Check out this photo of Princeton and Mercer County from the 1920s. Princeton is the only town in the area. It appears as a dense cluster of buildings (imagine how walkable it must have been!!!!) surrounded on every side by farmland. Kingston is there too, a scattering of houses in the lower right-hand corner. West Windsor, Lawrence T’wp, Hamilton T’wp, and the ring of I-95/I-295 are nowhere to be seen. None of them were built yet.
Princeton really stands out as the major town in the area. Even today, Princeton is considered the hub of development in Central Jersey between Trenton and New Brunswick. But somewhere along the way, the area has gone through a big change. Princeton is no longer the only town in the area. It is no longer even the biggest town in the area. It is no longer even the most densely populated town in the area!
Let’s look at the statistics. Here are the populations of local towns- ‘Princeton’-comprising the combined populations of the former Borough and Township, South Brunswick, Lawrence Township, Plainsboro, West Windsor, and Montgomery. In 1950, several decades after the above photograph was taken, Princeton was still by far the biggest town in the area by population:
By 1970, several decades later, and a time that many of our older residents can clearly remember, Princeton was still- by some distance- the largest town around:
What is the situation today? Princeton has undergone an astonishing drop in population relative to surrounding townships. South Brunswick AND Lawrence T’wp now have larger populations than Princeton, even considering the consolidated population of Princeton.
This graph only shows directly neighboring towns– if we were also to consider Hamilton T’wp and Hightstown-East Windsor, Princeton would be the fifth-largest town in the area. What’s more, under current growth rates, Plainsboro and Montgomery Township are on track to overtake Princeton in terms of population, making Princeton potentially the smallest community in the area in terms of population!
Now, we can debate whether this is a good or bad, but one thing is absolutely clear: the historic character of Princeton is being changed. We used to look for ways to accommodate population growth while maintaining the historic aspects of the town. Consider this quote from an article entitled ‘A Look At The Future‘, published in ‘Town Topics’ in 1960:
The new comprehensive master plan, Mr. McHugh says in his report, is designed to conserve and, if possible, enhance the natural topographical features and the historic places, buildings and institutions, in accordance with the often-expressed desires of Borough residents. However, it is also designed to cope with a population increase which is expected to bring the total population of the Princeton area up to almost 100,000 by 1980.
Historically, Princeton was a growing town and we made provision for population growth. Many current residents of the town would be living some place else if it wasn’t for the vision of earlier town planners, who looked for ways to enable population growth:
However, around 1970, the rate of Princeton’s population growth sputtered to a halt. Aside from a blip in 2000 (considered to be a Census artifact), Princeton’s population has barely budged in forty years, even as surrounding areas have expanded rapidly. This is largely due to resident pressure to prevent change in Princeton. “Preservation of Princeton’s historic character” is a central theme of our current Masterplan, and this is invariably interpreted to mean minimal new development. However, this drive to prevent development is the very cause of the change in Princeton’s character from being the major community of mid-central Jersey to becoming an elegant, but increasingly chi-chi suburb. Businesses recognize that Princeton is no longer “where it’s at” for commerce, as popular retailers such as the Apple Store skip Princeton in favor of a Route 1 mall.
There are other costs associated with deliberately restricting Princeton’s growth. A lack of housing has sent property prices through the roof, so that every year the Princeton community becomes increasingly wealthy compared to neighboring towns, and middle-class workers have to look for somewhere else to live. Open land in Central Jersey is being gobbled up to build new, car-dependent developments catering to people who work in Princeton. These commuters fill Princeton with traffic and produce huge volumes of greenhouse gases:
Princeton historically was the vibrant center of mid-central Jersey, had a compact walkable form, provided housing to all sections of society, and maintained its essential character. Regaining these essential characteristics, and avoiding a fate where the town becomes either a charming weekend getaway for rich bankers or a theme park for tourists, requires us to think about ways to add housing in the most efficient way. In future, instead of looking for ways to keep development to an absolute minimum, we should consider how to add extra housing, because it will get Princeton back on track to being a living, vibrant, inclusive town, confident of its primacy in the mid-central Jersey region, and confident of both its outstanding history and its future.
I’d hate for Princeton to become a ‘living museum’ type of town. When I’ve visited such places (Harper’s Ferry, WV springs to mind) I’ve always found them rather depressing.
The lack of affordable, smaller all-on-one-story housing for empty-nesters who want to downsize is driving many of us out of town.
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When I visited in 1994, Princeton already felt like a chi-chi “gated community” type suburb.