August 14, 2013

Council Won’t Put Valley Road Question On November Ballot

Last week, Princeton Council declined to put a non-binding referendum question on the November 5 General Election ballot that would ask voters whether a portion of the former Valley Road School at 369 Witherspoon Street should be turned into a community center with space for local non-profit groups.

To get a public question on the ballot a petition must be signed by 10 percent of voters; community center advocates had presented a petition signed by more than 2100 Princeton voters to Council in July.

However, according to Council as advised by municipal attorney Edwin Schmierer, the question cannot be included on the ballot because the building is owned by the Princeton Public School District.

In 2002, Princeton Township sold the building to the School District for $1.

The Valley Road School-Adaptive Reuse Committee (VRS-ARC) wants the town to buy back the building from the School District for the same $1 amount and then lease it to them at a similar nominal rate.

In an interview on Monday, Kip Cherry, President of Valley Road School Community Center, Inc. (VRSCCI), the nonprofit organization formed two years ago to raise money for the building’s renovation, said that she did not see Council’s decision as a setback. “Regardless of whether the question of saving Valley Road School is on the ballot, the people have weighed in and they overwhelmingly want to see the historic Valley Road School saved and reused. Ten percent of all Princeton voters signed the petition. I feel that the people have spoken,” she said.

Ms. Cherry, who collected signatures for the petition, described Princeton voters as “knowledgeable” on the issue. “They have watched Valley Road School deteriorate over the years; they care about the historic fabric of our town and about the public assets that make Princeton unique; they also know that renovating a building well-suited for a purpose is less expensive than tearing it down and building a new one,” she said. “Many Princeton voters will be disappointed at not having a chance to vote in November.”

Advocates of the community center plan would still like to see a referendum and Ms. Cherry believes that there is -opportunity to do so at a future date. Undeterred by last week’s council meeting, VRSCCI, in conjunction with VRS-ARC, released details on Monday of construction cost estimates for renovating the building, along with a conceptual design.

Prepared by New York architect Cary Spiegel, AIA, the estimates puts the total cost of construction including fees and contingencies at $3.9 million, considerably less than a School Board estimate of “at least $10.8 million.”

Ms Cherry said that when her group had asked for justification of the School Board’s estimate, no documentation was forthcoming.

According to Ms. Cherry, the figure from Spiegel Consultants, was prepared under the direction of VRSCCI’s architect, Josh Zinder, AIA, and includes two black box theaters and approximately 20,000 square feet of rental space.

A Little History

Now almost 100 years old, the original two-story school was designed by Robert A. Schumann and built on land given to “the inhabitants of Princeton Township” by Ernest and Grace Richardson. It opened in 1918 and was Princeton’s first integrated elementary school.

In 2011, Ms. Cherry submitted detailed plans to the Board of Education for its adaptive reuse as a community center in a 208-page proposal.

Earlier this year, the municipality created a task force, led by Councilman Lance Liverman, to explore the building’s use with respect to a possible expansion of the firehouse on Witherspoon Street.

In May of this year, on the same day that the building was listed by Preservation New Jersey (PNJ) as one of the 10 most endangered historic places of 2013, advocates launched their campaign to put the question of saving the building on November’s ballot. PNJ had described it as “an ideal candidate for rehabilitation, threatened by poor stewardship and uncertainty of future plans.”

Earlier proposals for the building had been received by the Board of Education. In 2008, several scenarios were put forward by KSS Architects of Princeton with costs ranging from $5.5 million to $24 million depending on the extent of the renovation, from maintaining all or some of the structures to partial or total demolition.

The District’s website has a timeline summarizing the actions and decisions by the Board of Education regarding the building since October 2007.

Asked for comment on what might be next for Valley Road School, former Princeton Township Mayor Richard Woodbridge, Chair of VRC-ARC and, like Ms. Cherry, a former student at the school, said: “The one thing we have learned from most other school-to-community-center conversions (like Chatham, Mass.) is that there is normally initial resistance. The lesson is be prepared for it and keep pressing the obvious financial and social advantages. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Never give up. Never. Never. Never … Never.”

Princeton Council will next meet on August 26. Attorney Bruce I. Afran, the lawyer for the nonprofit organization, is expected to appear before the council to discuss the referendum at that time.

Meanwhile community center advocates continue to write letters to the editor of this newspaper on the subject (see page 12).