Town-gown. What a pithy description of the ongoing relationship between the academic institution and the community surrounding it. In the case of our good neighbor, Princeton University, the town-gown equation has become acrimonious, with the university’s plans to create a multi-million dollar arts neighborhood in the vicinity of McCarter Theater and the Princeton Regional Planning Board’s reluctance to permit the relocation of the “Dinky” train station as part of that development.

A week ago the university’s presentation at the Planning Board turned into what amounted to an ultimatum: Let us move the Dinky 460 feet further out of town to facilitate traffic flow in our new arts neighborhood, or we will withdraw our plans, scuttle the project that would bring hundreds of jobs to town, and seek some other solution to our arts requirements elsewhere on our campus.

While I still think the university would be open to compromise, other people are taking it seriously — and wondering whether 460 feet is important enough to build a huge divide between town and gown and to trigger the loss of a campus expansion that might inject $300 million or so into the local economy. Since we townies can grow a little hide-bound in our beliefs, I made a point to read carefully the cogent observations of a smart newcomer, who has made it her business (literally) to know about and appreciate Princeton’s town and gown.

Mimi Omiecinski of the Princeton Tour Company blogged the following on her website — www.princetontourcompany.com — in the aftermath of the blow-up at the Planning Board:

“The Dinky Train moving 460 feet is about the same distance as walking to Small World for a coffee then to Bent Spoon for a cupcake. At a brisk pace walking 460 feet you could burn about 11 calories! (Throw a Chloe bag on your shoulder and you could push that burn rate to about 15 calories!)

“Add a few P90X squats and you’re up to nearly 40 calories! Stop at the 200 feet mark and throw some Zumba moves around and you’re up to 70 calories.

“I personally think our Town and Gown are in more agreement about this project than meets the eye. The state is paying $8,000 a day to keep the Dinky train rolling. In these difficult times, I don’t see that expense as defensible. If you want to Save the Dinky Train the way to do it is to move her 460 feet. If you bring jobs, revenue, and a world class Arts District to Princeton Borough, you’ll save the Dinky.”

Good points, Mimi. I certainly can’t think of any argument against all of us walking a little more, and driving (or riding) a little less.

But my argument for maintaining mass transit’s presence as close as possible to the heart of the community (Nassau Street in this case) isn’t about exercise. It is rather about whether or not we make a transit system part of the present and future of our community.

The 460 feet that the university proposes to move the Dinky station is not a huge distance. But eliminating the train — or something similar to it — from the daily pulse of the neighborhood is a huge loss. Princeton Future, the group of residents who have organized to study planning issues in town, have been steadfast in support of keeping the Dinky station where it is.

As Lanny Jones noted in an E-mail exchange among Princeton Future participants, “My concern is less where the Dinky terminates than with the university’s interface with the community. It seems to me that a healthy and vital ‘arts neighborhood’ is one that embraces the full diversity and stimulation of the entire Princeton community. So that means that this area in particular should not be a walled-off sanctuary but rather fully integrated in terms of living arrangements, offices and classrooms — a porous border that supports creativity.”

People passing through, whether their destination is Manhattan or McCarter or Maclean Street in Princeton, would seem to be part of that vitality.

The heavyweight contenders in this town-gown battle have been resolute. The university won’t tolerate the Dinky tracks and station in the middle of its arts neighborhood. (And the idea of an at-grade transit option such as a trolley wending through the neighborhood is also anathema because of perceived liability issues.)

The Save the Dinky proponents don’t want the station moved a single foot.

But some compromise has been offered. Writing an op ed piece in the January 26 issue of U.S. 1, Chip Crider suggested that the university be allowed to relocate the station but in exchange be asked to reserve the right of way for some future transit option, to be determined by a long-range study involving, yes, town and gown (www.spurts.org).

I would take Crider’s proposal one step further and combine it with Jones’s idea that exactly where the Dinky tracks end is not the most important issue. I would grant the university the 460 feet on the Dinky, but demand in return the provision of a right of way 920 feet in the other direction — sorry, guys, double damages. That would take the right of way up close to the U-Store parking lot, a natural spot for a transit stop, in any case, and also quite close to Nassau Street, the heart of town.

With a right of way in place, the question is what to do with it. The decision would not have to be made today, or even tomorrow, but the possibility of something would have to be considered in any future town or gown development in that Alexander Street corridor.

Maybe the near future leads to horrendously expensive gasoline that makes Crider’s proposal for a miniaturized subway (or elevated) system that goes on demand — no waiting for the bus — an economically feasible choice.

Or planners may look to West Windsor, where a mixed use development proposed near the Princeton Junction train station calls for a “woonerf,” a Dutch innovation that allows pedestrians, cyclists, and cars to share a promenade. If that succeeds perhaps the university would allow some at-grade transit within its campus.

All that will take time, money, and a less contentious discussion. At the moment “pithy” might not be the first word that comes to mind when you think town-gown.

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