December 28, 2016

Changing Character of Princeton Defines 2016

AS IT HAPPENS: This is how the site of Princeton University’s Arts & Transit complex looked last January. Much progress has been made on the buildings designed by architect Steven Holl, and the project is still scheduled to be completed in 2017. (Photo by Emily Reeves)

The rapid pace of teardowns and the often out-of-scale houses that replace them was an issue that dominated discussions in Princeton throughout 2016. The town’s changing character was the theme in the platforms of nearly every candidate who ran for local office in 2016. Midway through the year, moved to take action by the presence of bulldozers all over town, Princeton Council formed a Neighborhood Character and Zoning Initiative.

The Initiative was among the governing body’s key actions of 2016. A task force was named, a consultant was hired, and public forums were held. By December, the group’s first recommendations were in place regarding setbacks, porches, and the measurement of cathedral ceilings. Council voted to formally approve an ordinance at its final meeting of the year, and more recommendations are to come in 2017.

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert was re-elected to a second term in November. 


There were two Council seats up for grabs in the November election С one being vacated by Patrick Simon; the other, held by Jenny Crumiller, who hoped to hold on to her post for another term. She succeeded in doing so, along with newcomer Tim Quinn, who will officially join the governing body at its reorganization meeting on January 4, 2017. Ms. Crumiller and Mr. Quinn won more votes than Anne Neumann and Leticia Fraga, who were also vying for the two seats. Mayor Liz Lempert, challenged by Republican Peter Marks, was re-elected to a second term.


In April, Council approved the establishment of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood as an historic district, bringing the number of historic districts in town up to 20. While a few landowners lobbied to have their properties left out of the designation, and were told that could be considered later, there was overwhelming support for the measure, which honors the African-American history of the neighborhood.

Witherspoon-Jackson was in the news again in October, when Princeton University agreed as part of a lawsuit settlement to make three contributions of $416,700 to the non-profit Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corporation, each year from 2017 to 2019. The funds are to be used to support housing and other needs of economically disadvantaged residents not only in that neighborhood, but also elsewhere in Princeton.

The lawsuit had been brought by a group of residents who challenged the school’s property tax exemptions in court. The settlement, which came a week before a trial was supposed to begin, also dictates that the University will contribute $2 million in 2017 and then $1.6 million a year for the following five years to a fund that will distribute annual payments to Princeton homeowners who received a homestead benefit under the New Jersey Homestead Property Tax Credit Act.

Following feedback from residents of Witherspoon-Jackson and other members of the public, Council voted in June to approve a design concept plan for Mary Moss Park, which is to be expanded with funds from Mercer County. The name of the park, which honors the legacy of resident Mary Moss, will remain the same. The design plan for the park at John and Lytle streets calls for a bigger playground, better landscaping, and more seating areas. The old wading pool will be removed. A water spray park will be installed in its place.

Civil Rights Commission

In October, Council voted to re-establish a Civil Rights Commission in Princeton, following some debate about procedural elements of the ordinance. Ms. Fraga chaired a subcommittee of the Human Service department, which worked on the proposal for two years. The Commission, which is to meet monthly and be made up of nine residents of Princeton, is an advisory body that has yet to be put into place.

After 16 years, Princeton Public Library director Leslie Burger retired and moved to Manhattan with her husband Alan, shown here at a party to honor her in early January. Ms. Burger was succeeded by Brett Bonfield, who is overseeing the project to redesign and reimagine the second floor. 

Changing of the Guard

The year 2016 saw the retirements and departures of several well-known and respected personalities in town. There were notable changes made in both municipal government and the non-profit world.

Although she formally retired from her longtime post as director of Princeton Public Library at the end of 2015, Leslie Burger got a big send-off in early January when she was given a farewell party attended by local politicians, library personnel, donors, and friends. Ms. Burger, who was succeeded by Brett Bonfield, was instrumental in getting the library rebuilt and redesigned on its old footprint over a decade ago. Her parting project was a plan to redesign the second floor, which is nearing completion.

Jeff Nathanson announced his departure as director of the Arts Council of Princeton; his successor, Taneisha Laird, was named at the end of the year. David Newton, longtime vice president in charge of Palmer Square, also stepped down this year, succeeded by Lori Rabon. Municipal employees were sorry to see Bob Kiser, the town’s municipal engineer, leave his post this summer after 33 years on the job. But they were pleased that his successor was Deanna Stockton, with whom he worked closely during her 16-year tenure as his assistant.

The Avalon Bay apartment complex, subject of much controversy over the past few years, was still under construction when this photo was last taken. The rental community of one, two, and three bedroom apartments and townhouses held its formal ribbon-cutting in December. 

Avalon Opens

In early fall, the first residents moved in to Avalon Princeton, the rental complex on the former site of Princeton Hospital. The controversy that has surrounded this project since its inception continued sporadically this year. In December, the developer accused the town’s environmental consultant on the construction site, the Whitman company, of improperly billing for the work, threatening legal action if the money isn’t redeposited into their escrow accounts.

Princeton Public Schools 

Seeking a renewed focus on “wellness and balance” in the face of excessive competitive pressure, Princeton Public Schools Superintendent Steve Cochrane emphasized the importance of helping students “not simply to get into a competitive college but to lead lives of joy and purpose.” The highly acclaimed district faced significant challenges in 2016 in its quest to promote both top-flight achievement and balanced, healthy lives.

The state-mandated, “improved” Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) Tests in April for grades three through 11 met with growing opposition from students, parents, and the Teachers’ Union (PREA), which described it as expensive, time-consuming and a “fundamentally flawed instrument.” Many students, particularly at the high school level, received parental approval to “opt out.” In May the PPS Board passed a resolution urging the New Jersey Department of Education to withdraw its pending graduation requirement proposals linked to the PARCC. In early October Princeton Superintendent and the Board President joined with the PREA to weigh in again with the state, this time in opposition to plans to increase the weight of PARCC in evaluation of teachers. The future of PARCC testing in New Jersey remains in doubt.

As the new school year approached, PPS faced problems with expanding enrollments, about 180 students more than anticipated. “The concern is the unknown,” Mr. Cochrane stated, mentioning the projected numbers of new students from new developments at AvalonBay, Copperwood and Merwick Stanworth. Some large class sizes, as well as space and scheduling problems were especially challenging at Princeton High School, as the Board and administration considered possible long-term solutions.

In the November elections Deborah “Debbie” Bronfeld, William D. Hare, and Gregory M. Stankiewicz were elected to the School Board to replace Board President Andrea Spalla, Molly Chrein and Tom Hagedorn, who will be stepping down on January 1, 2017.

Charter School Expansion

In early December the PPS faced an unexpected budgetary challenge in the form of a proposal by the Princeton Charter School to expand its enrollment in the lower grades by 76 students. The proposal to the New Jersey DOE, according to Mr. Cochrane, would force more than $1 million in cuts from the schools and “compromise the quality of our students’ education.”

The PPS Board adopted a resolution opposing the PCS expansion on December 13 and will be filing a formal response with the state commissioner of education in opposition.

The Charter School has contended that their plan could help the district to address its overcrowding problems and educate those 76 students for less money. Both sides have expressed a desire to work together, but the struggle for limited resources and a state funding formula that seems to pit charter schools and the public school system against each other guarantee that the debate will continue, at least until February 1 when the commissioner is scheduled to respond to the PCS proposal.

About 50 members of the Princeton Battlefield Society met in February on the Maxwell Field buffer zone between the main battlefield and the Institute for Advanced Study, vowing to press on with their law suit and other measures planned to halt the Institute’s construction of faculty housing units. 

Institute Battlefield Accord

The 13th year of continuing conflict between the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), with its faculty housing building project adjacent to the Princeton Battlefield, and various groups seeking to halt construction culminated in a surprise agreement earlier this month between IAS and the Civil War Trust, which, through its Campaign 1776 initiative to protect Revolutionary War battlefields, will purchase 14.85 acres from the Institute for $4 million.

The land will eventually be incorporated into the existing Battlefield Park, and the Institute will condense and reconfigure its building project, with no development within the Princeton Battlefield National Historic Landmark boundary.

The new plan requires review and a vote by the Princeton Planning Board and the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission, which reviewed and approved the original Institute housing proposal about two years ago.

The Princeton Battlefield Society had led a growing coalition of preservationist and environmental groups in the fight to persuade IAS to build elsewhere, with pending law suits under the Clean Water Act, court injunctions to halt construction, a State Senate hearing, state legislators weighing in, and extensive advertising and demonstrations.

The Institute asserted that it had acquired all necessary permits and had adapted its plan to accommodate all environmental and historical concerns.

Then, on December 12, came the joint announcement from the Institute and the Civil War Trust, and the long battle appeared to be over. “We are delighted to reach this agreement,” said IAS director Robbert Dijkgraaf and CWT president James Lighthizer, “which both meets the needs of the Institute and ensures the preservation of this site through an enlarged and revitalized Princeton Battlefield State Park.”

The official transfer of the property to the Trust is scheduled for the end of June 2017.

Princeton campus of Westminster Choir College.

Choir College Concerns

The news this month that Rider University is considering closing the Walnut Lane campus of Westminster Choir College and Westminster Conservatory has galvanized students, staff, and alumni of the school to take action. Their goal is to keep Rider from relocating the school, which it owns, to its Lawrenceville campus.

Rider needs to address a deficit that could be as much as $13.1 million by 2019 if action is not taken, the University has said. Closing and selling the Princeton campus could address that problem. But on social media, interviews, and on television, proponents of keeping the campus in place say the two schools have very different cultures and the move would ruin the renowned musical academy and decrease enrollment. A decision will be announced by Rider in February.

Imani Perry Incident

On February 6, Princeton University African American Studies professor Imani Perry was stopped by police on Mercer Road for driving 67 miles per hour in a 45 mile-per-hour zone. The police officer checking her license discovered it was suspended in Pennsylvania. She could not provide her car registration, and she had an outstanding warrant for failure to pay two parking tickets in Princeton. Following policy, the officer arrested her. She was handcuffed and taken to headquarters.

On social media, Ms. Perry accused the officers involved in her arrest of inappropriate and racially motivated behavior. Several days of comments, both in support and in opposition to her postings, followed on Facebook and other media. In a statement, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber expressed his concerns about how the officers handled the situation.

After reviewing a dash-cam video of the incident, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office concluded that the officers in charge were to be commended for their handling of the situation. The case was closed. Ms. Perry was required to pay $428 in fines.

The case raised hackles on both sides of the issue. At a public meeting with Princeton Council this fall, Mr. Eisgruber was taken to task by Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller for not following up with a statement praising the local police department once their commendation by the prosecutor’s office.

A mural depicting Woodrow Wilson throwing out the first ball at a 1915 Washington Senators’ baseball game was removed from Princeton University’s Wilson College dining hall, in accordance with the decision of Wilson College Head Eduardo Cadava and the recommendation of an undergraduate student committee. 

Wilson Controversy

A Princeton University trustee committee, after more than four months of research, interviews and deliberations, decided in early April not to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from two campus buildings, despite an ongoing outcry over his views on race.

The committee noted the need for “an expanded and more vigorous commitment to diversity and inclusion” at Princeton, but the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College will retain the name of the former president of both Princeton and the United States.

Current University President Christopher L. Eisgruber, following a 32-hour student sit-in led by members of the student activist group Black Justice League outside his Nassau Hall office in November 2015, had agreed to consider removing Wilson’s name from the two buildings. The BJL issued a statement expressing its disappointment with the committee’s decision.

The trustees accepted the committee’s recommendations, which also included initiatives for the University to pursue greater transparency in recognizing Wilson’s failings and shortcomings; to work toward greater diversity and inclusion throughout the University community; and to change the University’s motto from “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations” to “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”

A month later, a large mural depicting the image of Woodrow Wilson was removed from the dining hall of Wilson College, at the behest of Wilson College Head Eduardo Cadava. Mr. Cadava accepted the recommendation of a student committee which had been assigned to consider the BJL demand for removal of the mural. He described the mural as “not in keeping with the spirit of Wilson College’s founding wish to have Princeton be a place that is truly diverse and inclusive, and one that embraces, respects, and values all its members.”

Bowen, shown here in 1963 as an associate professor, spent the early parts of his career studying labor economics, the economics of education, the economics of the performing arts and the problems of stability and growth. (Photo courtesy of the Princeton University Archives)

Community Losses

Princeton University marked the passing of William G. Bowen, president of the University from 1972 to 1988, on October 20. Mr. Bowen, who was 83, died at his home in Princeton. Known for his work to build the University’s academic reputation, he created new departments in the arts and life sciences, and tripled the size of the school’s endowment. He oversaw the establishment of the residential college system and worked to diversify the student body. Mr. Bowen was president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for nearly two decades and won the 2012 National Humanities Medal for his work in economics and higher education.

Another loss to the University community this year was Gillett Griffin, the art collector, curator, and scholar who died June 9 at the age of 87. Mr. Griffin arrived in Princeton in 1952 as curator in the University Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections, and later designed and wrote books for Princeton University Press. He served as curator of Pre-Columbian and Native American art for the Princeton University Art Museum for 38 years, retiring in 2005. Mr. Griffin donated thousands of items — much of his own collection — to the museum.

The Princeton Public Schools lost two beloved leaders in 2016, when long-time Riverside Elementary School Principal Bill Cirullo, 67, died on February 15, and District Athletic Director and Supervisor of Health and Physical Education John Miranda passed away on
August 28.