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Vol. LXIII, No. 43
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
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No Ready Solutions for Future Use of Valley Road Building

Ellen Gilbert

“If there are no solutions to the building, it has to come down,” said Superintendent Judy Wilson referring to the older section of the Valley Road Building in a discussion at last week’s meeting of the Board of Education’s Facilities Committee.

Audience members at the meeting included Recreation Department Executive Director Jack Roberts, Jim Firestone of the School Adaptive Re-Use Committee (VRS-ARC), TV 30 member Ridge Applegate (also a member of VRS-ARC), and representatives of the Township’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Committee member Walter Bliss concurred with Ms. Wilson, saying that “we’re getting to the midnight hour in terms of the west side of the building.”

Ms. Wilson, Mr. Bliss, and Facilities Committee Chair Mia Cahill noted several times that while the board is committed to salvaging the newer part of the building, the older section is “a liability,” requiring costly renovation. “We want someone public, or quasi-public to step up to the bat with a solution,” observed Ms. Wilson.

No mention was made at the Tuesday meeting of a 2008 KSS Architects report, commissioned by the Princeton Regional Schools (PRS), suggesting four potential scenarios for dealing with the building, which has fallen into disrepair over the years. These included a costly upgrade of the existing building; salvaging portions of the current building; providing for continued use by PRS and current occupant, Corner House, and “Plan D,” which called for the creation of a completely new development, with housing, offices, and retail spaces available for sale or rent. The KSS report presented Plan D as the most desirable outcome, noting the building’s proximity to Town Hall and describing the result as an “exciting mixed use neighborhood” with the potential for generating revenue.

During the Facilities Committee meeting, VRS-ARC member Jim Firestone expressed frustration at the absence of a joint meeting of the Township and Borough to address the question of what to do with the building, while listening to ongoing “speculation” about its future. He complained that not understanding the “implications” of decision-making about the building led participants at a recent Princeton Future meeting “to sit around saying ‘what if…’”

At the time of its creation, VRS-ARC members said that their purpose was “to create a citizens group to step forward and, with proper funding, present a new vision and a solid plan for how the Valley Road Building can be saved and used.”

At the meeting, Ms. Wilson reminded Mr. Firestone that his group had been previously asked for a proposed solution, and none had been forthcoming.

The last formal resolution by the Board regarding the Valley Road Building was passed in December of 2007, Ms. Wilson noted. The resolution reads: “The Board of Education supports the municipal bodies’ study for further investigation into the potential uses of the portion of the Valley Road site which faces Witherspoon, made possible by the demolition of the Witherspoon Street building and use of the Sewer Operating Committee land. The Board of Education encourages the Township and Borough governing bodies to recommend options of potential uses of the Valley Road property that have no or limited negative impact on the school district budget and that are aligned with the educational mission of the district and the needs of the district’s students including education, recreation and counseling.”

Encouraging both municipal “governing bodies to recommend options of potential uses of the Valley Road property” the resolution called for the demolition of the oldest part of the building that faces Witherspoon Street — the section that is home to the Township’s affordable housing office and the Borough and Township-sponsored Corner House.

Former Borough Mayor Jim Floyd pointed out that historically, the school board has “made some terrible decisions in selling buildings in the past.” The Nassau Street School, now owned by the university, houses a theater, while the former Quarry Street school now consists of upscale condominiums. Mr. Floyd urged the board to seek help in their decision-making through a public forum.

Ms. Wilson observed that at the last open forum, held in October of 2006, there was “great attendance and lots of suggestions,” including everything “from creating senior housing to using the space as a homeless shelter.” She emphasized that holding another public forum should be predicated on the existence of “three or four detailed, viable options for the building.”

“I think it’s unfair to keep saying the building is falling down,” commented Mr. Applegate. “Why don’t we all chip in $5,000 for a study so we know what our viable options are?”

Ms. Wilson noted that although the building belongs to the school district, it is not eligible for state aid because it is not used for teaching. She pointed out that the boiler on the old side of the building is “on borrowed time,” and at some point will no longer be usable.

Mr. Floyd pointed out that the burden for tearing down the building will fall on Princeton taxpayers.

Historic Preservation Commission member Avril Barton Moore encouraged the district “to field all the brickbats, and say that the public should be involved.” She described the Valley Road building as “holy ground to a lot of people,” and the decision facing the district as “akin to what the Historic Preservation Commission does every day. We hope that you keep the doors open and keep us informed,” she added.

In response to assertions that no plans have been created for the building’s use, Recreation Department Executive Director Jack Roberts pointed out that his department’s master plan includes “a fairly detailed vision of what this building should look like. We could have a great partnership with Corner House. It works perfectly towards the joint cooperative mission that we’re all on.”

“And look at the benefit to the schools,” he emphasized. “Here are two gymnasiums that the schools could access, with locker rooms for the school varsity teams playing on the adjacent fields.” Although the Recreation Department’s current priority is raising money for updating the Community Park Pool complex, Mr. Roberts noted, “don’t lose sight of the fact that there is an alternate vision here.”

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