Welcome to 369 Witherspoon Street, a 75,000-square-foot, brick and concrete symbol of what the past is really worth compared to the present.
Between 1918 and the early 1970s this address in Princeton Township was the home of the Valley Road School, which served grades 1 through 8 in the Princeton public school system. Today it is the home of Princeton Community TV (a.k.a. TV-30), Corner House (a family counseling service), and the offices of the Princeton Township Affordable Housing Department. But unless someone can save the building, it won’t be the home of anything come July.
One potential white knight in this saga is a small group comprised mostly of school alumni called the Valley Road School Active Reuse Committee, also known as VRS-ARC or, simply, ARC. This group hopes to steer the school district from its current plans to evict the tenants and tear the building down — something the district says it will do if no one can come up with a viable plan to save it by Wednesday, June 1. If no one can, all tenants will be evicted after June 30.
ARC’s plan — which it hopes to formally present to the school board on June 1 — is to renovate the building and rent out space to nonprofit organizations. Some organizations, such as McCarter Theater, already have expressed interest in renting out space in such a center.
The plan, according to George McCollough, station manager at Princeton TV and ARC member, is to relieve the public of the expense required to maintain the building and to pay for the upkeep with the rents ARC would charge its tenants. The idea is modeled after the Nonprofit Center in Boston, which provides office space, shared space, and meeting rooms for community-centered organizations.
The issue of what to do with Valley Road School has been the stuff of school board meetings and public discourse since 2006, when KSS Architects, located just a few doors away at 337 Witherspoon Street, presented its conclusions that the old part of the building was “significantly deteriorated and needed extensive structural and mechanical repairs.”
Valley Road School was built in three main phases — the original, two-story school that opened in 1918 and two additions. Two wings, a cafeteria, and a gymnasium were added on in 1927, and a two-story classroom wing, a one-story library, a gymnasium, and locker rooms were added in 1949. The buildings take up about 3.5 acres on an overall 8.9-acre site. There are 95 parking spaces, plus 11 spaces for buses.
KSS concluded: “The district anticipates $2 million in upcoming required maintenance projects, and routine operating and maintenance costs account for $200,000 more annually than would be required for a new building. Using this criterion, a new building could be paid off in 15 years and would be easier and more cost effective to maintain thereafter.”
This is a common dilemma when considering new uses for old buildings, and in the greater Princeton area, there are a few current examples:
St. Joseph’s Seminary. Quinn Schwenker, an architect at Ford3 Architects at 32 Nassau Street, is part of the effort to refurbish the St. Joseph’s Seminary property at 75 Mapleton Road. No longer a seminary, the property will become the home of the American Boychoir School, which plans to move from 19 Lambert Drive this fall. The French American School of Princeton, based at 16 All Saints Road, and the Wilberforce School of Princeton, based at Cedar Lane and Nassau Street, will move here as well.
Ford3 is not doing any major repair work (there are seven buildings, some of which are nearly as old as Valley Road School but are in terrific shape, Schwenker says), but is bringing all buildings up to code. Repairs are largely confined to ceilings and some walls, and renovations largely are a matter of meeting requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Other than that, the interiors of two buildings will be renovated to accommodate science and technology classes, plus space for performances and rehearsals.
Merwick. Merwick Care Center moved into its new home at 100 Plainsboro Road in January, and its former building at 79 Bayard Lane is now Princeton University property. The Merwick site adjoins the university’s Stanworth housing for faculty, a 16-acre, 23-building parcel. The university plans to convert the site to permanent faculty and staff housing. Plans have not been finalized, but in April the university hired the Georgetown Co. of New York City as the developer.
This is related to the university’s plan to redevelop the Hibben-Magie housing complex off Faculty Road. Currently the apartments house graduates students, faculty, and staff, but the university plans to raze the building and build new housing solely for graduate students. Ultimately the faculty and staff who would have been housed at Hibben-Magie will be housed at the redeveloped Stanworth site.
University Medical Center. When University Medical Center of Princeton moves into its new 636,000-square-foot site at Route 1 and Plainsboro Road around the end of the year it will leave behind its longtime home at 253 Witherspoon Street. Nothing concrete has been mentioned yet, but in December, when Princeton Healthcare retained BlueGate Partners, a New York-based real estate advisory firm, to guide it on the sale of the 10-acre Witherspoon campus, a favored idea was to convert the hospital and its ancillary buildings (including a three-story, 741-space parking garage) into living space.
The current hospital site is zoned for up to 280 residential units and approximately 79,000 square feet of retail and commercial uses.
In the case of Valley Road School, the district has stated repeatedly that the newer parts of the building (those built in 1949) are worth fixing, but the old part is not. The board has told the public that it hopes some entity can rescue the historic building, but if no one can, the building will have to be demolished. The board no longer wants to spend money on an old building when that money could be put to better use in education programs.
The school board is not looking specifically to sell the property, but it has not ruled out the possibility.
ARC counts attorney Dick Woodbridge; Anne Reeves, founding director of the Princeton Arts Council; architect John Hatch; real estate professional Jim Firestone; historian Elric Endersby; Claire Jacobus of the Bryn Mawr Book Sale; marketing professional Kip Cherry; peace activist and photographer Anna Savoia; television and film professional Dan Preston; and community leader (and former township mayor) Jim Floyd Sr. among its ranks. The group has also formed Save Valley Road School (SVRS), a nonprofit that hopes to raise money for the project.
According to Woodbridge, an intellectual property and trademark attorney with Fox Rothschild on Lenox Drive and a 1957 graduate of Valley Road School, ARC is looking to raise money for the community center project in two phases. The first phase needs between $150,000 to $300,000 for basic repairs to the roof and some of the interior. This, he says, will be enough to keep the building working until Phase II, which will be significantly more expensive — between $2 million and $5 million. The exact amount will depend on what SVRS ends up doing with the building, Woodbridge says.
John Hatch, an architect at Clarke Caton Hintz in Trenton who is interested in saving the building, says Valley Road School can be rehabbed in many ways, based on the intended use. He says the KSS report did what it needed to do, which was to consider what it would take to bring the building up to all current codes for a school. But no one wants this building to be a school anymore, and the level of renovations needed for office space depend on how fancy you want to get.
“Class-A office space would require some pretty thorough renovations,” he says. This, of course, would be for high-rent tenants. Class C spaces, on the other extreme, are functional workspaces without the gloss. These take a lot less work because they are not meant for premier tenants.
Calculating whether a building is worth saving is not an exact science. Schwenker says it often takes getting deep into research before knowing whether to fix up or tear down a structure. It happens sooner in residential projects than in commercial, but it always comes down to a few basics — what the building is made of, how well it has been maintained, and what it originally was designed for. At St. Joseph’s, for example, Ford3 is converting former academic and dormitory space into updated academic and dormitory space in an old, solid set of buildings. Saving such a building, therefore, makes more sense.
Valley Road School, though originally built for students, was renovated partially in 1980 to accommodate the Princeton Township municipal offices, so its conversion to office space is not a stretch. But Schwenker says that some buildings are designed to such tight specifications that any changes cause a ripple all the way down the chain. And a newer building, made with less material but that also is not efficient makes a better tear-down than refurb.
One other thing to keep in mind, Schwenker says, is that renovation comes in many flavors, each of which affects the schedule. At St. Joseph’s, for example, the floors and walls are in great shape, but the ceilings are not. This adds time to the schedule because the builders have to be careful when taking out the ceilings. A lot of commercial tear-downs, he says, come from adding up the amount of time it will take to save parts of a building versus starting from scratch.
Woodbridge says the ultimate plan for the Valley Road School could be to just renovate within the existing footprint or possibly expand on the northern side to make a place for Corner House. So far SVRS has raised about $10,000. Woodbridge says the group wants to secure a commitment from the school board before it raises money in earnest. “It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing,” he says. “You can’t really get a serious commitment [from the public] until you get a serious commitment from the school board.”
Money for such a project would not need to come only from donors. Hatch says that there are several avenues to funding for a project in a historic building. A private developer has access to the Federal Historic Tax Credit, which can cut 20 percent from the final cost. And a nonprofit group such as SVRS likely can get money from the New Jersey Historic Preservation Trust and other organizations that provide funds to save historic buildings.
What makes Valley Road School historic, beyond its age, is its stature in the community. Its collegiate Gothic style and its brick-and-concrete construction has served as a model for other buildings on the northern end of Witherspoon Street — namely the township Municipal Building and the Mercer No. 3 fire house. The school’s most prominent feature, the Gothic arch at the main entrance, was modeled after similar arches at Princeton University. The school also was the first in Princeton to integrate, years before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in 1954.
Despite its historic and sentimental value, the building has had little to no upkeep since the mid-1970s and, consequently, needs major renovation work. According to the KSS report, some of the exterior walls, decayed by leaks and weakened from decades of freeze-thaw punishment, need to be repaired. Some sections should be replaced outright. The roof, which sports sizable holes above Princeton TV’s studio, also needs major work. There also is the building’s worn-out and costly-to-use boiler, which needs to be replaced.
Moreover, the building is not ADA-compliant, a common problem when refurbishing buildings that predate the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Upgrades for ramps or ADA-compliant bathrooms can boost costs quickly.
But ARC is not worried. Hatch says that rehabilitating an old building gets less costly when you bring on professionals who know what they are doing. In a video ARC made to promote its plans, Hatch states: “If you have good contractors it’s less expensive to rehab a building, almost always.”
Hatch has made a name for himself renovating old buildings. Though he has only been through Valley Road School a few times and is not ARC’s primary architect (that would be Jerry Ford of Ford3 Architects), Hatch says that despite its flaws the building itself “looks quite solid. We’ve worked on buildings that were so much worse than this one.”
One was the Labor Lyceum, a former school building on Mercer Street in Trenton that survives today as a condo apartment building. The building, like Valley Road School, has a masonry-and-brick exterior and former classroom space on one level. Unlike Valley Road School, however, the building was entirely uninhabitable, Hatch says.
Valley Road has a leg up in that the building is currently occupied. This means that at least part of the building has been getting heating and air conditioning (run and paid for by the school district). This is important, Hatch says, because climatizing the inside of a building keeps extreme outside temperatures from wearing it down. Also when a building is occupied tenants notice when things fall apart.
But only part of Valley Road School is occupied. Much of the site has been vacant for decades. Plumbing, ventilation, and utilities do not reach all parts of the building.
Still, Hatch says that even these flaws are not as bad as some of the buildings he has seen. It just takes the right knowledge and the right attitude. The Labor Lyceum project worked, he says, because Clark Caton Hintz knew how to get the numbers right for the purposes envisioned. “It’s always a question of what you want to do with a building,” he says.
Beyond the monetary costs of refurbishing an old building, Hatch says demolition in general is just not a good idea. Demolition precedes new construction, which requires new materials. An old building, even one in the droopy shape of Valley Road School, does not take up space in a landfill. Nor does it waste what is known as “embodied carbon.” This refers to the amount of carbon energy used to construct a new building. Tearing something down, Hatch says, just takes all that carbon used to put it up, however long ago, and throws it to the wind. “The greenest building,” he says, “is the one that is already built.”
Not everyone waxes nostalgic about Valley Road School. Apart from those members associated with Princeton TV, which backs the idea of converting the building to a community center, no one involved with ARC works in the building itself. Gary DeBlasio, executive director of Corner House, however, does. His assessment of the building, after spending 11 years in it: “It’s beyond hope.”
Though DeBlasio admits that he does not have an architectural background, he knows what he experiences on a daily basis — rotted windows, bad plumbing, and undrinkable water from rusty lead pipes. Corner House’s staff of 24 (including volunteers and part-timers) bring bottled water to work.
DeBlasio says he has listened to the ARC proposal and feels that the group is significantly understating and underestimating the problems here. He says the effort would have been laudable in the 1980s, but that after all this time it probably is no longer worth it. “If they had done this 25 years ago I would have been right there with them,” he says.
Corner House, which provides counseling services for substance abuse and family problems, is a key element in what will become of the building. The Princeton Regional School District has mandated two criteria for anyone looking to take on the space. One is that any proposal must be economically feasible. Second is that it must be consistent with the board’s mission of education, counseling, or recreation. An unofficial third provision is that a place for Corner House needs to be part of the deal.
The board has officially recognized two proposals, one being the ARC plan and the other the joint Princeton Borough/Township plan to consolidate emergency services there. That plan calls for the building to be demolished and a new one built that would house emergency services on one end and provide a home for Corner House on the other. That project could cost as much as $500,000 and would be paid for with municipal money.
DeBlasio says Corner House is still in talks about transitional space — most likely to be modular trailer units on the grounds while either new construction takes place or while Corner House searches for a new permanent home. The other township offices would also need to find transitional homes.
But what would become of Princeton TV is anybody’s guess. “At this point it’s tough to say what we will do,” McCollough says. “There are not many options that are affordable.” The most likely outcome will be temporary (and smaller) quarters, eliminating the studio until a permanent home is found. “We will still operate, though, and make equipment and editing facilities available to the public,” he says. “Whatever the outcome I’m committed to making sure that we are able to serve our members and the public better.”
ARC is against emergency consolidation in this particular spot. Throughout the numerous public meetings in the township, at the school board, and at ARC’s own monthly meetings (held every third Thursday at Princeton TV) a constant refrain has been that traffic at this end of town could make trouble for emergency services.
Beyond that, Woodbridge questions the machinations needed to contend with such a makeover of the Valley Road School property. Consolidation, Woodbridge says, would need the buy-in of all the fire companies (there are three) and the rescue squad, plus a series of approvals. “There’s just a huge number of moving parts,” he says.
He also questions why anyone would want to move the Princeton Rescue Squad from 237 North Harrison Street to the other end of town when the University Medical Center is scheduled to open just across Route 1 (barely a mile from where the ambulance squad is now) in the coming months.
Ultimately, all sides want the same thing: a use for the Valley Road School that serves the community. But exactly how the building and its history will be valued is up in the air. At least until June 1.