Princeton U. Should Think Big At Butler Site

Housing at Princeton University's Butler Apartments

Housing at Princeton University’s Butler Apartments. (Click any image to expand.)

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.

Apartments at the Butler site.

Apartments at the Butler site.

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?

Transit accessible: Butler is connected to the rest of Princeton University by Tiger Transit shuttle.

Transit accessible: Butler is connected to the rest of Princeton University by Tiger Transit shuttle.

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).

The Butler site is secluded behind trees, sequestered from residential areas in the Riverside neighborhood nearby.

The Butler site is secluded behind mature trees, sequestered from residential areas in the nearby Riverside neighborhood.

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:

Empty on-street parking spaces are a common site at Butler Apartments. Graduate students work nearby, and don't use cars much.

Empty on-street parking spaces are a common site at Butler Apartments. Graduate students work nearby, and don’t use cars much.

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.

Bicycle use is prominent at Butler apartments.

Bicycle use is prominent at 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.

This entry was posted in Density, Downtown Vibrancy, Princeton. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Princeton U. Should Think Big At Butler Site

  1. DJK says:

    In any redevelopment it would be good to make the street grid connect better with the surrounding neighborhood and get rid of the old cul-de-sac like ring road. On a historical note it would be nice to retain the names of World War II generals and admirals, memorializing the origin of Butler as housing for returning married undergrads who missed their education due to the war. If a park was included on the site it could be called Devereaux Park after the name of the university polo field which occupied the site before it’s redevelopment as housing.

    On a more practical note, the university could take hundreds of cars off Princeton’s roads by housing more grad students close to campus on shuttle routes. I’m told something like 700 grad students live out on route one, mostly in Plainsboro, driving on Harrison past Butler to the university. That’s just a lose-lose situation. The grad students are forced into expensive housing and car ownership even though the parking is half a mile from many labs. The neighborhood has hundreds of extra cars driving through with the flow of rush hour traffic.

    I also like the idea of some neighborhood retail on Harrison in that part of town. A pharmacy, dry cleaner, hair salon, and coffee shop would go a long way to making the neighborhood more lively and more walkable, not to mention save residents having to drive out to route one or up to the shopping center to run errands.

    I certainly hope the site is retained as genuinely affordable housing. If it were turned into a small number of luxury homes it would be taking Princeton in the wrong direction. Butler provides some of the most affordable housing in town and it should stay that way.

  2. @DJK
    All good suggestions– you are quite right that it is completely counter-productive for the university to require hundreds of its grad students to live in Plainsboro and South Brunswick. It is expensive and inconvenient for grad students to live outside of town, it generates traffic, and it unnecessarily excludes grads from the university community. It’s also bad for the town, because businesses in Princeton should be benefiting from the presence of grad students, not businesses in Plainsboro.

    The new Butler should include a mix of housing, with some higher-density, more affordable apartments, and some houses similar to what exists currently, so people can choose to have their own small garden / barbecue area if they want. The current university target, of only offering housing to 70% of graduate students, should be scrapped. The university doesn’t expect undergrads to take their chances in the local renting market, so restricting graduate student housing sends a signal that the university doesn’t value the contribution of its grad students as much. Conforming to other Ivy League institutions on this point is bad policy. Princeton should aim to surpass peer institutions.

  3. Wow says:

    If Princeton has space to build enough units then I think it would make sense to aim to house 100% of grad students. They shouldn’t worry about apartments/houses being underutilized when students forgo the housing offered to them – as you point out this could easily be rented to post-docs, and I guess visiting scientists.

    On that note I assume the University currently doesn’t offer any units as rentals to post-docs. This is a real shame and could be a fantastic recruitment tool – I believe other prestigious universities (eg Rockefeller) offer such perks.

    If these 2 groups of people (grad students/postdocs) could be accommodated in ‘in-town’ locations I really think it would add to the vibrancy of the town as it would mean they could more fully take advantage of all the shops, bars and restaurants Princeton has to offer.

  4. FDR says:

    The problem is that University Housing has changed its initial “Master Plan”, and now has no intent to develop the Butler site at all, after students are kicked out and the buildings are torn down a year from now. Thus, it’s not a question of “what” they will build, but of the entire lot standing completely empty, while graduate students are forced further and further away from campus.

    “The University intends to take down the 70-year-old buildings at Butler Tract (bounded by Harrison Street, Hartley Avenue and Sycamore Road), after the Hibben-Magie work is completed. However, Princeton has no immediate plans for construction at that site.” [as quoted from the Housing website]

    • DJK says:

      The university’s plan is inexplicable to me. It may be a result of the fact that the site is zoned for far less housing than currently exists there. That means if they tear it down they can’t replace it with anything like the same amount of units. I’m told that’s why it’s stayed the way it is for so many decades. Of course it seems to me that they should just continue with the housing as is if that’s the case. Perhaps the university feels the need to finally demolish Butler but would rather leave it empty in the hope of some future zoning change rather than develop it at low-density and then be stuck with that. Why the zoning was written to make the existing use non-compliant, even though it serves a vital role and predates most of the surrounding houses, is mystifying.

    • @FDR, thanks for your comment.
      It is hard to guess what the University has in mind for its long-range plan. It is possible that they want to consolidate student life around the west side of campus, centered around the Arts and Transit neighborhood and existing graduate college. If that is the plan, then Butler may be seen as too peripheral, and superfluous to requirements.

      Whatever the University’s plan is, it should be amended to provide equal housing for undergraduates and graduate students. The status quo is not in the interests of the University, students or Princeton town. As @DJK has pointed out, there are zoning constraints that prevent redevelopment of Butler at anything other than reduced density. This is a reflection of Princeton’s obsolete planning masterplan. The University would need to get a zoning variance to build a higher-density ‘graduate village’ at Butler, and how is that likely to go after the Arts-and-Transit ‘experience’?

      Princeton as a town doesn’t provide homes for 24,000 people who work there every day, and a large number of graduate students are also excluded. This is crazy. There aren’t too many walkable, transit-linked sites, where we could accommodate lots more residents, but Butler is one of them. Using the site at low-density, or, worse, leaving it empty, is inefficient land use. We think Princeton University should think big at the site, and get whatever variance is required to put in place a big plan. We and other forward-thinking residents of the town will support this all the way.

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