The Time Is Now for the Arts Council

Matthew Hersh

The Arts Council of Princeton announced last week that crews should be breaking ground on the new Paul Robeson Center for the Arts within the next few days.

And this time, it's for real.

More than six months after putting the symbolic shovels in the ground with a celebration that kicked off the Arts Council's capital campaign, the institution hopes that it is finally on the way toward its goal of completing a 16,740 square-foot facility by adding about 8,000 square feet onto the current building that stands on the corner of Paul Robeson Place and Witherspoon Street.

The original building, a Works Progress Administration project, was once home to Princeton's "Black Y."

The construction also heralds the public phase of the Art Council's $9.37 million fund-raising effort. To date, about $6.87 million has been raised, covering the estimated cost of the building project. The final fund-raising tally includes monies to establish a $2 million endowment as well as $500,000 that will allow programming to expand commensurate with increased square-footage. The goal for the public fund-raising effort has yet to be released.

The first visible evidence of the construction, expected for a fall 2007 completion, will be minor site preparation next week, which will largely be done behind construction fences, said Jeff Nathanson, Arts Council executive director.

After that, the one-story portion of the building facing Paul Robeson Place that houses the current WPA Gallery and the dance studio will be demolished to make way for the new wing. The remaining two-story portion of the building to the north will be preserved and renovated, Mr. Nathanson said, adding that any demolition "should" occur in January.

Construction was supposed to begin in September, but various matters "beyond our control," according to Mr. Nathanson precluded an immediate start to the project. Factors behind the delay included the fence's proximity to the sidewalk, and an environmental study for asbestos and lead.

"Of course the age of the building had us making certain assumptions," he said, adding that only a "very small" amount of lead abatement was needed in an area where lead paint was used. Mr. Nathanson said the study showed no signs of asbestos on the site.

"The building is environmentally sound, which is really great. I'm just patiently waiting for the first amount of earth to be moved," Mr. Nathanson said. "There are details to be worked out between the contractor and the Borough, and I'm not privy to the details, but I've been told that they have been worked out."

In the meantime, the Arts Council has packed up shop and moved to its conTEMPORARY Arts Center at the Princeton Shopping Center at the southern end near Eckerd. Classes, which began there this fall, will be held at that location until the new facility is ready to open, Mr. Nathanson said. In addition to the Shopping Center location, the Arts Council operates its conTEMPORARY Ceramics Studio in Rocky Hill.

"People are loving the new space," Mr. Nathanson said, adding that enrollment has increased since moving there. "Obviously people are finding us now."

Mr. Nathanson said that he is hopeful that enrollment will continue to rise when the new Paul Robeson building is completed. Princeton architect Michael Graves will offer a lecture on the building design on February 9 at the Shopping Center's conTEMPORARY Arts Center.

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