Last week, Princeton University released the first major update on the findings of its 2026 Campus Planning Exercise. The last Campus Plan led to a huge amount of development around the University grounds, including some highly-controversial projects such as the relocation of the terminus of the Princeton Branch rail line for construction of a new Arts Campus. The new Campus Plan is also likely to have a major effect on the town. Although the latest update is short on specifics, it provides some important insights about what areas the new plan is likely to focus on.
When University President Christopher Eisgruber addressed Princeton Council at the end of last year, he mentioned that the new campus plan would provide for flexible options for the evolution of the University over the coming years. That point is restated in the latest update, which says that the Campus Plan 2026 will aim to provide a more specific guide to projects that will happen in the next ten years, but also broader options for strategy and use of University lands over the coming thirty years. As such, this new Campus Plan has the potential to be even more influential than the one that is being retired this year. The latest update is silent, however, on the possibility of creating a new undergraduate college or expanding enrollment.
Last year, the University aimed to get feedback from members of the community about the planning process. A web-based tool called ‘Campus Compass’ was set up, and responses were encouraged from students, faculty, staff members and local residents (we reported on it last May). The results, now published, show that the outreach effort mostly failed to reach local residents. Just 49 townies completed the questionnaire. This is not a big surprise, as the website was not well-advertised, and the questions for local residents were essentially limited to ‘where do you go on campus and what do you do there?’ Nonetheless the lack of response is likely to undermine efforts to present the plan as representative of both town and gown.
Responses from current University affiliates were more numerous, especially those from staff, and showed that members of the University frequent businesses in downtown Princeton, with Small World Coffee and the Public Library receiving mentions as popular destinations to socialize or study. The E-Quad and Dillon Gymnasium emerged as University buildings that many respondents would like to see modernized or refurbished. When it comes to transportation, 72% of non-undergraduate affiliates reported using a car to access campus. The equivalent statistic for driving at Stanford is 42%, so if the Campus Compass statistic is representative, it would suggest that Princeton University is lagging badly when it comes to sustainable transport.
The latest update also specifies nine goals for the campus planning effort. Broadly, the goals focus on the importance of maintaining an intimate, pedestrian-oriented scale to the campus, of connecting University members (particularly those in outlying sites) and of enhancing connections with local communities through “campus design, land use, and transportation”. The importance of sustainability and limiting car use are mentioned. There is also substantial focus, throughout the update, on the importance of the University’s land holdings beyond the historic campus, notably the 470 acres of prime real estate owned by Princeton University on either side of Route 1 in West Windsor. Use of this land is clearly on the planners’ minds.
Many specifics of the campus plan remain undefined, but it seems clear that the University is going to drop the previously-stated commitment to a ‘park-like setting’. Although a clear focus on landscaping and open space will remain, University planners seem to regard the comparison to a park as inappropriate for an academic campus, which has elements of a park, but is also something much more. Although this change in language may trouble some people connected with the University, it is not ultimately likely to be highly significant.
Beyond this change in language, we can only speculate at where the campus plan is likely to go. The update seems to hint that development around the south side of the existing historic campus is not as good as that in the highly-walkable ‘historic core’. Change could be on the way in these zones, to better utilize space near existing residential and academic areas, and to make a more campus-like, pedestrian-friendly environment there. Existing athletic facilities and utilities would appear to be most at risk of relocation under such a reorganization. New development in this area could include residential units open to the local community, contributing to the goal of strengthening ties to local towns.
Another way the University could strengthen ties to local towns, especially through “campus design, land use, and transportation” would be to connect campus facilities by upgrading mass transit links between central Princeton, the University campus north and south of Lake Carnegie, and West Windsor. This could involve replacing the aging Dinky rail line with a modern streetcar with a broader range and greater frequency. Such a plan was already outlined in a town/gown report last year. Upgraded mass transit would also allow more efficient consolidation of facilities at the University’s West Windsor lands, reduce car dependency, and make a more cohesive environment for staff in outlying facilities such as at Carnegie Center.
We’ll have to wait for the next phase of the plan to find out more specifics about what the University planners have in mind. In the meantime, the University is seeking feedback on the plan goals. You can leave thoughts or comments for the planners to read at this link.