreement, and the occupation ended on Thursday evening. He agreed to enlist the Princeton trustees to investigate Wilson’s legacy, to consider removal of a mural of Wilson from Wilson College dining hall, to establish affinity spaces on campus, and to move forward in addressing the other concerns
Meanwhile the conflict had captured the attention of students and faculty on campus, of the larger community, and of the media throughout the world.
A student group calling itself the Open Campus Committee (OCC) quickly sprang up with an online petition in opposition to the BJL—not questioning the concerns of the protesting students, but criticizing their methods and what the OCC termed “an alarming call for historical revisionism.”
Mr. Eisgruber and others saw this upheaval as an educational moment, an opportunity to explore some of the darker chapters of the University’s history,in hopes of seeing that history in a more balanced perspective and improving a campus climate that to some seemed hostile
“Our students deserve better, and Princeton must do better,” Mr. Eisgruber stated in a letter to the University community. “We must commit ourselves to make this university a place where students from all backgrounds feel respected and valued.”
Controversial IAS Building Project
The Battle of Princeton, a turning point in the American Revolution, ended almost 239 years ago, but the 21st century battle over the battlefield continues, as the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) proceeds with clearing the land to build 15 faculty housing units and the Princeton Battlefield Society (PBS) builds its case in opposition.
That battle ended up in the State Senate on December 21, as the Senate Environment Committee listened to more than two hours of testimony from the PBS and its allies voicing historical and environmental concerns, before deciding to call for a temporary halt in the building project until questions could be answered about wetlands on the site.
“We believe a stay should be issued, pending a meeting with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), on all activity at the site to prevent irreparable harm to the historic site where the Battle of Princeton occurred as well as damage to the existing wetlands,” wrote Senators Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-16), Linda Greenstein (D-14) and Bob Smith (D-17) in a letter to Bob Martin, the state’s top environmental official.
No representative from either the IAS or the DEP spoke at the hearing, but the IAS claims to have secured all necessary approvals and to have “taken great care to address all reasonable concerns relative to preservation issues” in the preparation and planning for its building project on the seven-acre parcel in question.
Battlefield Society lawyer Bruce Afran, seeking to reinstate a restraining order to prevent construction during the appeals process, contended that IAS had fraudulently concealed the presence of wetlands on the property and that the IAS is “destroying an historic site.” The battlefield battle continues in 2016.
Whether to make Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood the town’s 20th historic district was a major topic of discussion, especially in the latter part of this year. Residents of the area and others in town began advocating for the designation in 2014, and a study was commissioned addressing the historical, architectural, and cultural significance of the neighborhood.
Historically, the neighborhood has been associated with Princeton’s black population since the early 18th century. More blacks moved there in the 1930’s when the building of Palmer Square forced them out of their former homes. Italians and Irish immigrants moved to the area as well, and Latinos from Central America have more recently added to the mix.
The architecture of the area is considered less significant than its cultural and historic importance, though certain features have been pointed out as worth preserving. Those in favor say the area should be protected not only for its cultural significance, but as a location of affordable housing. Some newer residents of the neighborhood, and some real estate developers, have spoken out against the proposed designation.
The consultants who carried out the study recommended to the town’s Historic Preservation Commission that the neighborhood receive the designation, but with less stringent rules than those that apply to other neighborhoods. In turn, the Commission recommended that Council vote for the designation. Now it is up to Council to decide. The governing body plans to consider the issue in the coming year.