Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber joined Princeton municipal officials on Monday, Feb. 27, to discuss shared interests affecting the University and the community, including transportation, housing and support for local businesses.
The annual town-gown meeting — the 10th since Eisgruber became Princeton’s president — was held in person for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing together Eisgruber with Princeton Mayor Mark Freda and Princeton Council members.
“This is a once-a-year opportunity for us, and it’s one that I really appreciate,” said council member Leticia Fraga. “I can tell, year-to-year, that you truly are listening to what we have to share.”
In his opening remarks, Eisgruber gave an overview of his annual State of the University letter, in which he celebrated Princeton’s full return to in-person teaching and research following COVID-19 and addressed how the University and other liberal arts institutions might adapt to the forthcoming challenges presented by rapidly developing technology.
Eisgruber thanked Freda and the council members for the opportunity for their annual conversation. “It’s so much better for us to be having conversations about our many, many shared interests and about any disagreements that we have rather than have to come together only when there is a particular issue to be resolved,” Eisgruber said.
In advance of the meeting, the University prepared a summary of various contributions to and partnerships with the town in 2022, including: a $3.9 million voluntary contribution to the municipality; $11.6 million in property and sewer taxes (making the University the largest property taxpayer in Princeton); and $225,000 to Princeton Public Schools for tents used to provide outdoor teaching and gathering space.
For decades, Princeton University has made voluntary contributions to the Municipality of Princeton. In late 2020, the municipality and the University agreed to a two-year extension of the existing contributions agreement that had been adopted in 2014. Under the new 2020 agreement, the University contributed $8.2 million to the municipality in 2021 and 2022. The agreement included $850,000 to support the hiring of career personnel for the Princeton Fire Department and a $250,000 commitment toward the construction of a new storage facility for the municipal Department of Public Works.
Since the earliest days of the pandemic, the University also has worked with community partners to support local COVID-19 relief efforts. These include the establishment of the $1 million Princeton University Relief Fund to provide direct financial support to community organizations and businesses. Additional initiatives included the Summer Food and Nutrition Program, donation of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to local first responders, and hosting community blood drives.
Fraga highlighted several direct requests she had made of the University at prior joint meetings that have since been fulfilled, including support for Habitat for Humanity, the opportunity for students to dine in town and improved public transportation.
Not only has Princeton contributed financially to the construction of two homes within the municipality for families that otherwise could not afford to be homeowners, but it also provided “sweat equity” through the volunteer efforts of faculty, staff and students, Fraga said.
In fall 2022, the University launched the Pay with Points program, which provides students in the unlimited dining plan with $150 worth of points each semester to spend at cafe and restaurant locations that include businesses in town. Since the program’s launch, students have spent more than $140,000 at local businesses.
In regard to transit, Fraga said she is meeting with University officials soon about how to inform all residents, especially the municipality’s underserved populations, of what services are available to them through TigerTransit. Those who need to travel to Princeton Hospital on weekdays are especially encouraged to check weekday bus schedules.
Council member David Cohen thanked and praised the University for its work on sustainability.
“From my perch on the planning board, seeing all of the projects coming through, the design quality and the sustainability aspects of your projects, they’re really a model for every other entity that comes before us in the community,” Cohen said.
Cohen called Princeton a leader in reducing the impact of climate change and asked that the University consider collaborating on regional stormwater management. “I think the University is uniquely positioned to help convene regional stormwater planning,” Cohen said. He cited the state’s stormwater permitting regulations, which now require that every municipality work toward improving water quality within its entire watershed region.
Eisgruber commended the municipality for its leadership on sustainability and stormwater management, and he replied that he would consult with University professionals on how best to contribute to the regional effort. Eisgruber also raised another issue of shared regional importance, specifically for economic development and the vibrancy of the town.
“It may be surprising that it's of interest and importance to the University, but I am someone who’s very glad that Governor Murphy put liquor license reform on the legislative agenda,” Eisgruber said. “I think one of the advantages that New Jersey could get by this kind of reform is the opportunity to have more of a kind of entrepreneurial restauranteur, the young chefs, the chefs from underprivileged backgrounds or minority backgrounds, who may want to open up restaurants of the sort that I think will attract a younger population and encourage more students to stay to make their careers in the state of New Jersey.”
Drawing and maintaining a population that is vital and diverse was on the mind of several council members, who asked that the University support efforts to provide varied and affordable housing within the municipality.
Council member Eve Niedergang noted that some pressure on the local housing market will soon be relieved when the University completes the first projects being constructed at the Lake Campus Development in West Windsor and is able to provide on-campus housing for all graduate students, but there remains a demand for variety in housing.
Council member Leighton Newlin asked if the University’s School of Architecture and School of Engineering and Applied Science might be willing to partner with the Princeton Housing Authority, whose mission is to provide affordable housing to qualified low-income families and individuals.
The Authority owns and manages 236 family and senior/disabled apartments within five developments throughout Princeton.
“I think one of the wonderful things we can do together is to pair up, to sync up the University with the Princeton Public Housing Authority to lift up people in public housing,” Newlin said.
Freda noted that diversity of people within the municipality has always been one of its attractions, but that has been more difficult to maintain given real estate prices.
Eisgruber responded that he hopes to continue to look for ways to build on shared aspirations and shared history. “I’m eager to see if we can find the right people to be able to help you with the projects that you're describing,” he told Newlin. “I think it’s very much consistent with the University’s hopes for the for the town.”
He later added in reply to Freda: “By working together, I hope that we can help preserve the diversity that I think is in all of our interests.”
In addition to thinking together about the municipality’s housing stock, Mia Sacks, council president, asked if the University might also consider support for the public education system, which she said has been constrained by state budget caps.
“We are working as creatively as possible as we can at the council level, in all sorts of ways, including channeling pilot funding to facilities expansion,” Sacks said. “We’re doing everything we can, but there are limitations.”
Council members and Eisgruber cited the work of Kristin Appelget, assistant vice president for community and regional affairs, and Melissa Mercuro, associate director for community relations, in facilitating partnerships throughout the year.
“I want to thank you for calling out Kristin Appelget and Melissa Mercuro,” Eisgruber told the council. “It’s true that that we only have this one meeting a year. And I think it’s really important that we have that, but [Kristin and Melissa] are listening and responding and continuing the dialogue as you indicated throughout the year. It’s really critical to what we’re able to do here in the town.”