The future of the 369 Witherspoon Site looks set to be one of the biggest redevelopment questions facing Princeton in the coming years. Competing plans are circulating for re-use of the site, but are any of these plans right? It’s time to put all options on the table and have a proper public discussion! Let’s consider the options…
1. The ‘Save Valley Road School’ Campaign
The plan that is getting the most attention right now is that put forward by the ‘Valley Road School Adaptive Reuse Committee‘ (VRS-ARC), also known as the ‘Save Valley Road School’ campaign. A group of volunteer local residents, the VRS-ARC proposes to “preserve, restore and convert the Valley Road School building into a viable community center that would serve the Princeton Community area”. They amassed over 2,000 signatures of Princeton residents this summer to try to force a ballot question for the upcoming November election, so that all voters could officially register an opinion on whether the site should be turned over to VRS-ARC on a $1-a-year lease with the idea that it would be turned into a center for drama and non-profit work.
Despite the ‘Save Valley Road School’ name, the buildings at 369 Witherspoon site have not been a school for decades. The former township school that was built starting 1918 fell into disuse following the merger of Township and Borough school boards in 1965, which led to the construction of the JW Middle School and the relocation of lessons. The site is, however, still in use: the playing fields at the back are used for school sports, and the School Board has offices there (but these are housed in a newer building, not the old school/ council building). For a while the old buildings were municipal offices for the township, and then housed local non-profits. The VRS-ARC plan envisages renovating the former school buildings and renting them to non-profits. Two black-box theaters would also be constructed in the buildings.
Princeton Council refuses to discuss the VRS-ARC plan, because they claim the site is under the exclusive purview of the School Board. The School Board have rejected the plan, saying it lacks funding. Funding is certainly an issue. The School Board believes renovation would cost $10.8 million. VRS-ARC believe that the renovation could be done much more cheaply; however, the school building is in terrible shape and based on the cost of extending the nearby Arts Council building ($8 million in 2007), the School Board’s figure seems if anything an underestimate. Princeton’s Swimming Pool and YMCA are also currently seeking funds for capital projects, so it doesn’t seem like a good idea to expect local residents to reach in their pockets to fund one more expensive scheme.
Even if money could be found to fund the renovation, further support would be required. The non-profits that were housed in the building previously were not able to support adequate maintenance. It seems likely that maintenance would be deferred again if non-profits were the tenants in future- unless the Princeton taxpayer could be relied on for regular cash infusions. There is also a question about whether the proposed use is really needed or even a good idea? All the non-profits that used to be housed at 369 Witherspoon have found new homes, usually in Monument Hall under friendly terms from the Council of consolidated Princeton. Is it a good idea to attract new non-profits to Princeton, or would we not do better with other organizations that might contribute to the tax base?
VRS-ARC have also proposed two black-box theaters for the renovated school building. It is hard to think that these theaters are really needed, in a town with the McCarter-Berlind Theater Complex, drama facilities in the schools, the new University Arts Complex, and the Robert L Solley Theater just down the street at the Arts Council Building. Renovating the building therefore seems to be primarily a historic preservation case; and indeed Preservation NJ have listed the site as among the 10 most endangered historic sites in New Jersey. It’s worth noting that there is a precedent in Princeton for preserving and re-using historic school buildings- the Waxwood Condominium in the Witherspoon-John neighborhood. That building was reused as apartments / condos, which contributes to the tax base.
2. Expanding the Firehouse
Earlier this year, Princeton Council set up a task force to examine the possibilities for reforming the Princeton Fire Department. PFD currently operates out of three firehouses, but the task force is considering the possibility of merging all operations into an expanded firehouse on Witherspoon Street. The ‘Mercer Engine Company No. 3’ at 363 Witherspoon Street, right next door to the old Valley Road School Building, is currently the largest firehouse in town.
If the Task Force recommends expanding the Engine Company No. 3 firehouse, that would raise all kinds of questions. Is it possible to expand the firehouse without demolishing some or all of the buildings at 369 Witherspoon? It seems very likely that part or all of the old school building would have to go in order to expand the firehouse. Second, where would the money come from to expand the firehouse? Hypothetically, the sale of the other firehouse properties could be used to fund expansion, although that depends on getting the zoning right on those sites to make them attractive to any potential buyer. Finally, is it a good idea for all fire operations to operate out of one site? Is it fair on Witherspoon St neighbors for all the fire trucks to be routed around their streets?
3. Sell the site
With any redevelopment proposal in Princeton, there are no shortage of opinions about ‘what the community needs’. One way to reconcile all these opinions is to have lots and lots of meetings to formulate some complicated site use ordinances that attempt to reconcile what everybody wants. Invariably, this process will take a really long time, drive up costs on the final site use, and may even result in a court action if somebody feels like their opinion was not given sufficient weight.
There is another way. In a market economy, we assume that private markets are best at figuring out what things people need and supplying it to them. This isn’t just a theory- it works in practice. That’s why Americans get to choose from 100 types of breakfast cereal, whereas in Soviet Russia, where committees tried to plan for what people ‘needed’, people had to stand in line for hours to get bread.
Based on this logic, the best thing to do with the 369 Witherspoon site is to sell it to the highest bidder and give them extensive flexibility about what to use it for. If a developer believes that the thing people need is an organic food market, they are likely to build an organic food market. If they think that people want housing, they will build housing. One additional advantage of this approach is that all the capital risk is borne by a developer. Taxpayers aren’t on the hook for anything. In fact, this approach is likely to give the best result for taxpayers, as a private interest is likely to be taxable, producing more tax revenues for the town, meaning less money must be provided from family property taxes.
4. Use the site as a school!
One reason why the School Board are in no hurry to find a new use for the site is that they are still using it for offices and playing fields. Whereas the old school buildings are falling apart, the School Board offices were built more recently and are still in good shape:
Another reason why the School Board are retaining the site is because they might use it as a school again! Princeton’s K-12 school population fluctuates, but right now the High School is said to be at capacity. The School Board is conducting a demographic survey to try to predict future enrollment, and wants to keep its expansion options open. However, they might consider whether they could use their other sites to provide sufficient classroom space and playing fields, even with a growing student body. Princeton spends 50% more per student than neighboring West Windsor and Montgomery Townships, and School Board spending accounts for ~50% of property taxes. The concept of ‘doing more with less’ is difficult, but local taxpayers would be thankful if the Board could find ways of cutting spending instead of always asking for more money.
If Princeton’s School Board wanted to reduce spending, then disposing of ongoing maintenance obligations at the 369 Witherspoon site would be a good place to start. A sale would also generate a windfall, that could be used to defer future increases in appropriations from property taxes.
5. Use it for walkable housing!
Nobody has been talking about it yet, but 369 Witherspoon Street would make a great location for walkable housing! Regular readers of Walkable Princeton will know that we believe that Princeton stands to gain greatly by making it easier for some of the 22,000 workers who commute into Princeton by car every to choose cycling or walking. To protect green spaces from further encroachment of sprawl, new housing should be added at infill locations such as 369 Witherspoon. If we take the current average commute time for Princeton, which is 28 minutes, and test how far somebody could walk from 369 Witherspoon in 28 minutes, we find that almost all the locations in town where jobs are found are within walking range:
Princeton has failed to add sufficient housing in recent decades, leading to a loss of middle class workers from the town, traffic, and increasing property taxes. From a financial perspective, mixed-income developments are known to provide the best ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of revenues raised versus new expenditure required. New housing options would also give older Princeton residents an option to ‘age in place’ at a site close by municipal amenities such as the library, swimming pool and municipal offices. If the site is to be re-used, it would be a big mistake to overlook the value of including some new walkable, residential opportunities.
6. Some mix of the options above
The 369 Witherspoon site is larger than just the old school building or the current offices alone. There is a lot of space on the site, which could potentially be used far more efficiently. Even if the playing fields are considered sacred, there is probably enough space to (for example) convert the school building into a mix of affordable and market-rate apartments using private capital, set aside some new space for non-profit offices or school board use, and expand the firehouse out the back with a new exit onto Valley Road. The exact details could be figured out with enough flexibility on all sides, but fundamentally the site use doesn’t have to be an either/or struggle in which there can be only one outcome.
The Way Ahead
Whereas Princeton Council seems invested in the outcome of its firehouse consolidation task force, local elected officials and school board members ought to give a full account of what they see as the best use for the site. There has been a lack of transparency about what the site might be used for in future. We deserve to know. Princeton residents should be given a ‘menu’ of options to consider for 369 Witherspoon. There is no reason why we should fixate on just one. The best solution will be reached if lots of people are consulted and people are given the maximum amount of information about what the likely outcomes of each site use would be.
What do you think would be the best use of the 369 Witherspoon Street site? Do you think it likely that the site will be redeveloped in the next decade? Or will the old building there be allowed to crumble away further? Leave your opinions below the line using the form below!