To the Editor:
Princeton is in a unique position within the surrounding region as the one place that can provide a car-free lifestyle. While residents of West Windsor or Montgomery face the daily requirement to fight traffic on Route One or Route 206, the historic core of Princeton, built before the advent of the automobile, provides a critical density of employment and amenities built for walking rather than driving. In our years as students and then townies living on Vandeventer Ave., my wife and I were mostly oblivious to the traffic disaster that is the Princeton region. I remember once naively telling my visiting grandparents that Princeton's traffic wasn't bad at all, a notion they disabused me of when they finally managed to drive in and park. We only used a car once a week for groceries so we didn't know any better.
The popularity of apartment living in dense, walkable neighborhoods has skyrocketed in recent years. Those of us who grew up in isolated suburban homes and spent half our youth in the car being driven from one activity to the other are very attracted to a life with fewer parking lots and highways. Access to this lifestyle in Princeton however has been frozen in time. According to the census the population of the former Princeton Borough is lower now than it was in 1950. While enrollment and employment at the university and in town has exploded in the past 60 years the supply of housing within walking distance has remained essentially the same due to the effects of restrictive zoning. Instead of greater population density we've seen an exponential rise in the number of cars commuting into town with the attendant need for ever more parking and roadwork.
As a chaplain working with graduate students and faculty at Princeton's various institutions of higher learning I have constant reminders of the damage done by the lack of new apartments in the walkable core of town. Just the other day I was speaking with a visiting professor from Cambridge. He isn't a driver and needs a place within walking distance of campus. The best the university can do for him, despite its tremendous resources, is two weeks in a place owned by the Seminary, followed by a week in a bed and breakfast, and only then could an apartment be secured for the remainder of his time as a visitor to Princeton. You can imagine how much worse it is for the hundreds of non-driving internationals and others who don't have the status of visiting professor to put them at the head of line when it comes to securing in town housing. I was speaking to a graduate student from Vietnam, again not a driver, who is stuck in Butler apartments on Harrison St., more than a mile from campus or any store. The shuttles don't even run on weekends leaving her dependent on long walks, bike rides, or the kindness of neighbors for basic needs. Those who do pay the exorbitant price for rentals in old homes within the core of town often find decrepit conditions and abusive landlords who count on the fact that there will always be a desperate non-driving graduate student who has no choice but to pay high rents for terrible conditions in order to be within walking distance.
What's the solution? Princeton needs apartment buildings like the one from AvalonBay so recently rejected by the planning board. The only solution to unmet demand is to increase the supply of housing. The solution to our traffic problems is to enable the hundreds and thousands who would prefer to live in walking distance to do so. The best thing to do for sustainability is to allow apartment living in town. The answer to our water runoff issues is to allow population growth to be accommodated at greater densities in town rather than amidst the suburban, car-dependent sprawl. The best thing we can do for our tax base is to encourage these many single and childless households to locate in Princeton rather than only allowing single-family homes which bring far more children to the schools. Opponents argue that four- and five-story apartment buildings aren't in keeping with Princeton's neighborhoods. Right in the heart of town, at Nassau and Witherspoon, the First National Bank built a five-story office building as far back as 1902. That building covers the entire lot and the historic core of town has many similar structures. It's that very density of population, employment, and amenities that makes Princeton something other than just a commuter suburb.
We should welcome increased population density in town, or else we will continue to live with increased density of traffic and asphalt.
David Keddie, Princeton