“Use it or lose it or give it to someone else who will use it,” says Dick Woodbridge, former mayor of Princeton Township, in reference to the oldest part of the former Valley Road School building at 369 Witherspoon Street.
Earlier proposals for the building’s future had been received by the Board of Education but in the face of estimated costs of some $10.8 million, the school district had postponed any decision until after consolidation of the Princetons.
Now that consolidation is here, it’s time to take action, especially since the building’s condition is deteriorating, says Mr. Woodbridge.
“The leak in the roof could well develop into a public safety issue,” says Mr. Woodbridge. “We would like to repair it but we have no authority to effect the repairs,” he says, noting that no money has been allocated for the building’s maintenance for many years. “This is a public property that has been grossly neglected,” he said.
The building in question sits between the new Town Hall and the newly refurbished portion of the former school that houses the administration for Princeton Public Schools on its Valley Road side. “No one is taking responsibility for it and we would like to take on that responsibility. We want to rehabilitate but we can’t do that until we have rights to it. We want it to be a community center and we estimate that it will cost some $2 million to refurbish it. Perhaps its footprint needs expanding somewhat, we are willing to be flexible,” says Mr. Woodbridge.
The buildings last two tenants, Corner House and TV30 have been offered alternative space in the former Borough Hall. Corner House has accepted the offer and plans to move late March. TV30 has not.
According to Kip Cherry, president of the non-profit formed two years ago to raise money for the building’s renovation, Valley Road School Community Center, Inc., the local public access television station is still considering its options and hopes to remain as a tenant of the municipality, which took over responsibility for the building from the Board of Education last spring.
“Under the leadership of George McCullough, TV 30 has grown in recent years,” says Ms. Cherry. “Borough Hall doesn’t have the potential of the space TV30 now occupies, where it is a tremendous and easily accessible resource for the community, but in spite of the station’s creativity and output, the uncertainty of its position has thwarted its growth,” she said.
Mr. Woodbridge serves as liaison to the municipal cable TV committee and is a longtime member of the TV 30 Foundation. He is also involved with the Valley Road Adaptive Re-Use Committee, which formed the Valley Road School Community Center, Inc. The non-profit organization recently received 501c3 tax exempt status from the IRS and has a detailed plans to turn the building into a community center with space leased to non-profit organizations.
The plan’s details are in the 208-page proposal drawn up by Ms. Cherry, the non-profits’ president, and submitted to the Board of Education in 2011. The proposal would turn the old portion of the Valley Road School into a nonprofit hub. “We have non-profits who would love to get in there and pay rent and we are trying to memorialize this with a letter of intent,” said Mr. Woodbridge.
At the same 2011 meeting, Princeton Borough and Princeton Township submitted a proposal that would demolish the school and build a new complex to house Corner House, the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, and an expanded fire station. The rescue squad has since decided to expand at its current site on Harrison Street and a task force is currently studying the feasibility of expanding the fire house on the Valley Road site.
The Community Center plan includes studio space for TV30 as well as two black box theaters and a cafe that would be operated by autistic adults. “Besides the more routine rental agreements for space, we have innovative ideas that include a proposed rental charge for shared spaces, which allows nonprofit users to be charged for space only when they are using it,” said Ms. Cherry. “The plan calculates the costs of operating the building and demonstrates that the revenue, at very reasonable rental rates, would more than cover the operating costs,” she said. “What we are hoping for is a collaboration, a public-private partnership, that will allow our efforts to be endorsed by the School Board and the Princeton Council, so that we can raise the funds to cover immediately needed repairs and renovations.”
Ms. Cherry, who grew up in Princeton and attended the Valley Road School, said that the issue is not one of nostalgia. An advocate of historic preservation, Ms. Cherry said: “Princeton has a rich fabric to protect and this building played an influential role in the 1940s and 1950s in establishing Princeton as one of the best school districts in the nation.”
According to Ms. Cherry, the building was given to the people of Princeton in 1918. It was in the hands of the school district but owned by the Township until 2002 when the Township sold it to the school district for a nominal fee of $1. “Neither the Township nor the school district has taken responsibility for its maintenance and that responsibility now falls to the new consolidated Princeton,” she said, citing agreements beginning in 1979 between the School Board and Princeton Township for the older portion of Valley Road School fronting on Witherspoon Street. “This is not just the School Board’s problem but a problem for the municipality,” she said.
The website of the Princeton Public Schools has a timeline summarizing the actions and decisions by the Board of Education regarding the building beginning with a public forum on the issue held in October 2007.
In 2008, several scenarios for the building’s future were put forward by KSS Architects of Princeton. The scenarios were listed in three categories: 1) maintain all or some of the structures; 2) demolish everything and rebuild a large building or buildings; and 3) demolish everything, build a smaller building and sell part of the land. Cost ranged from $5.5 million to $24 million for a full rehabilitation.
Experts later recommended that the board stop investing in 369 Witherspoon because of the prohibitive cost of repair and upgrade as estimated.
“What is needed,” said Mr. Woodbridge, “is for the building to be looked at in the context of the other civic buildings now concentrated at the bottom of Witherspoon Street, making it a no-brainer for a community center.”
Mr. Woodbridge was also a student at the Valley Road School from third to eighth grade. And while he acknowledges a sentimental attachment to the building, his plans are all practical. “The building is built like a fortress with walls that are four bricks thick and while it has not been well maintained over the years, with no money from the school budget allocated for its maintenance, it is not without future possibility,” he argues.
One other scenario that Mr. Woodbridge suggests is for Mayor Liz Lempert to appoint a Valley Road Building Committee to look at the issue, or to consider forming a charrette.
A charrette is an intensive planning session where citizens, designers, and others collaborate on a vision for development. The process can allow all participants to be mutual authors of any plan that develops through brainstorming and design activity.
“A charrette could bring an outsider with no agenda together with stakeholders from the Foundation, the Town, Princeton Public Schools, TV 30 and the Fire House,” said Mr. Woodbridge.
“With consolidation, the Town has a lot on its hands,” said Mr. Woodbridge. “If they don’t have time to deal with this, they should appoint a committee to look into it and explore what has to be done.”