Joint Meeting of the Princeton Borough Council, Township Committee and Regional Planning Board
January 31, 2011
My name is Shirley Tilghman, and I am the president of Princeton University.
It is a rare occasion when the president of the University appears before the governing bodies of the Borough and the Township. It is rare when Borough Council and Township Committee meet together, and do so with the Planning Board. And it is rare when an issue needs to be addressed that is as important as this one to the University, to the community, and to the relationship between the two.
The issue on the table tonight is whether Borough Council and Township Committee are prepared to put zoning in place that would allow the University to bring before the Planning Board a project that helps the University to achieve one of its highest priorities and, at the same time, provides multiple benefits to the community. Speaking very personally, this evening represents a watershed moment on a project that has been under discussion between the University and the community for over four years. I have an obligation to the students who have come to Princeton in part because they believed that we were in the midst of a significant expansion in opportunities to pursue their passion for integrating creative and performing arts into their liberal arts education. For Peter Lewis, whose historic gift was meant to create those opportunities, I owe him the realization of his vision. If, after you have heard our description of this plan for an Arts and Transit Neighborhood, and the many benefits that we believe it brings to this community, you conclude that you will not be willing to move forward to put zoning in place to allow us to proceed, I will instruct my colleagues tomorrow to begin planning for another site for the Lewis Center. If you conclude you cannot decide to move forward, I will be forced to give them the same instruction. This is a “go-no go” moment for the University this evening.
I don’t think anyone will contend that the zoning currently in place for the lands we are discussing this evening — lands almost entirely owned by the University — is conducive either to good planning or to appropriate long-term development. I hope all will agree that zoning for these lands should permit spaces devoted to educational purposes, especially for the arts; improved traffic flow in this area; initiatives that support and encourage mass transit and improved sustainability; a functional train station; retail establishments; and attractive public spaces, and that zoning for lands south of this area should encourage residential mixed-use development along Alexander Street.
If appropriate zoning is put in place, the University would be able to move forward with a project that in its first phase alone would pump more than $300 million and hundreds of jobs into the local economy. In its later phases and once completed, the project it would have additional and long-lasting economic impact, to the benefit of the community and its taxpayers. The project also would create an attractive new gateway to Princeton, while achieving other objectives that I will outline in a moment.
I am well aware of the discussion in this community about investments other universities have made in their communities to stimulate economic development and improve the quality of life. This is what we are trying to do here, and after more than four years of public discussion we are at a point where we need to know whether we are going to be able to go forward. If the governing bodies are not prepared to put the necessary zoning in place, then we will have no choice but to create expansion space for the arts in another location and leave to future generations the improvements that someday will still need to be made in this area.
The project that we will describe tonight really has two starting points. One dates back to the early 1980s at a time when Dinky service was in jeopardy. To provide an influx of capital to New Jersey Transit, the University agreed to pay almost $900,000 in 1984 dollars for the two station buildings and surrounding lands and agreed to a number of other conditions, including the provision of a certain number of parking spaces both for permit holders and for daily commuters who require all-day meters. In anticipation of future development of the area, that agreement includes a provision that allows the University at its own cost to relocate the terminus of the Dinky to the south. Over subsequent years the University acquired additional properties in the area to permit a development that achieves multiple objectives in an integrated and holistic way.
The second starting point occurred almost six years ago when the University began a comprehensive campus planning process that from the beginning included active engagement with the community and proceeded in parallel with the community’s development of its own master plan.
One of our highest priorities was to expand opportunities for our students to have direct engagement with the arts, including theater and dance, music, the visual arts, and creative writing. We have always had small programs in the arts, but over the last two decades there has been a significant increase in student demand, and a growing conviction on the part of the faculty that the arts should be a central element of a liberal education. Our major need now is space, and as we considered several locations, we recognized that the most important potential synergies were with McCarter and Berlind theaters. We know that many members of this community are passionate about the arts, and this is a location that also allows for convenient public access to the new arts facilities, both as patrons and on occasion as users. By constructing new rehearsal space as part of our first phase building, we open up other facilities on campus, including Richardson Auditorium, to additional opportunities for community use.
We recognized that if we developed in this area, we also could address a number of other community objectives that had been urged upon us for some time and with which we strongly agreed. It is interesting to note that when we first developed our plans for this neighborhood, we identified five principal objectives:
• Expand access to the arts for University students and the community.
• Improve traffic flow in this area, as the community master plan asks us to do.
• Preserve and enhance the experience of riding the Dinky.
• Create attractive public spaces (including additional retail spaces in the area).
• Achieve important sustainability goals.
In developing our plans we benefitted from many conversations with members of the community, and we worked hard to achieve all five objectives, even though only one of the objectives relates exclusively to meeting University needs. We developed a plan which would have to be constructed in phases, with essentially all of the elements that benefit the community occurring before the first building for the arts can be built. About half of the costs of the project are devoted to these infrastructure improvements, and these are costs we will have to cover without the support of outside donors. We engaged one of the world’s most admired architects to design the first arts building. And we continually referred back to the community master plan to identify goals we could address through this project.
I want to say a few more words about how this project relates to the community master plan. The master plan calls upon educational institutions to work on improving traffic flow; to address back-ups at key intersections (in this case including the intersections of Alexander Street and University Place and Alexander Street and Faculty Road); to help reduce peak hour traffic volumes; to increase utilization of shuttles, jitneys, and bicycles; to enhance the gateways into the community; to enhance public areas with art; to create safe and pleasant pedestrian environments; and to link commercial, educational, and cultural activities. This project does not just address some of these goals, it addresses all of them. I would be very interested to know how many other projects have come before you in recent years that achieve this number of planning goals.
The project also achieves a number of important sustainability goals and provides both the Borough and the Township with new tax-paying properties and new sources of economic activity.
I want to conclude my remarks by saying a few words about the Dinky. As I mentioned earlier, one of the long-ago starting points for this project involved preserving and enhancing the Dinky experience. I have been astonished by some of the community discussion that has suggested the University’s long-term plan is to eliminate the Dinky. The truth is that the University has a very high stake in sustaining the Dinky and even expanding its service. More than 40 percent of Dinky riders are University-related and our proposed expansion in the arts makes us even more dependent on a rail connection to Princeton Junction. Many University riders use the Dinky at the off-peak hours that are most vulnerable to cutbacks. We share the commitment to preserving the Dinky with many others in the community because it is in our self-interest to do so.
This is why the project proposes to create attractive destinations in the area that are likely to increase ridership; to construct a new station that would include an indoor waiting area and the Wawa; to improve the environment around the station with attractive public spaces and restaurants; and to provide easily accessible parking, drop-off, bike access, and shuttle connections. In time, the proposed residential development along Alexander Street south of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood potentially would add an entirely new population of riders who would walk to the station from the south. We have been told by state leaders responsible for funding the Dinky that these are the kinds of initiatives that will encourage them to sustain, and perhaps even increase, their support; we have also been told that if we fail to take advantage of this opportunity to improve the area around the Dinky it will remain vulnerable to further cutbacks. If your highest priority is saving the Dinky, approving this project is the surest way to achieve that goal.
Our plan does move the terminus 460 feet in order to create a safe and attractive environment for pedestrians, as well as options for further development of the arts in the future. The station would remain within walking distance from town, and for some, the walk would be reduced by integrating the Wawa into the station. Recognizing that even the current walk is long for some, we have indicated our willingness to help provide additional and better shuttle connections between the station and the downtown.
Over recent months we have explored alternative approaches that have been suggested by members of the community. Some, like placing the Dinky into a tunnel or tunneling under the tracks, are prohibitively expensive or present significant engineering challenges. Others, like eventually replacing the Dinky with a more contemporary technology that could facilitate development along south Alexander Street and potentially permit additional stops between Princeton and Princeton Junction, strike us as a topic to return to at some point in the future. In concert with New Jersey Transit and the state Department of Transportation, we examined the concept that some have proposed of incorporating vehicular and pedestrian grade crossings in the Arts and Transit Neighborhood, with the train continuing to stop at its current terminus. As appealing as this idea may sound, we have been told definitively that it would not be approved. Moreover, it would prevent us from achieving several of the important goals of the project and it would create very substantial liabilities that neither the University nor the state agencies could responsibly incur.
In a moment I want to ask my colleagues to provide you with a more detailed description of our proposed plan, but before I do I want to return to where I started. In my 10 years as president of the University, we have dramatically increased our contributions to the community and our engagement with the community, and my fervent hope is that this can continue. But as the community looks to us for our support, we need the community’s support in meeting our highest priorities. In this plan we are prepared to make very substantial investments in addressing community objectives at the same time as we try to address our own, but to do that we need to have zoning in place that allows for this project to go forward. I hope this is an occasion when we will, in fact, be able to work together to achieve benefits that will serve the University and the community well for many years to come.