Ongoing tension defines town-gown relationship
When you step off the Dinky in September, take a moment to look around. That neighborhood will not always look the way it does now.
As the Class of 2016, you are lucky enough to enter the University at the tail end of years of political infighting between the strange triad of the University, Princeton Township and Princeton Borough.
The two halves of the Princeton municipality, the Township and the Borough, have at long last decided to consolidate after decades of wavering back and forth — the new, merged Princeton will come into form in January 2013.
And as the new government takes its baby steps, the University will begin constructing the Arts and Transit Neighborhood, which will overhaul the lower end of campus. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see the final product: The $300 million project, which required six years of negotiations with officials from the Borough, will be completed the year after you graduate.
The Arts and Transit Neighborhood is an extension of an ongoing University project to better support the arts, kickstarted largely by a $101 million donation from billionaire Peter Lewis ‘55 in 2006.
With that money, the University built its first arts center in 2007, the Lewis Center for the Arts on Nassau Street. The following year, the University started making plans to overhaul the lower, opposite end of campus, where Forbes College and the Dinky (the train station) currently are.
Included in the plans are a plaza with an outdoor stage, a blackbox theater, a dance studio and a performance hall with a dedicated rehearsal space for the University orchestra.
Eventually, after your graduation, there will be an experimental media studio, an outdoor amphitheater and a new big performance hall.
The University’s plans would shuffle around some existing buildings. McCarter Theatre will still sit unmoved, and the beloved WaWa will be expanded and moved closer to the train station. The empty train station room will be replaced by a cafe, with a new upscale restaurant installed nearby.
Still, University administrators have said that students will begin to benefit from the expanded investment in the arts through new classes and projects even before the full complex is finished. The station should be moved by your junior year, and the restaurants will open in your senior year.
The problem, though, was that the plan requires the University to move the Dinky from its current location near Whitman College about 460 feet further south. This proposal inflamed tensions between the University and residents of the Borough, since it would add an extra two minutes of walking time to their commute. Though the University did not need the Borough’s permission to move the Dinky, it did need permission to build its dreamed-of arts buildings because of zoning laws. The area was officially zoned for educational uses, not performance spaces, and the town was not about to grant zoning if it meant moving the Dinky.
“If the Dinky is moved at all, it should be moved closer to Nassau Street,” Borough resident Anita Garoniak, founder of a group called Save the Princeton Dinky, said at a Borough meeting in May 2011. “The University proposal will make the Dinky less convenient, and no public relations talk about artwork and coffee can sugarcoat it.”
The Dinky drama became even more complicated when it intermixed with demands that the mostly-tax-exempt University increase its payment to the local community.
The University has been giving an annual payment-in-lieu-of-taxes contribution to the Borough and Township, known as a PILOT contribution, in excess of $1 million, even though it is not legally bound to do so.
In January, after the Borough Council denied the University its zoning permission in what was just one of many “final decisions,” University President Shirley Tilghman indicated that the school could cut or even eliminate the annual check if the Borough didn’t grant the zoning.
While Tilghman’s administration later insisted they didn’t mean to threaten the town, the hint that they might use the PILOT as a bargaining chip for the zoning approval did not endear the University administration to the Borough.
“The University is not a person,” Borough resident Anne Neumann said at a local political forum in April 2011. “We don’t have to be civil to it. I think we need to find whatever leverage we can to negotiate with this behemoth. They haven’t been civil to us.”
The Borough tried a number of different tactics to keep the University from moving the Dinky.
Opponents of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood attempted to get the rail tracks recognized as a historic landmark, brought a lawsuit against the University and considered zoning the area for transit use only. But finally, the Council gave the University its zoning permission in a 3-2 vote.
All three of the yes voters had long been opposed to the Dinky move but explained that they gave in because they thought it would be better to build the arts center now rather than risk having the Dinky moved to make room for different construction in the future.
As incoming freshmen, you may not reap many of the most tangible benefits of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood. But you will nevertheless have the chance to watch your campus undergo one of the biggest developments in its storied history, so that years after your graduation, at your 25th Reunion, you’ll be able to say: “I was here when they built that.”
Confused by Borough-Township consolidation or not quite sure how it will affect the University? Take a look at our Consolidation 101 series.
Reader Comments (0)
No comments yet. Be the first to post your opinion on this article.