What does the University owe to the community?

Ricardo Barros
Ricardo Barros

When it was designed in 1754, the Princeton campus made an important contribution to the way colleges would be laid out in the future. It seemed to offer a way past the vexing old conflicts between town and gown. Unlike other universities — Oxford, say — where high stone walls seemed to exist for the express purpose of keeping town as far away from gown as possible, Nassau Hall was separated from the village of Princeton by nothing more than a vast expanse of lawn.  

“What was unusual about that was that it opened out onto the town,” says Robert Geddes, the dean of Princeton’s School of Architecture from 1965 to 1990. “That was the first time that kind of campus had been built. You could make the case that from the beginning, Princeton [University] intended to be engaged with the town.”  

Just how well that goal has been realized is a matter of debate, the tone of which shifts with the times. The distrust implied by the decades-long closing of FitzRandolph Gate finally was reversed in 1970, when the graduating class demanded the gate be opened as a gesture of solidarity with the community. That was a huge improvement, but by 2000 Geddes believed that communication had dwindled. “There was a series of disconnected or even dysfunctional relationships, specifically [between] the town and gown, the town and town, and the town and the region,” says Geddes. “They didn’t listen to each other, and they didn’t adequately present plans.” So he teamed up with former Princeton president Robert Goheen ’40 *48 and Nicholas Katzenbach ’44 to form Princeton Future, a community group intent on promoting cooperation and planning among the University and the surrounding communities. Since then, the University has done a good job of making it clear that the public is welcome on campus. Last year some 750,000 people attended events on campus, from auditing classes to enjoying plays, athletic events, art exhibits and lectures, many of which are advertised as “free and open to the public.”

Lately, though, the relationship has frayed a bit, at least in some quarters. That’s due partly to the precariousness of our economic state and the stress on public services, but also to the feeling that even in these uncertain times, the University remains so big and so rich that it can do whatever it wants. “There’s a fear, which may not be rational, that the Univer­sity has the power to acquire property around it if it wants to, and so neighborhoods feel really insecure,” says artist Susan Hockaday, who with her husband, chemistry professor emeritus Maitland Jones, spent years as master of Stevenson Hall and is now a member of Princeton Future. “Tight times and running out of space just exacerbate it.”

When, in 2003, President Tilghman rejected a plan calling for the construction of a “mirror” campus on the fields across Lake Carnegie, she committed the University to expanding on the town side of the lake. Doing so has kept the campus continuous and walkable. But there just isn’t much land available anymore, and every Princeton driver knows that traffic — and especially parking — is horrendous. That means that any new building the University proposes gets tight scrutiny. “They have to be especially sensitive in what I call those ‘edge districts’” — the areas bordering borough streets — “to integrate the needs of the community and the needs of the University,” says Kevin Wilkes ’83, an architect who has been a member of the Princeton Borough Council for two years.

The University is approaching the midpoint of its ambitious 10-year campus plan, which calls for the development of four new “neighborhoods” — a ­natural-sciences neighborhood straddling Washington Road below Prospect Ave.; an athletics neighborhood beyond the football stadium; an engineering, computer science, and finance neighborhood along William Street, between the main campus and the ­E-Quad; and an arts and transit neighborhood now in the planning stages. If zoning changes are approved and the arts neighborhood proceeds, it will run from McCarter Theatre and Spelman Halls south, on land occupied by the Wawa, parking lots, and some houses. Also likely to be developed is the narrow strip of land between Alexander Road and the Dinky tracks, now home to a scruffy hodgepodge of buildings: University offices, small industrial businesses, a gas station, and an Asian restaurant (in the building once occupied by the late, lamented Andy’s Tavern). There are a number of questions still to be answered, including the one that most riles many town residents: What should happen to their beloved Dinky? The arts and transit neighborhood would straddle the borough-township line, which complicates things further, though both mayors see it as an asset for their constituents. “We share with [the University] the common idea that we want an attractive entrance into that part of town,” says Princeton Township Mayor Bernie Miller.

Ground won’t be broken for several years, at least. But elsewhere on campus construction has been booming, despite the hold placed on some planned projects when the University’s endowment suddenly shrank. As you drive into town up Washington Road, passing beneath the gleaming span of the new Streicker Bridge, it’s impossible to miss just how much is being built. The new chemistry building, when it opens this fall, will be the second-largest academic building on campus (after Firestone Library). Work has begun on a new complex for neuroscience and psychology. To many townspeople, those rising structures are reminders of how much money the University is spending to expand the campus. With a full economic recovery yet to take hold and property taxes soaring even as services are being cut, the University endowment has become an inviting target for disgruntled townsfolk. Miller says he hears people say, “The University has all this money to expand and to build these buildings, but the buildings are tax-exempt. Why shouldn’t it make a financial contribution?”  

That’s a question heard in many forms around town these days, particularly as property owners recently underwent new tax assessments. Charles Crider *79 has paid off the mortgage on his house near campus but says he worries that rising taxes will force him out after 37 years in the community. “Taxes were an annoyance before, but they weren’t threatening to make you move out of town,” says Wilkes. “And now they are for some people — and are close [to doing so] for a lot.”

Princeton Borough Council member Kevin Wilkes ’83 at the Dinky station.
Princeton Borough Council member Kevin Wilkes ’83 at the Dinky station.
Frank Wojciechowski

No wonder people have turned a covetous eye toward the University’s endowment. In a letter to the Town Topics ­community newspaper in January, David E. Cohen, president of the Princeton Community Democratic Organi­zation, noted the high value of Princeton’s endowment (using pre-recession figures) and implied that surely, the University can share some of its wealth with its struggling neighbors: “They may say that their wealth is going back to a socially beneficial goal — education — but really only a fraction is going to education and too much is going right back into the endowment,” Cohen wrote. “They are hoarding their assets like so many other wealthy charitable institutions these days, while we as a community are losing diversity because only the wealthy can afford the high property values and property taxes that result from the University’s presence here.”  

Town meetings have taken on an angry tone. “There are people who are defensive, antagonistic, and feel put upon,” says Hockaday, who attends many. Indeed, when the University’s director of community and regional affairs, Kristin Appelget, got up to speak at a recent meeting, she was booed. “I was embarrassed” by the booing, says Crider, who believes politicians are exploiting people’s reasonable fears to cover up irresponsible spending from top to bottom. “The shrill voices were there, and they were literally inciting a mob. Now, any rational person knows you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Indeed, the unequal relationship he is describing is hard to untangle, and not only because so many town residents are employees, students, or alumni of the University. As Robert Durkee ’69, the University’s vice president and secretary, points out, the borough has the lowest tax rate in Mercer County, and the township comes next. He notes that those lower tax rates are made possible by Princeton’s high property values, which stem in part from the University’s presence and which ultimately benefit homeowners. Still, says borough Mayor Mildred Trotman, that “does nothing to help the people pay their taxes so they can stay in their homes until they decide to do something with them.”

The University occupies 41 percent of borough land and 13 percent of township land. As a nonprofit institution, the University is tax-exempt. However, it chooses to keep certain properties — mostly graduate-student apartments — on the tax rolls. Says Durkee, “That’s the University saying, ‘We know we could apply to take these off the rolls but we’re going to choose not to, as a way of making a contribution to the municipality, to the county, to the schools.’” Goheen began the practice back in 1964. He saw it as a moral issue, reasoning that graduate students might well have children in local public schools.  

Indeed, Princeton University is the largest taxpayer in both the borough and the township. Last year it paid $5.1 million in property and sewer taxes to the borough and $4.7 million to the township, plus another $1.3 million to other municipalities (some officials, including Wilkes, say it’s unfair to include sewer taxes in the calculation since they can be viewed as a fee for a particular service). The borough had to raise only $10.5 million of its $25.4 million budget through property taxes, largely, Durkee says, because of other revenue sources directly linked to University visitors, like parking revenues and hotel fees.  

Clearly, the University is sensitive to the criticism, and so in 2008 it commissioned an economic-impact report. The report examined every conceivable benefit the University brings to the community, starting with the $2 billion it adds to the economy of the region. Long before invoking all the intangible ways in which the University benefits the surrounding communities, Durkee points to a long list of quite tangible ones, beginning with the employment of 5,700 people and nearly $34 million in student spending.

Durkee goes on to list the many smaller, less-obvious contributions, including, for example, the $2 million-plus the University invested in refurbishing the Princeton Garden Theatre in 2000. Over a 10-year period, the University has donated $10 million toward the school board’s capital plan and $2.5 million for crosswalk and road improvements, and made one-time contributions of $500,000 to the public library and $100,000 to the Princeton Arts Council. Under a new program, the University encourages its employees to serve on the local fire and rescue squads during the day, when the regular volunteers are at work and mostly unavailable. (Thirty-nine staff members and 46 students now volunteer with the fire department or rescue squad.) And last fall, recognizing that the fire department lacked a single full-time employee to oversee recruiting, training, and bookkeeping, the University announced it would pay $100,000 a year to fund the hiring of the department’s first full-time employee.  

In addition, Princeton University makes a voluntary “special payment” to the borough. The figure gets adjusted yearly based on a number of factors, but last year the borough received nearly $1.2 million, up from $80,000 a decade ago. (West Windsor also got about $51,000.) The University does not make any special payments to the township — but Mayor Miller hopes to change that, pointing out that most of the new buildings are in his municipality, including those in the natural-sciences neighborhood and much of the proposed building in the arts and transit neighborhood. “More for the borough means more than $1.2 million,” he says. “More for us means more than zero. [That] would make a huge difference to the township.”

Of course, the most important contribution the University makes is the one that’s hardest to measure: the allure of living in a community with so much brainpower and all the good things that trickle down from it. That is surely, as the TV commercial would have it, priceless. And the mayors know this. “But for the University, Princeton wouldn’t be the Princeton the world knows,” says Trotman. “For that we are grateful. But that does nothing to ease the tax burden the municipality is dealing with right now.”

Wilkes says that service cuts already have cut close to the bone. He notes that since 2009 the borough has cut four police officers, one engineer, and three parking-garage employees. Already it has cut garbage pickup in half, to once a week, and more cuts are on the way. Wilkes pulls no punches in describing what he thinks should happen: He wants the University to pay full taxes on University land, which he reckons would bring in another $28 million, dramatically reducing the burden on borough and township taxpayers. Otherwise, says Wilkes, “The way we are headed, it will only be the wealthiest of the wealthy [who can afford to live here]. The moral argument for the University to pay its taxes is to preserve the diversity of the town they so clearly care about.”  

Durkee, as you might guess, makes a strong case that the University already is doing far more than is required, and doing that at a time when it, too, is feeling the pinch of recession. Over the last two years, the University has cut $170 million from its $1.3 billion operating budget. More­over, virtually all the University’s assets have been given specifically to pay for education and research. “Certainly, as both an alumna and a taxpayer, when I give money to the University, I don’t feel like I want to give it to help pay the property-tax bill,” says Dorothy Bedford ’78, who lives in the township and serves on the regional school board. That said, she notes that even with a tax increase of almost 4.4 percent, the school board had to cut $2.6 million from its 2010–11 budget.  

The argument now focuses on the University’s tax-exempt status. Wilkes and Miller are among those making the argument that when the exemption was created, it was for organizations barely getting by. No one foresaw how wealthy a handful of those institutions would become. “I don’t think anyone contemplated educational institutions having an endowment that was more than the gross national product of many countries,” says Miller. What makes the burden on the two municipalities even greater is the fact that while the University is clearly the largest nonprofit in town, it is far from the only one. There’s also Rider University’s Westminster Choir College, the Institute for Advanced Study, the seminary, and a host of churches.  

Wilkes also makes plain that he puts the University in a separate category from the borough’s other nonprofit institutions. “I think Princeton University should pay only because it can,” he says. He says he’s willing to exclude from taxation institutions that have endowments under $2 billion.  

On March 5, Miller, Trotman, and school board president Alan Hegedus met with President Tilghman and Durkee to discuss ways the University might help its neighbors. Neither mayor expects Princeton to pay the full tax bill. What they would like is some form of annual payment — something along the lines of a per-capita student-residency fee — to help defray the cost of the services the two municipalities provide. “Will the University ever pay full taxes on their property?” says Miller. “I’d say that’s extremely unlikely. Should they pay something to the communities in lieu of taxes on the property? Yes, a strong yes.” 

The new Streicker Bridge spans Washington Road.
The new Streicker Bridge spans Washington Road.
Marianne Nelson/Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton is a long way from breaking ground on the exciting arts and transit neighborhood, which should make for the biggest transformation of campus life in a long time. The Univer­sity must secure rezoning from the joint borough-township planning board, and all parties agree that the discussions, while amicable, will take years. What is envisioned is a multiple-use neighborhood, including dance and theater space, an experimental media lab, a satellite branch of the art museum, a café and a restaurant or two, open green space, and even a new and improved Wawa. The University sees the arts component of the neighborhood as an important response to increasing interest in the arts on campus. Further down Alexander Road the township wants retail space, meaning seven or eight small stores, with some form of housing above them — what Miller calls “workforce housing” — reasonably priced, one- and two-bedroom apartments that might house faculty as well as commuters to New York.  

Getting from the train into town remains a problem. The proposal calls for moving the Dinky station 460 feet south — toward Route 1 — and that has proved to be a real sticking point. Briefly there was talk of extending the tracks all the way up to Nassau Street (long ago, the train went to Blair Arch), but that was rejected as impossible. The thought of moving the Dinky farther from Nassau Street makes commuters apoplectic even though, as Durkee likes to point out, they walk at least that far if they head over to the Wawa for a cup of coffee before boarding the train. There’s a fierce loyalty to the Dinky, which for some has passed from a practical tool into a cherished piece of Princetoniana.  

Today, the Dinky line is the shortest scheduled train line in the United States, but also one of the most heavily subsidized. Last year, with little warning, New Jersey Transit canceled early-Saturday service. The Dinky no longer meets many express trains. “As [new governor Chris] Christie goes around looking to chop things, will the Dinky be there forever?” asks Wilkes. “We should get something in exchange while we can. Otherwise, we’ll wake up one day and find we no longer have any service.”

Wilkes would like to see the Dinky replaced by “bus rapid transit,” a system of high-speed buses that would run from the Princeton Junction station to Nassau Street and eventually to points beyond. (The idea has been under study by New Jersey Transit for several years.) Wilkes says the votes are there to switch to BRT transit if it runs all the way up to Nassau Street, but not if it stops at the planned arts and transit neighborhood. And he’s not alone in hoping that a successful BRT service would obviate arguments about the Dinky. “The Dinky becomes irrelevant if you’ve got a BRT going from the Junction up to Nassau Street,” says Miller.  

The University is interested in the idea. “The question then becomes, if this is going to happen in 20 years,” says Durkee, “why not do it now?” Under that scenario, the Dinky tracks would be ripped up and replaced by a dedicated bus lane as well as walking and cycling lanes.  

There are other proposals for getting people around an increasingly busy Princeton, too, though they’ve not been at the center of discussion. Alain Kornhauser *71, a professor of operations research and financial engineering, has proposed a variation on the airport people mover. Crider, who is an electrical engineer, supports “personal rapid transit,” an automated system of smaller vehicles — “horizontal elevators,” in Durkee’s words — that are energy-efficient, run by electricity on a dedicated guideway, and only work when riders need them. In Princeton, Crider says, it could be called SPURTS: Speedy Princeton University Rapid Transit System. (Such a system is soon to begin operation for some passengers at England’s Heathrow Airport.) “If the University decided to,” Crider says, “they could make that work” — and show other communities how it’s done.

Crider makes an interesting point, the same one Durkee makes when he notes the University’s ongoing investment in science and technology. Perhaps the most precious thing the University can share with the surrounding communities is not money in the form of taxes or special payments or capital gifts. It’s ideas — creative brainpower. But ideas alone don’t pay schoolteachers, fix potholes, or pay off mortages. And so while this sort of sharing might be the highest form of engagement, it probably falls short of satisfying the residents of Princeton.

Merrell Noden ’78 is a frequent contributor to PAW.