Eden Autism Services has wanted to expand from its cramped quarters on Route 1 for more than 15 years. At the April 30 launch for the capital campaign, with the model for the new school taking pride of place, the party room at the Westin hotel was filled with euphoric parents and board members.
By next year Eden plans to move from its current 15,000 square feet at the corner of Route 1 and Harrison Street to 42,000 square feet in a two-story building in Princeton Forrestal Village, an expansion of what is now a day care center, Harmony School. Harmony has been at the Village for 21 years, and it will move to a 9,000 square-foot building that is being constructed across the street.
Parents and board members have raised more than $2.5 million of the $7 million campaign goal, of which $3 million is earmarked to start Eden’s first endowment fund. That is a challenging goal for these times, yet Eden has significant support from Princeton University and area corporations. That’s partly because the availability of a world class organization serving special needs children and adults can be a crucial factor for educational and corporate recruiting.
Founded in 1975, this not-for-profit organization offers year-round educational services, early intervention, parent training, respite care, outreach services, community-based residential services, and employment opportunities. Its clients with autism often lack adequate social communication and interaction skills. It operates from five buildings, and its clients include 59 children, ages 3 to 21, in a former AT&T switching station. The new headquarters will house the school, with 48 staff members plus another 40 who work in administration or the foundation.
“Forrestal Village is a great location,” says Christopher Tarr, an Eden board member and an attorney with Stevens & Lee. “It has good highway access, a hotel, and other corporate residents who have been very supportive of Eden over the years.”
“One of the pitches I made to Eden was ‘do you go off in a field and bus the kids, or do you try to integrate them into something that exists’,” says David Knights of Picus Associates, the development arm of Princeton University. “The Eden students already work at the Westin and Windrows. They add a very important element to the village.”
The owners of the Village — Fred Knapp, the Gale Company and its parent, Mack-Cali — were “an absolutely critical link in this,” says Knights. They marked out the spot for Eden on their map for three years before the decision was made. The village will get a prestige boost from the school, and retail traffic could get a boost as well.
But at least one of the stores — a convenience shop — will get a little competition. A 200-square foot Wawa, situated on the walkway between the village and Novo Nordisk, will be staffed by students — ordering supplies, stocking shelves, making coffee and milkshakes, and running the cash registers. It’s an opportunity for the students to interact with the community in a safe way, says Tom McCool, Eden’s CEO. A native of West Philadelphia, McCool went to Westchester State, Class of ‘68, and has a doctor’s degree from Fairleigh Dickinson.
McCool says Eden sorely needs its first endowment fund, to be started with the $3 million from the capital campaign, because its residential services for adults cost more than the state allowance for these services.
Eden will sell its current property to Princeton University for $3.5 million, according to COO Carol Markowitz. It will spend $2.5 million to buy the 12,900 square foot Harmony building, which sits on four acres (a full city block), and add 24,000 square feet, including a two-story gymnasium. If it gets $4 million from the campaign and construction costs equal an estimated $8 million, $3 million will remain to be covered by a mortgage.
Back in 1999 it looked like Eden’s move to a new building would be triggered by construction of an overpass over Harrison Street, part of the then-viable Millstone Bypass plan. That would have been a happy conclusion for Eden, because Princeton University offered a spot on its campus and paid for an architect to draw the initial design. Eden was only too ready to move.
Hopes for that project dimmed but brightened again in 2001 when Shirley Tilghman, coming in as the president of the university, reopened discussions. “Princeton cares very deeply about Eden in two respects,” says Knights. “It has strong ties with the psychology department, and it wants to have Eden be a viable, ongoing institution.” The university footed the bill, again, for the architectural services for this location.
In 2005, when McCool arrived at Eden as president and CEO, Knights suggested the Harmony School site, The facilities committee began a two-year site selection process, visiting nearly 100 other sites, including 693 Alexander, the mansion at the Technology Center of Princeton on Carter Road, a spot behind Princeton Shopping Center, and an existing building on what is now the new medical center campus in Plainsboro. But the committee circled back to Knights’ original proposal. No outside brokers were involved in the deal, because the proposal was on the table before the site search began.
“In addition to more space, it will be a lot better space,” says Markowitz. The school has 55 children and could now enroll as many as 80. In addition to the mini Wawa, it will have a cafeteria with a commercial kitchen. Current gym classes are confined to the basement, and Markowitz is looking forward to a real gymnasium that can also be used for assemblies. Outside recreation includes a playground, a reflections garden, a soccer field, and a path for teenagers with exercise stations.
At last there is enough classroom space, yet these are no ordinary classrooms. Classes for autistic children consist of two people, teacher and child, yet there is a constant traffic stream — families eager to watch progress and visitors from around the world. “Families find it hard to believe their kids are responding so well, but glass hallways are too distracting for autistic kids,” says McCool. So each classroom has a video feed, and two rooms, set up for viewing, can switch from one cubicle to another. Most videos are automatically erased, but if there is what McCool calls “an incident,” what led up to it can be saved for research.
Merilee Meacock, who focuses on the K-12 education market at KSS Architects on Witherspoon Street, did the design (and also designed the new Harmony School). She grew up in the Lehigh Valley, the daughter of an engineer and an art teacher, and graduated from Penn State in 1990. Her projects range from a revamp of the school in Cranbury (which her three boys attend) to a biomedical engineering building for Rutgers.
Meacock spent two weeks embedded with the Eden operation, says McCool: “We had every single teacher and speech therapist sign off that what the drawings listed was what they requested.”
“The only way to do a good building for someone is to become a part of the community,” says Meacock. “But I probably take it a little far.”
As a single mother, she calls on parenting skills in her work. “You really have to get to know people and what their issues are, and you have to be a good negotiator. At the end of the day, everybody gets a piece of something.”
Being a mother helped her with the Eden project, she says, “because you realize how precious life is, and you understand that you fight for these kids and give them every opportunity and every amenity.” Therapy sessions for autistic children can be very intense, and Meacock focused “on ways to bring happiness into the building.”
“We sloped the building up to reach out to the sky and to the playing fields,” says Meacock. Her favorite part is the porch that connects the offices (the former school), the gymnasium, and the classrooms. “It looks out onto the playground, with a lot of glass and a lot of sunlight. Many of the kids will go to all three buildings during the day. And for the parents and doctors, it helps you to know that you have arrived somewhere special. It has a wood ceiling like you would have in a traditional porch.”
Discussions are in progress about using some art on the porch, and a Dr. Seuss Book, “Oh the Places You’ll Go” is the lead candidate. “These kids are really on that level; the teenagers love Barney and Sponge Bob,” says Meacock. The Seuss book offers such wisdom as, “You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, You can steer yourself any direction you choose,”
Says Meacock: “We are talking about enlarging the quotes for the corridor wall.”
Eden Autism Services, 1 Eden Way, Princeton 08540; 609-987-0099; fax, 609-987-0243. Thomas P. McCool, CEO. www.edenservices.org.