Senior Resource Center to expand to two Princeton locations, but long-term future of Suzanne Patterson building unclear
The Princeton Senior Resource Center has had to rent space from other organizations in recent years to accommodate its growing programs. To solve the capacity issue, the organization has purchased a 12,000-square-foot office building at 101 Poor Farm Road that will become the site of the organization’s administrative offices and many other activities such as classes.
The office move will free up space at the Suzanne Patterson Center building. Senior center leaders hope to reconfigure the space for classrooms and make some other renovations at the building, which is owned by the municipality. But town officials have not yet decided what to do with the property on Stockton Street that also includes the former Princeton Borough Hall, now called Monument Hall. In recent years, officials have discussed the possibility of selling the property and consolidating the municipality’s offices at one central location at 400 Witherspoon Street.
A council report on facility planning for Monument Hall, the Suzanne Patterson Center, and the public works department will be presented during the council’s public Zoom session at 7 p.m. Tuesday night.
At the Princeton Council’s agenda session last week, officials discussed the senior center and other facility issues, with some officials saying the senior center wants to move forward with renovations.
“It’s hard to know what to tell them since we’re not sure what the future of Monument Hall is,” Councilwoman Eve Niedergang said during the Zoom agenda session meeting, adding that the senior center staff needed to know whether to do renovations to get them through two years or five years. “We need to give them some kind of answer about what action they should take,” Niedergang said.
Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros said officials need to have a discussion about what to do with the department of public works, Monument Hall, and the possible redevelopment of the 400 Witherspoon Street complex, where the main offices for the town are located. The town may consider adding floors to the main municipal complex, along with additional parking. The department of public works could be relocated to the site also.
Councilwoman Mia Sacks said that the senior center shouldn’t be doing a five-year or two-year plan at the Suzanne Patterson Center. “Putting more money there is questionable,” she said. “We seem to be in general agreement that we need to find out what our options are.”
Councilman David Cohen said that it is unlikely that anything would happen with the Monument Hall property in less than three years. Cohen said it would take about three years to consolidate the municipal staff at one location. A year-long study of the town’s master plan could add a year to the process.
Sacks said the town made planning and development changes at a faster pace last year and could continue at a quick pace. She said the town shouldn’t put more money down the drain. “It doesn’t make sense from a planning and finance perspective to have the senior center there,” she said, adding that the town needs to look at the future of various properties, including the John Street public works property, the Valley Road school district property, Westminster Choir College, Monument Hall, and the town’s Harrison Street properties. Some officials wanted to discuss the issue during a work session. Sacks suggested that instead, the town hire a planning consultant to look at the municipality’s capacity needs and how various issues can be solved, rather than wasting time during a public work session.
Cohen said officials were pressured to do things quickly in terms of development last year because of the courts. He was referring to a judge’s decision about the town’s affordable housing obligations. “We’ve moved slowly with other things like Monument Hall,” he said, adding that nothing is forcing the council to move more quickly when it comes to other properties.
The town approved funding for the senior center for renovations at the Suzanne Patterson Center back in 2017. The county also allocated some funding to the senior center. Officials wondered whether the town has the authority to rescind funding that has already been granted. Council members then asked whether the money could be applied to senior center projects at another location or whether the funding was earmarked specifically for an improvement to a municipality-owned building.
Lambros suggested that the former Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad building on Harrison Street could be one possible long-term solution for the senior center.
Niedergang said that either way, the town needs to give the senior center guidance so the leadership there knows what the time frame is for Monument Hall. “The space is not usable the way it is, and with moving half the operations to Poor Farm Road, they need to make some changes and they need guidance,” she said. “They have hired an architect, they are going to start work.”
At the council’s regular session last week, Drew Dyson, the executive director of the senior center, discussed the organization’s needs and told officials the senior center requires about 18,000 square feet of space for its programs. The Suzanne Patterson Center and the Poor Farm Road properties combined meet those needs, he said. They also save the organization from having to rent space elsewhere. The senior center had been spending about $18,000 a year to rent space, Dyson said.
A larger renovation project was envisioned initially that included a new welcome area, a lounge, and renovations to the kitchen and bathrooms. Those plans have been scaled back for now.
A small scale project to convert offices at the Suzanne Patterson Center to classrooms would cost about $250,000, Dyson said. Without any renovations to convert offices to classrooms, the center would need to keep renting space once the pandemic is over, he said.
About 90 percent of seniors participating in programs drive to the Suzanne Patterson Center. Dyson said NJ Transit has been asked to consider extending a bus line to the new Poor Farm Road site.
Dyson said the property on Poor Farm Road isn’t big enough for all the senior center’s programs. He added that the exercise space and larger gathering space at Suzanne Patterson are critical in terms of programming.
Renovations at the Poor Farm Road property are expected to be completed by the fall of 2021. About 20 staff members will work out of the new facility. The senior center will continue offering virtual programs after the pandemic is over, Dyson said.
During public comment, former Councilman Lance Liverman urged the council to support the renovation of the Suzanne Patterson Center.
“Some of you saying why renovate at this point,” Liverman said. “The renovation is needed. The work we are doing there is needed. Search your hearts and please support the Princeton Senior Resource Center at this point.” –
Sacks said she supports the work of the senior center, but added that the future of the town’s properties is the question. “We are embarking this year on the complete overhaul of our master plan. The ultimate question is the fate of the Monument Hall property and other properties. Every community partner has unique needs. The senior center’s needs may be best met where it is now. They could be better met in a more financially efficient way somewhere else.” She said the broader discussion about municipal facilities, public spaces, and how best to use them will be a conversation that unfolds this year.