The Princeton Board of Education decided on May 24 to give the occupants of the former Valley Road School at 369 Witherspoon Street an extra three months in the building. The tenants will now have until September 30 to vacate the building, after which it will be razed unless the board approves a plan to save it.
Two sets of plans lead the way (see U.S. 1, May 18). One plan belongs to the Valley Road School Active Reuse Committee (VRS-ARC), a group comprised mainly of VRS graduates who want to convert the space into a center for nonprofit agencies. The other is a joint Princeton Borough/Township plan that looks to take the oldest section of the nearly century-old building down and build in its place a new home for consolidated emergency services.
The school district last year set June 1 as the deadline for any group to submit a plan for the site. That deadline has been moved to Friday, June 10. Dick Woodbridge, a member of ARC and an attorney at Fox Rothschild at 997 Lenox Drive, said ARC did not ask for the extension but is pleased to have it.
Under its original direction, the school board stated that if no one could devise a legitimate plan for the Valley Road School building by June 1, its occupants would be evicted as of June 30. Though it has not been a school for decades, the site is home to Princeton Community Television (TV-30), social services agency Corner House, and the offices of the township Affordable Housing Department.
The school district, based on a 2007 report by KSS Architects, located just a few doors away at 337 Witherspoon Street, concluded long ago that it would not be worth repairing the building. Facing a tight budget and looking to trim some fat, the district has stated that it can no longer carry the burden of the VRS property.
Woodbridge says that news of the extensions “obviously was very well-received by us. I don’t understand the point of kicking us out.” Woodbridge also is a member of Princeton Community Television’s board and a former township mayor.
ARC members will visit the People Care Center in Bridgewater on Wednesday, June 15, to evaluate how that project came about. The People Care Center is an almost exact example of what ARC wants to see happen at VRS. An underused school building there was successfully renovated to house community space and nonprofit offices. The visit will take place after the June 10 deadline for proposals, but, says Woodbridge, will provide valuable insight nonetheless. ARC wants the board to know that it plans the visit and also plans to study a similar center in Montana because the group wants the board to know it is serious.
VRS opened in 1918 and ceased being an active school in the 1970s. The effort to save the building is rooted in a sense of history — one of the oldest school buildings in Princeton, VRS was the first in the district to racially integrate, long before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in 1954 — and a sense of environmentalism. Those connected with ARC say that repairing the building is a much greener idea than tearing it down and hauling the rubble off to a landfill.
But the school district is worried about the cost, which even ARC admits could be between $2 million and $5 million. ARC, if it is successful in its June 10 proposal, will raise money through donations and seek state historic reconstruction grants to fund the project. Woodbridge says ARC has about $10,000 in its coffers now, but is not actively looking for any money until the school district commits to its plans. “It would be really awkward if we went out and raised money and then had to give it all back,” he says.