Princeton unveils most comprehensive campus plan in its history

For more than two years, a team of architects, landscape architects and planners at Princeton University has labored to strike a perfect balance between the old and the new. They have balanced between centuries of tradition and plans for innovative new spaces where architects can continue to design buildings that are both of their time and timeless.

The process has been part of the most comprehensive planning initiative in the University's history. The result is a plan that establishes strategies to guide campus development for the next decade and beyond, focused on maintaining a "walkable" campus that grows with a goal of environmentally sustainable development, even as the campus plans for more than 2 million gross square feet of construction by 2016.

"Princeton University's campus is one of its most precious assets," Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman said. "It has been purposefully designed to support the University's most important goals, providing spaces for active engagement and quiet reflection. This plan will revitalize the best-loved parts of the campus while improving and more fully integrating other areas, and it will allow us to create important new spaces while enhancing the beauty and sustainability of the campus environment."

After making a preliminary synopsis of the plan available in the form of a brochure in January, the University is celebrating the completion of the full plan with a 180-page book, "Princeton Campus Plan: The Next Ten Years and Beyond," being published and made available online Monday, Feb. 18.

In addition to the publication of the Campus Plan book, the completion of the planning effort is being marked with an exhibition Feb. 24-29 in Firestone Library on Princeton's campus and a Feb. 26 panel discussion.

Five architects who have led some of the most innovative planning efforts in the United States over the past 20 years will come together at 5 p.m. in Betts Auditorium in Princeton's School of Architecture for the panel "The Open Campus: A Conversation About the Changing Nature of Campuses and Campus Planning."

A comprehensive plan

The University has engaged in six major planning efforts in its 262-year history, but according to University planners, this is the first that goes beyond examination of the main campus' buildings and grounds to include elements more typically seen in a regional planning effort. More than half the campus will be directly affected by elements of the plan, and a high level of community involvement helped guide recommendations for initiatives that would affect neighborhoods surrounding the campus.

The plan provides strategies for every aspect of development: infrastructure, such as traffic and parking; construction, including project location and sustainability policies, such as new measures for energy conservation and stormwater management; campus landscape; wayfinding measures, such as improved pathways and signage for visitors; and housing for faculty, staff and students.

As stated in the Campus Plan book:

"The plan is ambitious yet subtle: while nearly one-third of the 380-acre contiguous main campus may be rebuilt, the results will integrate the new with the old and weave modern development with the historic campus into a coherent whole. The Princeton campus of 2016 and beyond will have greater definition of the edges where it meets its neighbors; more opportunities for academic and interdisciplinary collaboration; improved facilities for students, faculty, staff and visitors; more sustainable application of infrastructure; and fresh, innovative architecture that is well integrated into the campus and community setting."

According to Mark Burstein, executive vice president of the University and the executive sponsor of the planning effort, while the plan is not to be mistaken for a specific aesthetic design for the campus, it establishes a long-term framework for campus growth in a way that is unique.

"Given the history and importance of the University's campus as a public space in America , any planning effort here would be significant, but some may say our comprehensive approach also moves the evolution of planning forward one or two steps," said Burstein, who helped oversee four other university planning efforts before his tenure at Princeton.

Balancing tradition with a full range of future opportunities for academic, residential, retail and infrastructure improvements, professional planners have worked with University leaders since October 2005 to help Princeton avoid the growth pitfalls that have challenged some other institutions.

The plan explains how density in the historic center at other institutions required expansion to remote properties and satellite campuses, creating separation within the campus community. At Princeton, even though the University has large land holdings separate from the main campus -- across Lake Carnegie -- new growth will be located instead entirely within the compact and walkable space of the main campus.

Tilghman laid the groundwork for Princeton's campus planning effort in 2003 when she led a group of senior University administrators, architects, planners and educators in developing five guiding principles that would inform the University's campus planning initiative:

  1. Maintain a pedestrian-oriented campus
  2. Preserve the park-like character of the campus
  3. Maintain campus neighborhoods while promoting a sense of community
  4. Build in an environmentally responsible manner
  5. Sustain strong community relations

In addition to the core historic campus, four emerging neighborhoods lie at the heart of the campus plan: arts and transit, natural sciences, Ivy Lane and Western Way; and Prospect Avenue and William Street. It is these areas that will undergo the most significant transformation over the next 10 years.

Neil Kittredge, a partner of the firm that led the development of Princeton's Campus Plan, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners of New York, said that working on the University's initiative took his firm's campus planning experience "to a new level." The firm previously has led planning efforts for Columbia University, Indiana University and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, among others.

"It is the most comprehensive and sophisticated plan we have ever undertaken," Kittredge said of the Princeton plan, "and has been one of the most challenging, especially given the fast pace of campus development occurring even during the planning process, to which we needed to be responsive, while still maintaining our focus on the larger goals."

Incorporating a plan in progress

The defining aspect of the planning effort -- and its greatest challenge -- was that it became a working document even as it was being developed. Typically, a plan would be completed before being implemented.

"There were two main challenges," Burstein said. "First, we decided to approach the campus from a comprehensive perspective, and second, the University started to build projects that were directly influenced by the plan even before the planning effort was complete. … The nascent plan needed to influence many construction projects 16 to 18 months before the plan was final."

The new chemistry building became one of the first projects to illustrate how practical solutions to support the Campus Plan's goals could be informed by work on an existing project.

London-based Hopkins Architects, known for its energy-efficient designs, was selected by the University in May 2005 to build a state-of-the-art research facility in the area already occupied by many teaching and research facilities in the southeast quadrant of campus along Washington Road. The building became a "pilot project" for sustainability initiatives that would help reshape the plan even as the plan shaped them, said Natalie Shivers, associate University architect.

"While we were working on sustainable strategies for managing stormwater -- restoration of the stream and woodlands, and development of rain gardens and bioswales -- all these landscape solutions informed solutions for the science neighborhood and other areas of campus," Shivers said. "The development of the proposed sciences green, one of the key campus green spaces planned for the area east of Washington Road, was also shaped both by the building design and also the campus planning effort."

Planning initiatives such as sustainable stormwater management and green roofs have been incorporated also into the newly designed Butler College residential complex -- currently under construction -- and will tie the project into a larger set of sustainable systems on campus.

Other emerging projects integrated into the plan included the Whitman College student residential complex, which incorporated landscape elements of the plan when it opened in fall 2007; the Lewis Library designed by modernist architect Frank Gehry, which is currently under construction in the natural sciences neighborhood conceptualized in the plan; and selection of the site for Princeton's new neuroscience and psychology buildings, which was determined within six months of the planning team's hiring.

"The plan had to be dynamic and flexible from day one, which means that it has been very effective already," Shivers said. "A lot of plans just go on a shelf, and they become a reference, rather than something that is really being implemented, but developing the Campus Plan was a pretty interactive process with building architects, and they did influence each other."

The plan also has been influential in the selection of architects for emerging projects on campus. The University announced in January that Steven Holl Architects, which has offices in New York and Beijing, will design the first building in the new arts and transit neighborhood in the southwest area of campus.

"The plan does not recommend a certain architectural style for different sections of the campus," Burstein explained. "Rather, the plan will have an impact on architects we select by serving as the most important source document for their work as they try to understand the physical context of their project."

The arts and transit neighborhood, for example, is distinguished by intersecting challenges of infrastructure, transportation and zoning. At the same time, it will provide freedom and flexibility for the creative efforts of designers, with several buildings in the arts neighborhood to be designed by different architects.

As the Campus Plan document describes the arts and transit neighborhood:

"Unlike the historical development of cloistered enclosures separating the University from its surroundings, the new arts and transit neighborhood on the western edge of campus will form a public space that is a nexus of both campus and community life."

The arts neighborhood is one of many elements of the Campus Plan developed with a high level of community involvement, which was another distinguishing characteristic of the process to develop Princeton's plan.

Building a sense of community

The plan was discussed on numerous occasions with members of municipal bodies, at community meetings and at open houses, including a "Plans in Progress" event held in November 2006 that was attended by more than 900 people. The University evaluated comments obtained both at those meetings and also through a Campus Plan website established to share the evolving elements of the plan.

"I don't know of any campus planning process at any other university that had as much ongoing community input as we benefited from in preparing this plan," said University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee, who oversees the facilitation of relationships between the University and its municipal neighbors. "Many comments and concerns from the community are reflected in the plan."

One example was the application of input from many in the community who hoped the plan would establish an eastern edge of campus beyond which the University would not propose future academic development. While a partial boundary already exists -- at the terminus of existing engineering facilities and parking spaces to the west of Murray Place, but with no established edge immediately south -- the Campus Plan proposes to create an extended eastern edge that would be marked by no future academic development east of FitzRandolph Road.

In a separate effort to be supportive of neighboring Princeton Borough and Princeton Township , the University plans traffic improvements and a transit plaza for its arts and transit neighborhood. The plaza is designed to support a community jitney to be run by the borough, linking the jitney to the small commuter train station adjacent to campus -- known as the Dinky -- and also to the University's Tiger Transit shuttle system that will carry passengers on updated routes through campus and to locations in surrounding neighborhoods.  

The plan also proposes a lively new station building for Dinky passengers, a variety of arts venues and retail establishments in the area, and a public arts plaza that will appeal to students, local residents and visitors to the campus and the community.

"The surrounding communities will continue to be involved, especially through the local planning board, in considering proposals for the approval of specific projects," Durkee said. "But there are various ways that go beyond the approval process in which the community also will be involved, such as discussions about the kinds of retail to be included in the arts and transit neighborhood, and we hope they will take full advantage of the expanded access to the arts that the plan proposes."   

2016 and beyond

The published Campus Plan will provide a catalyst for further dialogue between local residents, Princeton alumni, parents and other stakeholders that have an interest in how the University grows, planners said.

According to Burstein, a measurement of the success of the ambitious initiatives outlined in the plan will be possible only 10 to 15 years in the future, but one key will be an assessment of how closely the campus' growth adheres to the guiding principles and goals outlined in the plan.

"The plan will be an essential resource for staff working on implementation projects or initiatives that touch planning issues," Burstein said. "The planning process served to bring together information from past master planning efforts on campus, and with the publication of the plan, we hope to prepare for future efforts to enhance the Princeton campus."

The book brings together information from historic campus planning efforts dating back to the mid 1800s, which previously had not been compiled.

According to University Architect Jon Hlafter, this historical information will better equip the University to balance its past and future growth to maintain campus cohesion.

"This campus represents 250 years of the architecture of America," Hlafter said. "There are few if any places that have a more distinguished architectural record to maintain and expand upon. One measure of success would be the extent to which observers could appreciate the placement and design of innovative new buildings as a meaningful and logical extension of what has come before."

Kittredge praised Princeton's efforts to achieve that long-term balance. Because colleges and universities must live with their planning decisions for 50 to 100 years or more, it's important that they plan intelligently for their future, he said.

"With the incredible growth of higher education, the need for new facilities can easily overwhelm the cherished spaces of our historic campuses without careful and sensitive planning," Kittredge said. "Poorly planned development can have unexpected impacts on traffic, the environment and aesthetics, and can limit options for future generations, so taking the long view is essential."

Princeton's Campus Plan applies the principles of "smart growth" to maximize its current resources and maintain its character. The campus will continue to be one of "neighborhoods" while also preserving options for long-term expansion within the campus.

President Tilghman summarized the themes of the University's planning effort in an essay in the published Campus Plan.

"While the beauty of our campus inspires and refreshes us, it also opens our minds to new possibilities, and its intimacy advances our goals of integrating academic and extracurricular life," Tilghman wrote. "As we plan for the next decade of campus growth and add more space for the arts, we need to strengthen all (our) neighborhoods and their interconnections, even as we continue to express our highest aspirations in the buildings and green spaces we construct and preserve."