Princeton University Future Campus: Here and Now

Princeton University recently announced and publicized an initiative to develop a new  strategic plan. University President Chris Eisgruber discussed the plan when he met with the Princeton Council last month. School officials have expressed an interest in receiving public comment on the planning process.

In tandem with the strategic planning process, Princeton University has also launched an updated campus plan. The campus plan – underway since earlier this fall, and with a new consulting team in place to support it – may be of equal and potentially greater interest to residents of Princeton, West Windsor, Plainsboro and Kingston.

Because so much Princeton University land sits along Route 1, the school’s plans for the disposition of its assets have ramifications for the character and accessibility of surrounding communities.

Entering the planning process with a spirit of openness, engagement, and mutual respect will allow Princeton University and its neighbors to collaboratively imagine and evaluate mutually beneficial futures.

In addition, the more fully Princeton University evaluates possible alternative growth scenarios and vets these alternatives internally among the school’s diverse constituent communities, the more likely it will adopt a long-term plan that meets its own needs as well as the collective needs of the greater Princeton region.

As Princeton University’s consultants write on the school’s web site, “Development of the plan will be closely coordinated with a strategic planning process that the University is conducting, ensuring that the campus plan is aligned with the institution’s mission and priorities.”

As a result, and as it should be, the campus plan will be a physical manifestation of Princeton University’s answers to high-level, strategic questions about things like undergraduate population size, faculty and graduate school sizes, integration of academic research with private sector R&D, etc.

The essence of planning is the identification of alternative approaches by which organizational goals can be met – in other words, helping organizations make big choices.

The hallmark of good planning is for staff to help executives and others understand the differences among the choices available, not only by describing the features of different scenarios so that the range of options is clear, but also in the ways the choices are distinct from one another.

As fundamental as this sounds, it is not uncommon for institutional planning processes to advance only one approach for decision-makers, their stakeholders, and/or the public to react to. I have witnessed this many times, and observed the discomfort and dissatisfaction of oversight boards who wonder what other choices they might have had to consider, and what the pros and cons of those other options might have been. When distinctive competing options are not identified and evaluated early in a planning process, leaders may end up being pinched between a need to “keep moving forward” and a risk of missing superior alternatives.

Because staff in any large organization are acutely sensitive to the sensitivities of organization leaders, it is without question the responsibility of leadership to set expectations for how plans are developed, i.e., scenarios developed for evaluation; evaluation criteria used; and from whom input is received to “stress-test” the planning analysis. If a broad range of growth alternatives is to be considered, the time for that direction is right at the outset.

If the University’s future — as expressed in the Campus Plan to be developed — includes growth across Carnegie Lake, two possible scenarios could be envisioned: (1) a “dispersed” scenario in which growth proceeds slowly towards Route 1 while filling in the space between Alexander and Harrison as it goes; and (2) a “linear” scenario, in which growth proceeds linearly along the Dinky right-of-way, oriented towards bike, pedestrian, and updated transit service that serves a number of stops between Princeton University and Princeton Junction. The former represents a kind of incremental continuation of past practice approach; the second a more intentional and to an extent “experimental” way of organizing growth. At the outset, it is crucial to evaluate whether growth of the campus in this direction is called for by the University’s strategic plan, and if so, which of these scenarios (or an alternative) would be most beneficial for both the University community and its neighbors.

The comparative evaluation of “dispersed” versus “linear” options for growing beyond Carnegie Lake is complex, but following are some of the questions that could be asked and answered:

  1. What are the likely operating costs required to serve a dispersed growth scenario (shuttle bus network) and capital costs of building parking to accommodate circulation needs for a dispersed campus, versus the capital and operating costs of a system that depends much less on parking because it is organized around a transit and bike/pedestrian path spine?Are the costs and benefits of one scenario, all in, distinctly different in one scenario from the other?
  1. Could the costs of making University housing available in a linear growth framework be lower than the costs of providing housing in more dispersed, auto-oriented patterns?
  1. Would housing organized along a well-served bike and transit “corridor” be more attractive to faculty and staff whose spouses or partners need better access to employment opportunity in the broader region?
  1. As “standard suburban development” encroaches more and more on the Princeton region, would a radically more walk-able, bike-able, and transit-oriented campus character help preserve and update Princeton University’s traditional character as “a place apart?”
  1. Would one scenario or another provide a greater opportunity to keep the historic academic campus focused on academic activity (by allowing non-academic support uses to move efficiently across the lake).
  1. Would one scenario or another offer a greater opportunity for connection and collaboration with private sector start-ups or other industry partnerships?
  1. Would either the dispersed or linear scenario offer more “collateral benefits” to the University’s neighbors than the other?
  1. Would one scenario or the other have a bigger impact on the long-term value of Princeton’s land holdings along US 1?

While I am clearly and admittedly an advocate of more bikeable, walkable, and transit-oriented development patterns, I am even more an advocate for thinking through organizational strategic choices by:

  • Paying attention to efficient spending of capital and operating funds
  • Creating value and eliminating waste through clever design
  • Building places that have distinct character that is appropriate and functional for their setting
  • Adopting plans that many in the University and surrounding communities will see as mutually beneficial and will want to pull on an oar to advance.

In the years to come, the Greater Princeton region will certainly need state transportation investment to meet its growth and quality of life goals. Plans that have been developed based on a careful review of alternatives; that are efficient with limited state resources and advance State economic goals; and that enjoy broad regional support will be best positioned to receive these funds.

A Princeton University campus plan that positions its neighbors to jointly advocate for the University’s and the region’s transportation needs would be a real success, for University and region alike.


  1. Growth??? Only Wall Street is the champion of growth to support its Ponzi activities. If the planning process was really open, downsizing would also be on the agenda. When you are already #1 fundamentally improving each of your strengths has a chance of making you #0.5. Where you find superior, replace (why keep inferior). Where you find inferior, don’t go there. No virtue in diluting the superior that you already have with inferior. Lesson… growing dilutes, period.

    1. Nat is not advocating growth, he is just asking how it would be managed were it to happen. That is an important and reasonable question, especially for those of us who live in the town. On the other hand, I have to take issue with the facile idea that ‘growing dilutes, period’. The University has grown a lot in recent decades. If it were true that ‘growing dilutes’, it would not currently be sitting at #1 in the college rankings.

      1. Nat is accepting growth. Just as bad as advocating growth.

        Maybe the University would be even better. How big is the Institute?

        1. Maybe Nat should speak for himself, but it strikes me that he is merely asking how growth would proceed if a decision was made to grow. This is entirely reasonable, because as he wrote “the school’s plans for the disposition of its assets have ramifications for the character and accessibility of surrounding communities”; translated, if growth is haphazard or oriented only toward University interests, it will have bad consequences for those of us in the town.

  2. @PSUSixtyFiveSixtySeven

    I generally prefer for these posts to speak for themselves. My hope is to raise issues and spark conversation, and not for the points raised to depend on any particular personal quality or view of the author. Where I have biases, I try to acknowledge them. On the important question of “growth,” though, I think it’s important to share my sentiment.

    I am not in favor of growth qua growth. I have worked at consulting firms that have decided to “grow”…unclear to what end…and the outcome has been disastrous. This colors my views.

    I also have a larger view that the human footprint on earth is already sufficiently great and does not need to be greater still.

    Regarding Princeton University and this post, my observations are conditional: IF the University strategic plan will result in growth, THEN it is important to think things through as I am suggesting. SFB has characterized my view on this correctly.

    To your point that accepting growth is just as bad as advocating growth: there is certainly an argument (the good kind) to be had about that thought, but in the end I believe I would reject that premise.

  3. President Eisgruber didn’t exactly “discuss” the University’s new campus plan when he met with Princeton Council last month, as Mr. Bottigheimer claims. Eisgruber announced that a two-fold planning process was already in motion and declined to answer any questions about it from Councilperson Patrick Simon. One planning process is purely internal to the University and involves assessing its academic priorities. Another process, coordinating with the first, is being undertaken by a consulting firm, Urban Strategies Inc. According to Urban Strategies’ website, “The plan will identify options for campus development and growth over a ten-year period beginning in 2016, in the context of longer term planning over a 30-year time horizon.”

    It’s Urban Strategies, moreover, not necessarily the University, that has a procedure for receiving public comment on the planning process, according to Eisgruber himself.

    The essence of planning, Bottigheimer notes, is identifying alternative approaches by which “organizational goals” can be met. As usual, the residents of Princeton and surrounding communities will have no say in determining those organizational goals. If the University’s ambitions involve growth, as we and Urban Strategies know they will, no-growth will not be an option local residents can advocate for. We’ve already seen what Princeton Hospital’s ambitions led to.

    The only choice Bottigheimer envisions, if the University’s campus plan includes growth across Carnegie Lake, is between [1] dispersed, more car-dependent growth across the lake and [2] linear growth across the lake along the Dinky right-of-way, which would then make a number of stops between Princeton and Princeton Junction.

    Which of these two scenarios would be most beneficial for both the University community and its neighbors, Bottigheimer wonders. He lists eight questions that should be asked and answered to evaluate the benefits. Only one of his eight questions, however, addresses the University’s neighbors in vague terms, asking whether the dispersed or the linear scenario would offer us more “collateral benefits.”

    Environmental benefits, for example, would be “collateral.” Bottigheimer himself prefers the more bikeable, walkable, transit-oriented, linear development pattern, the one that adds more stops to the Dinky. But is this the option that Princeton’s commuters would prefer? At his meeting with Princeton Council, Eigruber, whose wife uses the Dinky to commute, allowed to Councilperson Bernie Miller that he wouldn’t favor anything that made the Dinky’s trip longer.

    But that was also the meeting at which Eisgruber told Councilperson Jenny Crumiller that he had seen research on both sides about whether moving a train station farther from a population center lessened ridership or not. And he wasn’t above trying out the old University argument that moving the Dinky farther from town will benefit the environment because any University employees who approach the parking garage behind the Dinky from the north will now have a shorter drive.

    I do think President Eisgruber will be more cautious about assessing local opinion than former President Tilghman was, though that’s not saying a great deal. The University missed a bet some years ago when Tilghman reportedly surveyed students about a “mirror campus” across Carnegie Lake. Students evidently replied that they didn’t fancy the walk because academic development has so far been on our side of the lake. The missed bet is that the University’s new science buildings could well have spilled across the lake: science students, in my experience, wouldn’t have complained about some degree of separation from the rest of campus.

    My own preference—a truly walkable one—would be for University growth to continue to the south, but on this side of Carnegie Lake, within the campus’s existing borders. The area between the lake and Route One. should remain open space as long as possible. So should the golf course, although the University owns it. As for University expansion to the north, with not only Stanworth but also the former Merwyck site being used for University housing, the University has encroached on our town enough for several lifetimes.

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