When the new Watershed Center for Environmental Advocacy, Science, and Education opens on Saturday, May 2, it marks the end of a 10-year effort — one that involved planning, research, fundraising, securing permits, and renovating as well as adding two new wings and creative water and energy conservation features to the old Buttinger Nature Center.
But to Jim Waltman, executive director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, who along with the board of trustees shepherded the project from inception to ribbon-cutting, the ceremony marks an end and a beginning.
“It feels like an enormous accomplishment. It also feels like our work is just starting,” he says about the effort to honor the organization’s past while strengthening its ability to promote sustainable environmental practices through education and advocacy.
After conducting a personal tour, he reflects on how far the project has come and what challenges lie ahead.
“Our mission is to protect clean water and the environment that affects the water. So the building is a strategy. How do we make sure that we can set a really good model, have a platform for education and advocacy? How do we get other people to do the things that they need to for the environment to get better?”
Waltman — who lives in Hopewell Borough with his wife, journalist Alicia Brooks Waltman, and their 17-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son — grew up in Princeton, attended local public schools, and graduated from Princeton University in 1986 with a degree in biology.
“I went to Princeton thinking I wanted to be a physician, and had my mind changed with great professors of ecology and environmental sciences and decided I wanted to be more oriented towards conservation and wildlife,” he says.
He went on to earn a master’s degree at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and did his master’s thesis studying parrots in Venezuela.
“I had envisioned myself going on to do a Ph.D. but wanted to take a time-out after getting the master’s. So I went to do an internship at the National Wildlife Federation down in Washington for six months and found myself bitten by the political bug, loved Washington, loved the kind of battle of ideas and that whole thing, and so became an environmental lobbyist and spent 15 years doing that in Washington,” he says. “I was a scientist turned into a lobbyist, and then someone approached me about this job in 2005. It sounded very interesting, and I applied for the position.”
The idea for the new Watershed Center had been percolating since before Waltman arrived at his office in the white, two-story home donated to the Watershed Association by Muriel Buttinger, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst born to a wealthy Chicago meat-packing family who was also active in anti-Fascist activities in pre-World War II Vienna. Also included was a ranch house that served as the old Nature Center and property that would eventually encompass 930 acres, extending from Titus Mill Road in Pennington north to the border of Hopewell Borough.
“When I started here in April, 2005, I inherited an organization that was in great shape, was doing amazing things, had grown, and had a really strong sound foundation. But it was an organization held back by facilities that were not up to the standards of the programs. And almost immediately I knew something had to be done. The board of trustees knew that too. But it took us a while to figure out exactly what we needed.”
The first thing they did was to interview all of the staff and board members for a needs assessment. Then they had a master plan drawn up in 2007 by Michael Farewell of Farewell Architects LLC, a Forrestal Road-based firm that specializes in sustainable design and would become the architect for the project.
The builder they chose for the 14,500-square-foot expansion and renovation was the Springfield, Pennsylvania, based W.S. Cumby Inc, which has built many “green” buildings in the suburban Philadelphia area and in Princeton, including Morris Arboretum Horticulture Center and Hamilton-based Princetel, which in 2014 became the state’s first LEED Platinum-certified industrial building.
The Watershed Center, recently given the highest LEED Platinum rating by the U.S. Green Building Council, demonstrates a number of environmental features and technologies for conserving water and energy that can also be applied to homes and businesses. The exterior of the building alone has three different technologies for conserving water.
Approaching the entrance, a visitor will immediately notice the glass and wood exterior with metal buttresses supporting a V-shaped roof that comes to a point over a group of large, angular rocks to the right of the path.
Says Waltman: “Gorrie Hall — we just named it after one of our longtime supporters — has an interesting roofline, which our architect calls a ‘butterfly roof. So essentially it’s an inverted roof. The water is captured within and pours out the spout. The architect refers to the spout as a ‘bird’s beak spout.’ Our architect is very poetic.”
Waltman says rain water and snow melt feed a rain garden, an area where the soil has been heavily amended with compost and sand and then planted with species that are able to thrive in an environment that oscillates between being very wet and then dry.
Another use, he says, is to “take the runoff from the building and let it seep down, the scientists use the word ‘infiltrate’ or ‘percolate’ is another word for it, so that water is going down to replenish the aquifer and not running off the site as it does in most developed areas.”
He then discusses additional water and conservation features. For example, building wings have flat areas that support soil and plants and a back slope with a gutter system. “The (rain) water is collected in a gutter system and then piped into a big 1,200-gallon tank. We call it rainwater harvesting. That water is collected and then it’s pumped to flush our toilets.”
Then there are also the visible photovoltaic solar panels that can produce power as well as the invisible geothermal systems that have tubes that go 450 feet into the ground. “There’s fluid that’s pumped down into the pipes and then comes back into a similar kind of heat exchanger. Because the earth 450 feet down below is constant at about 55 degrees that helps us heat the building much more efficiently in the wintertime and cool it in the summer,” he says.
While the staff is still fine tuning displays, Waltman says the building interior will house exhibits, including an eight-foot diameter, three-dimensional map table of the Watershed grounds. Also on the list are a weather station with live updates, classrooms, new laboratory facilities for testing stream water on site, and animals — turtles, snakes, and other local native creatures. A gift shop and a small cafe counter with drinks and snacks are also coming.
The project has come a long way from the time in 2008 when, in the middle of a successful fundraising campaign, the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy and Waltman and the board needed to reassess their plans, scaling back the project from $12 million to the $8 million-plus it ultimately cost. The money came from more than 300 contributors, whose names will appear on a plaque in the entry hall.
“Those contributions ranged from two individuals giving more than a million dollars to dozens of people giving $50, $25, I think we had some $10 contributions to the campaign as well,” Waltman says. “We wanted this to be a community effort.”
Waltman has kept his sense of humor through a long and sometimes difficult process. For one thing, after a career spent fighting for preservation of natural resources against development, he found himself the manager of a building project.
“My dad was a businessman. Somewhat ironically he worked for U.S. Gypsum Company, so he was selling sheet rock and ceiling tiles. It was the construction business, which for much of my career I’ve been fighting against. But now I kind of feel like at this stage of my career I have a newfound connection with my dad,” he says. “I’ll admit that some of my environmental friends tease me about being a developer now because of this building,” he laughs.
The opening ceremony will be an opportunity both to celebrate and to continue the work of advocacy using the platform of the new Watershed Center.
“There will be a little bit of speeches and ribbon cutting. We’re trying to pull together an event that will be fun for families. It’ll be a celebration for people who have been part of the organization. So there’s a little bit of a lot of different things going on. And then there will be kind of an open house, so there will be food, there will be music, and there will be demonstrations from some of the subcontractors on the systems that they’ve designed.
“Then we’ll be unveiling the new exhibits, so there will be live animal demonstrations. There will be activities going on in the laboratory so kids and grownups can come learn about the science we do and look at microscopes. And there will be crafts for the youngest kids.
“We want to put on a demonstration of all the broad aspects of the organization. So we’ll have an area where we’ll talk to people about the advocacy work that we’re doing. You know there are pipelines that are being proposed in the area that we’re concerned about. [The Watershed actively opposes the proposed PennEast pipeline.] The work we’re doing to try to improve management of storm water and try to combat the flooding issues that are confronting our area. So it’ll be a good cross section of what we do at the organization, and it should be a fun day.”
Grand Opening, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, 31 Titus Mill Road, Pennington. Saturday, May 2, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free. 609-737-3735 or thewatershed.org.