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Despite bumpy past, town-gown officials hope to build on common interests

Although the relationship between the University and the town of Princeton has featured a number of heated debates over taxes, the Dinky station and the Arts and Transit Neighborhood, Mayor Liz Lempert said the two entities are focusing on common interests and effective communication.

University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 has been on a comprehensive listening tour since before he was inaugurated last fall, and he met with town Council representatives at a public event to discuss pertinent issues such as transportation and diversity a few months into his term.

“I think it’s been a great first step,” Lempert said of Eisgruber’s community outreach.

Most recently, it was announced on Thursday that the University would increase its monetary contributions to the town by 4 percent every year.

Lempert also noted that Eisgruber openly addressed the controversy over the University’s Arts and Transit Project, a development that demanded the relocation of Princeton’s historic Dinky train station.

“He acknowledged the scars that that decision has left, and just the acknowledgment of that was important for the community to hear,” Lempert said. “There’s still widespread concern about what the impact will be of having the station further away from downtown and I think this is an area where we do need to work closely with the University.”

“Everyone recognizes that we had a rough patch over recent years around the approval process for the Arts and Transit Project,” University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 said.

However, he noted that the project has received a lot of positive feedback and that local residents seem interested and excited about the new arts facilties, restaurants and transportation measures. He also said town-gown relationships have been quite good for a long period of time.

Durkee also noted the University’s voluntary contribution to the municipality increased dramatically over the course of former University President Shirley Tilghman’s term. This year’s contribution of $2.75 million represents a more than 10 percent increase from that of 2013 and will be administered for the next seven years with an annual increase of 4 percent.

Durkee said Eisgruber has been a longstanding member of the community and he plans on organizing additional public meetings with the town.

“I think that people in the community know that he cares about the community, is knowledgeable about the community, and all of these steps help strengthen a sense of shared interest and mutual respect,” Durkee said, adding that the University contributes to the community through class auditing, the art museum and the local Garden Theater. “We will continue to try to find other ways to make sure that lines of communication are not only strong but used.”

Lempert noted that the University’s administration is going through a similar period of introspection and planning as the town, which consolidated its Borough and Township in 2013. As a result, both parties have a great opportunity to reassess their common goals and reconcile their differences, Lempert said. Some of these interests include promoting diversity, improving environmental sustainability and ensuring productive transportation.

Eisgruber’s meeting with the town community was a welcome departure from the last administration, Councilwoman Jo Butler said, adding that she hopes they will have more chances to engage in similar meetings.

Butler also said that although the station’s relocation was an inconvenience to certain community members, she thinks most citizens have accepted the development and are pleased with the new roundabout on Alexander Street.

“It seems to be flowing extremely well,” Butler said. “I think that there’s been good work.”

Former Princeton Council member Roger Martindell said that town-gown discussions should remain primarily professional and not be handled like a “tea party,” which he said was sometimes the case.

“The relationship between the University Presidency and the town needed some work, and [Eisgruber] seems to be addressing the issue,” Martindell said.

The University community will celebrate the arts with Princeton town-dwellers this weekend at the annual Communiversity event, featuring creative merchants from around the region, live performances and food stands.

“It’s a nice chance for people from either side of Nassau Street to mix and mingle,” Martindell said.

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