So what is Princeton? A big suburb that enjoys some of the accouterments of a big city but still is rooted in large houses on even larger lots? Or is it a tiny urban enclave, where city-style residential densities and planning techniques prevail?

Raised and educated in Princeton, architect J. Robert Hillier has chosen the latter and has brought urban-style architecture to his hometown, which he calls “the best little city in America.” While other developers have knocked down 1950s-style houses and replaced them with even larger houses, Hillier has converted an old cleaning plant into a row of upscale townhouses on Willow Street and a former auto repair shop into a group of loft apartments around the corner on Moore Street. On quiet Quarry Street, just off Witherspoon, Hillier acquired a small house on a large lot, knocked it down, and replaced it with chrome and glass duplexes (complete with elevators) that sold in the $1 million range (see photo below). It was called an “urban insertion.”

Hillier, who recently sold his interest in the Alexander Road practice that bore his name (now RMJM), has re-invented himself as a sole practitioner on Witherspoon Street. His focus is on building a neighborhood concept through urban thinking, even in more rural areas. “People are tired of spending too much time in their cars,” he told U.S. 1’s Scott Morgan in an October 14, 2009, article. “They want to live downtown.”

The American concept of privacy, Hillier says, traditionally has been “give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above.” That has meant accumulating large tracts, putting a house somewhere in the middle of it, and staying as many acres from our neighbors as we can get.”

That concept, he says, is morphing into a more European style of privacy, in which higher density and a greater focus on the community enhances diversity and creates a more interactive place to live. The idea is that if a community achieves the right critical mass, it will become more self-reliant. As stores, theaters, and businesses open, the need to drive someplace else for food, clothes, and entertainment drops.

The latest incarnation of Hillier’s architectural life embraces contemporary green practices and acknowledges environmental sensitivity by paying attention to how land is used around a structure. Under the firm’s four-point directive, all projects must leave at least 50 percent of land untouched for conservation or nature; solve a community need; take into account the context of the immediate neighborhood; and feature “distinctive, esthetically sound architecture.”

One example is Hilltop Village, a 20-acre wooded property on Bunn Drive where he is designing an environmentally friendly 143-unit complex for the over-55 crowd that he refers to as “a modern version of an Italian village town” due to its piazzas and narrow pedestrian streets.

The complex features sod roofs, cisterns for collecting rainwater, and underground parking. The architecture shoots for self-containment and efficient use and reuse of the natural world — solar, rain, natural light, and so on.

Any city, of course, ought to have a city magazine. And Hillier, who dipped his toe into the media by helping to buy the Town Topics from its original owners, now has added another title to his stable: Princeton Magazine. It’s only a quarterly, not a monthly — yet. But Princeton is still just a small city.

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