As Princeton University recovers from the excitement and drama of Reunions and Commencement, another group of students quietly keeps on going. Princeton graduate students, who have been ostracized ever since Andrew West’s bizarre decision to build a graduate ghetto separate from the rest of the university in 1906, continue producing world-class research all through the summer and all year round. Princeton University offers undergraduates a wealth of accommodation options, and student social life revolves around the Prospect Ave ‘Eating Club‘ scene. Grad students, by contrast, tend to be cast to the outskirts of the campus, or even unhoused altogether. This is a strange way to treat some of the smartest people in the world, who dedicate themselves to research despite long hours and low wages.
Graduate students are not happy about the lack of graduate housing, particularly because Princeton is a tough rental market for low-paid workers, including those pursuing higher degrees. To quote a recent letter to ‘The Daily Princetonian from two Princeton PhD students:
“There isn’t much affordable housing available in the township (sic), let alone within walking distance of campus. A quick look on the off-campus housing website set up by the University shows only a few options in Princeton, priced far beyond the on-campus rates, with the remaining options being a substantial distance away…”
Princeton University has the opportunity to fix the long-standing issue of graduate housing with redevelopment of the Butler Apartments site off South Harrison Street. Built in 1946 as temporary housing for war veterans, this well-loved but totally obsolete housing is still standing in 2013, and houses around 400 people.
Princeton University intents to tear down the Butler Apartments as part of its Campus Plan. This plan has also led to redevelopment of other graduate housing at the ‘Lakeside Apartments‘ (formerly Hibben-Magie) and the Merwick-Stanworth site in central Princeton. What will rise in place of Butler? At this point, we don’t know. But Princeton University should seize the potential to provide housing to a far greater proportion of its graduate students. For the Princeton community- town and gown- there are many benefits to housing grads right here in Princeton. Why should graduate students live in Plainsboro or a township, when they could live in Princeton, in walking/cycling distance of campus and downtown amenities?
Redevelopment at the Merwick-Stanworth site is taking the form of low-rise townhouses. This is fine, but the appropriate density at Butler should be the density that provides enough housing for Princeton’s graduate community needs. Smart Growth principles would suggest that in-town locations like this warrant higher density. Low density redevelopment of Princeton’s graduate housing stock risks perpetuating the existing situation where graduate students’ opportunities for finding a home are decided literally by the luck of the draw. At Butler, Princeton University should “make no little plans”, and instead settle the housing issue for good.
A smart re-use of the 33-acre Butler site would provide a maximum number of quality housing options for Princeton graduate students. Princeton graduate students love affordable, pet-friendly Butler. Why not build a larger number of units to make it easy for wannabe-PhDs to live in a university setting, instead of having to take their chances with Princeton’s notoriously-expensive private rental market? Thinking big might also allow some of Princeton University’s post-doctoral research community to live at the same site as students, instead of taking up Princeton’s scarce supply of affordable housing at Princeton Community Village, as frequently happens today. Redevelopment at the Butler site could include extra amenities for graduate students. Zoning should be mixed-use, so that future Butler residents could have their own Wawa to shop at. There should also be recreational facilities, childcare options, space for a graduate bar, and maybe even a dog park for pet-lovers (which could potentially be shared with local residents).
Butler pre-dates much of the surrounding neighborhood. If local residents object to higher-density use of Butler, we could point out that graduate students make ideal neighbors! The majority of them are too busy working/studying to cause trouble. The Butler site is also hidden behind high trees, separate from the residential community that has grown up around it, do development will not disturb people’s views. Furthermore, higher density use of the Butler site is unlikely to cause a problem with traffic or parking: existing graduate students hardly use the on-street parking that is currently available:
In fact, walking is the mode of transportation that is favored at Butler, notwithstanding the Tiger Transit service. And a remarkably large number of bicycles can be observed, frequently lashed right at the doorpost at the porches of Butler apartments.
Redevelopment of Butler Apartments is a fantastic opportunity for Princeton University to bring the graduate student community closer in to campus life, and address the unfair situation where 30% of graduate students are expected to take their chances in the local rental market. Although many graduate students are affectionate about Butler as it currently exists, the future development could be a true mixed-use ‘graduate village’, which offers a residential experience so good that even the undergraduates would be jealous! Princeton University should understand that many residents in the town welcome graduate students, recognize the benefits they bring to our community, and would be extremely supportive about a more ambitious housing plan at this site.
Let us know your hopes and wishes for the Butler Apartments…leave a comment below.