PRINCETON: A fresh start for town-gown relations?

When Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber meets with the Princeton Council next month, he will find local officials wanting to hit the reset button on their relationship with the college

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
   When Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber meets with the Princeton Council next month, he will find local officials wanting to hit the reset button on their relationship with the college.
   Officials said they are hopeful that town-gown relations, seen as strained during the tenure of Mr. Eisgruber’s predecessor, Shirley M. Tilghman, can have a fresh start. A new town, a new mayor and council and a new university president are the ingredients toward making that happen, they say.
   ”It’s a whole new ballgame,” said Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller in an interview.
   ”Everyone is interested in changing the tenor and the dynamic of the town-gown relations,” added fellow Councilwoman Jo S. Butler.
   ”We feel the same way,” said University Vice President and Secretary Robert K. Durkee in an email.
   Those relations were not so good in recent years, particularly when it came to the school’s arts and transit project, the hotly debated rezoning changes that the college sought to make that project happen and the subsequent relocation of the Dinky station farther away from downtown.
   ”They have so much power that at best we’re subservient and at worst we’re at odds and losing,” Ms. Crumiller said in an interview last month. “I don’t mean to impugn the university’s character, that’s just the reality.”
   In some ways, the two sides have worked toward a rapprochement.
   In her inaugural address in January, Mayor Liz Lempert invited Ms. Tilghman’s successor, who was not then identified, to address the council this year. In April, on the day he was elected president, Mr. Eisgruber talked of wanting to find ways “to strengthen the university’s civic partnership with the town of Princeton and surrounding communities.”
   ”I look forward to working together with Mayor Lempert and her colleagues in the years ahead,” he said in comments that caught the mayor’s attention.
   There’s also a personal connection as well. He and she know each other from the days when his son and her oldest daughter attended the same nursery school, both of whom now go to Princeton High School. And when Mr. Eisgruber had his inauguration in September, Mayor Lempert participated in the ceremony.
   ”There are a lot of opportunities for collaboration that I’m interested in pursuing,” Mayor Lempert said last week. “I think we share interests when it comes to public safety, when it comes to mitigating traffic, when it comes to having great community resources.”
   Mr. Eisgruber’s visit with Mayor Lempert and the council is set for Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. in the council chambers, followed by what the town called a meet and greet reception. For her part, the mayor hopes the get-together becomes an “annual tradition.”
   This comes with the town and the college set to begin negotiations on a long-term, voluntary financial contribution the university would make to the town. Those talks are expected to start this month.
   Yet even with town speaking kindly of the college, future disagreements are unavoidable. As a small community, the town is pretty much built out, Mayor Lempert said. The college, seeing itself as an international university that happens to be located in central Jersey, needs to stay competitive. And if the college decides it needs to build more buildings, Ms. Crumiller has said she hopes it does not develop its golf course.
   ”There’s always going to be a mix of shared values and areas where we have conflicting needs,” the mayor said.
   Case in point, Mayor Lempert has been opposed to proposed state legislation that would exempt private colleges from municipal land use law, something the university favors.
   For its part, local think Princeton Future has for years advocated for a stronger relationship between the town and the university, to the point of both entities jointly investing money to solve local problems from congestion to more affordable housing. “Princeton Future has been promoting the idea that we all need to work together,” said Sheldon Sturges, a co-founder of the 13-year-old organization.