A citizen group says it has collected enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot asking Princeton voters whether they support turning the oldest section of the Valley Road School into a community center.
Resident Dick Woodbridge said supporters of a non-profit community center have collected more than 2,100 signatures from Princeton voters to place the question on the November ballot.
“We only had a few weeks to collect signatures, and collected a lot of them during an almost historic heatwave,” Woodbridge said. “We would have collected a few thousand more signatures with additional time. Clearly with this many signatures there is a lot of momentum.”
The group is proposing leasing the building for $1 a year over 100 years. Non-profits would be able to rent space at inexpensive rates. The proposal includes a theater, a box office, and a community cafe. Supporters said Witherspoon Street could become a cultural corridor with the addition of the center.
Town lawyer Ed Schmierer said tonight that the municipality has no jurisdiction over the property or ability to compel the school board to do anything with the property. The municipality transferred the property to the school district about 10 years ago.
“There is this legal hurdle right from the very beginning,” Schmierer said. “The question as to whether or not it would be accepted from a legal point of view is it is up in the air. I’m not confident the question would qualify for this governing body to place it on the ballot.”
Woodbridge said the referendum is calling on the municipality to enter into negotiations with the school district, not asking the municipality to take control of the property.
“There are a lot of non-profits you could attract, and pretty soon you would have an army at the school,” resident Claire Jacobus said. “A lot of people are willing to give money for a community center that would be in the middle of town. Members would continue to enrich, support and serve this community. Please think hard and please use your influence with the school board. Don’t let this building rot or be demolished. It would be a scar on this community far bigger than a pile of rubble on Witherspoon Street.”
School officials estimate the cost of repairing and renovating the building would be $10.8 million. Supporters of the community center proposal say repairs would cost $3.5 million.
School Board President Tim Quinn said the board has not abandoned 369 Witherspoon Street.
“Finding a smart use meeting our stated objectives is a high priority,” Quinn said. “The board seeks a solution that will not put the board in a legal or practical position of acting as landlord.”
Quinn said the board wants to maintain a legal interest in the property in case the school district needs the property for expansion purposes at some point. He said the community center proposal was rejected in March because the group could not raise the money for project. He called the group’s proposal unrealistic.
The Princeton Council did not take a position on the issue tonight. But behind the scenes, municipal officials have been hashing out a proposal to expand the Witherspoon Street firehouse by demolishing the school. Officials have approached the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad (PFARS) asking the squad to reconsider its recent decision to expand on its existing site on Harrison Street. Officials are proposing that the existing PFARS properties be used for affordable housing, and that PFARS move to the proposed expanded firehouse location on Witherspoon Street.