Princeton has long been a place that people love to visit and seek to call home because of its distinct neighborhoods, vibrant downtown districts, networks of parks and open spaces, top notch public schools, and all the shared benefits of a renowned University, among other assets. But, compounded by outdated zoning, our town has been struggling under the weight of its own success. As a result, streets are increasingly clogged with traffic that pollutes our air and warms our planet, schools are running out of space, and the cost of living – including the sales prices and rents of homes – is skyrocketing, leaving Princeton unaffordable for far too many.
We are at a crossroads: Do we proceed as we’ve been doing, allowing the town to be shaped by the strongest forces acting on it, or do we proactively plan to help shape the town into the place we want it to become?
Presently, the Planning Board is considering a draft Master Plan for adoption, informed by robust public engagement and crafted by planning professionals. A Master Plan – required by state law to be updated every 10 years – is a critical moment for a town to take stock of where they are today, ask who they want to be going forward, and lay out how to get there.
As a professional working in the planning and policy space, I’ve not been surprised by some of the reactions to the Plan. Change is challenging, and this particular plan is no check-the-box exercise. It proposes town-wide, though contextual, changes to zoning that are in some meaningful ways different from what is allowed today. It aims to create the opportunity for more housing throughout, yet suggests that future growth be prioritized in those sections of town nearest public transit and amenities in a diversity of housing types that would enable more people to live here affordably. The plan offers a new, more equitable and sustainable vision of suburbia that is welcoming to our future neighbors.
A Master Plan is neither legislation nor a blueprint for construction. Planning is a slow process, and any proposed changes that stem from the plan will require action by our elected representatives, with further public input. Once any new rules are approved, changes will simply be allowed to happen for those who wish, not decreed for all to do. The vision will fade-in over time, not arrive in the blink of an eye.
In order for us to achieve the proposed vision, however, this plan must work jointly with others, such as our Climate Action Plan and the long term planning efforts of the Board of Education, so that as we grow, our schools are equipped to educate and our carbon footprint (and car-choked roads) can be abated.
Our last Master Plan has been at work for nearly 30 years. A lot has changed since then and the vision put forward in this draft does a good job of preserving what we love about our town while tearing down the barriers to others who would like to call Princeton home.