August 28, 2013

Valley Road Committee Announces Surprise Investor/Developer

When Mayor Liz Lempert and members of Princeton Council met on Monday evening, they heard, among other business, an announcement by representatives of the Valley Road School Adaptive Reuse Committee (VRS-ARC) that it had been approached by an investor/developer interested in taking on the project.

Kip Cherry, attorney Bruce Afran, and former Mayor Dick Woodbridge spoke briefly about the VRS-ARC project and announced a proposal from Sustainable Energy Financing Program (SEFP) and its representative Larry Sprague.

SEFP looks for adaptive reuse projects that cost in excess of $2 million and present sustainable energy saving opportunities. According to Mr. Woodbridge, many of their projects have involved former school buildings and they are currently working on projects in Brick Township and in Philadelphia. SEFP would provide all of the funding necessary to convert the Valley Road Building into a community center with space for local non-profit groups as conceived by VRS-ARC.

The announcement, which was made during the public comment portion of the Council session, prompted Princeton resident Joe Small to comment. Describing the building as a “century-old piece of junk” which needs “uncalculated resources in order to be put into a useful state,” Mr. Small criticized the idea of renovating the Valley Road building and said that another non-tax paying property would not be in the best interests of Princeton taxpayers. Instead, he said, what is needed is taxable property, and in particular low income housing. By email Tuesday, Mr. Small explained that “if the Valley Road School building were to be sold to the highest bidder, taxpayers would no longer have to pay for upkeep on the under-utilized property and revenue would flow into the treasury from the now taxable property.” Since Princeton lacks adequate housing for its public employees (including teachers), Mr. Small suggests that turning the property into housing would benefit the entire community. “Although tax revenues might not be as high as if the property were sold and used for commercial (office, retail) or market rate residences,” he concedes, “there would still be a net gain for the taxpayers.”

“Giving the property to a non profit or leasing it at subsidized rates, might benefit those charities that would occupy the building and their clients but would not bring in any tax dollars or benefit all of the taxpayers for whose benefit the property is currently held, be it by the School Board or the municipality,” he wrote.

After Monday’s meeting, Mr. Woodbridge commented briefly on Mr. Small’s idea of selling the building to a developer. He suggested that if the School District were to do so, it might be in violation of the original deed of purchase.

Mr. Woodbridge was also quick to point out that, as yet, negotiations with Mr. Sprague and SEFP are at the beginning stages. While he admitted to feeling optimistic after a first meeting with Mr. Sprague and confident that investors in a public/private partnership would entail no cost to Princeton taxpayers and would satisfy the demands of a School Board resolution in March, he emphasized that these were early days. “We can do this.” he said.

In order for any such plans to move forward, however, VRS-ARC envisions the cooperation of Princeton Council and the Princeton School District, which bought the building from the former Princeton Township for $1. VRS-ARC wants Princeton Council to buy from the School District that part of the building they wish to turn into a community center so as to move ahead with their plans.

Mr. Sprague has expressed an interest in meeting with Mayor Lempert and Mr. Quinn, president of Princeton’s Board of Education.

Asked for comments, Mr. Quinn who attended the meeting Monday, responded by email: “The Board’s March resolution unequivocally rejecting VRS-ARC’s proposal did not envision a scenario under which the Board president would revisit that proposal with the inclusion of a private investment firm. As such, I will not meet with Mr. Sprague. I would only do so with the knowledge and consent of the full Board after a thorough vetting of their proposal by the district administration and the Facilities Committee. I think for me to meet with a private investor interested in a public property without following protocol would be entirely inappropriate.”

Mr. Quinn said he was “baffled” that the VRS-ARC announced the interest of an investor to Council, which does not hold title to the building. “The Board’s process for 369 Witherspoon is unchanged by this announcement since we are unaware of any details of VRS-ARC’s plan,” he said.