Should Princeton be a town or a city? Development proposals threaten character of town

To the Editor,  

Last week, U.S. News & World Report released its annual ranking of the best colleges in the country, from large research universities to small liberal arts schools.  

Once again – and for the 11th consecutive year – Princeton University ranked first. This means that Princeton has now ranked either first or second in the country for 29 out of the past 30 years.  

That is an impressive accomplishment. And it should be noted, the university achieved this throughout by being a moderate-sized institution in a charming, historic college town.  

In fact, the first line of U.S. News’ review is: “The ivy-covered campus of Princeton University is located in the quiet town of Princeton, New Jersey.”  

And this ingredient of success is a key reason why so many students, faculty, and residents have been drawn here.  

But, all of this could change very soon. As this news website has reported, the university is on a massive expansion push – and its chief architect, Ron McCoy, is calling Princeton a “city” rather than a town.  

“Successful cities evolve,” Mr. McCoy insists, as he proposes to replace longtime residential neighborhoods with new departmental buildings, and much more. His projects include two new dormitories in the form of eight six-story gray towers with the capacity to house 1,000 additional students, the new “East Campus” with a 1,560-car parking garage, and a sprawling 15-acre engineering complex that needlessly runs over the Princeton Historic District on Prospect Avenue, and up to 200 acres of further development of a new “Lake Campus.”

Is the university at risk of losing sight of what made it so successful over the years? Is our town at risk of the same, as its largest player seeks to turn it into a city?  

Cities face many serious problems: traffic, noise, pollution, crowds, housing, parking, infrastructure, and the list goes on.

Obviously, from so many years of top rankings, it’s clear that success is not tied to getting big. So what type of place would you rather live in? Do you want Princeton to remain a town or become a metropolis?

We do have some say in the matter. Thursday night, our town planning board will hold a public Zoom meeting to decide the fate of the university’s proposal to impose their engineering complex onto the historic Prospect Avenue neighborhood, with a site plan so vast that it “dwarfs most projects on Route 1,” as another resident wrote.

Please tune in Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. at https://princetonnj.gov/calendar.aspx?eid=816 and tell the planning board whether this is in the public’s interest on our public street, as they request our input to make their final decision.

Barbara Parmet
South Harrison Street


  1. How US News actually calculates rankings is listed here: https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/how-us-news-calculated-the-rankings

    No where does the calculation take into account whether the university is located in a “quiet town” or not. The university is not losing sight of anything. They are strategically investing in a growing category of academic fields so they can stay at the top of the list for years to come.

    If these “serious problems” you mention apply exclusively to cities, well then Princeton is already a city.

    I find it so weird that NIMBYs in Princeton evoke “historical character” to protect Court Club. Court Club was the last constructed clubhouse on Prospect and was only operational as a clubhouse for ~35 years.

  2. Princeton residents should have some say in what happens to our town… Luckily, we do.

    We need to employ checks and balances because might doesn’t always make right. Even good institutions make flawed decisions. Absolute power inevitably oversteps.

    It’s not “weird” to care about quality of life and historic preservation in our own town, where we live and raise our families. To say otherwise is to forsake your future to overdevelopment and all that comes with that.

    The U. and the Town are “forever neighbors” and better solutions are achieved by working together in good faith. It would be helpful if the U. showed more willingness in this regard rather than just paying lip service.

  3. Here’s a thought…Why don’t we “spin off” the University and become an sovereign Principality, like Liechtenstein, or a Duchy, like Luxemburg? Or, if we don’t want to have to bother with a royal family, an independent republic, like like San Marino? Let the University be absorbed by any of the surrounding municipalities. They could hold an auction. I am sure the offers would flow!

  4. I have heard stories about company towns and how they were run. I never expected Princeton to be an example of one. I guess all the Princeton Univ. employees and staff here are happy to help maintain the company’s success and they don’t care about what the rest of the town thinks.

  5. I grew up in Princeton and now live in Eugene, Oregon, which was once a charming town and is now a city of about 170k. I see what the University of Oregon has done here. It’s a Company-town also, run by the drive for Phil Knight/Nike money to be highly visible in athletics. (You should see the facilities for athletes!). To house students after an announced increase in enrollment, the city dropped zoning laws, created MUPTE – multi-unit property tax exemption (no property tax for 10 years) – that encouraged developers to build these massive 5 and 10-story apartment buildings, often overshadowing charming craftsman cottages in residential neighborhoods.

    We have a problem with lack of affordable housing but there should be a balance. City planners have encouraged “infill” by allowing “ADUs – accessory dwelling units – to pick up more housing.

    We lost our charm, in my opinion, in the 60s when the city torn down older buildings to put up sleek “modern” style architecture buildings which have NOT stood the test of time. These are being torn down and new ones built with a 5′ setback sidewalk – pushed right up to the street. Surrounding and nearby shopping malls drained downtown of shoppers, the homeless and druggies moved in to camp in front of closed stores and it was a downward spiral.

    We don’t see the U of O investing in the city of Eugene, rather in their own pockets by taking advantage of lack of neighborhood architectural character zoning laws.

    I hope Princeton doesn’t follow Eugene’s path to lose its charm. Yet – how to solve the housing crisis here which brings in new residents and grows the city? Don’t even mention the “urban growth boundary” we struggle with drawing (NIMBY).

    I don’t have answers but the city’s “Envision Eugene” process invited public comment. Maybe there’s something to borrow from here:

    Here’s an article about one of the first huge apartment projects (3 blocks long) that caused controversy. https://projects.registerguard.com/rg/business/35036187-63/eugenes-capstone-student-housing-complex-is-sold-to-singapore-investment-company-for-104-million.html.csp

    And this infographic is cool to compare Eugene to Princeton.

  6. It is important to care about quality of life and historic preservation in our own town, where we live and raise our families. To say otherwise is to forsake your future to overdevelopment and all that comes with that.

    What really will ruin the character of the town is allowing recreational cannabis dispensaries in walkable areas near homes.

    I hope the tax paying residents pay attention to these important issues instead of getting steamrolled over with the added bonus of future tax hikes to deal with the fallout of bad decisions.

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