Coalition wants town to turn Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad buildings into a community center

The vacant Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad building on Harrison Street next to the Princeotn Shopping Center. Photo: Krystal Knapp.

An interfaith coalition of area residents is asking the Princeton Council to turn the former Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad properties into a community center that will serve vulnerable people. Residents suggested that the center become the home of Corner House, as well as the town’s health and human services departments.

The Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad building is vacant. One house on Clearview Avenue is vacant, and Princeton University students who are members of the rescue squad are living in the other house. The properties are now owned by the municipality. Instead of selling the properties, which was proposed by one council member, or using them for some other purpose, the coalition wants the town to use the properties for human services-related services and housing for the homeless.

Princeton Council President Leticia Fraga read a letter regarding the proposal at the council’s March 22 public meeting. She said the letter was signed by more than 179 people. Some people who signed the letter are members of the municipality’s human services commission, but Fraga said the human services commission members signed the letter as individuals, and not as representatives of the commission.

People who have been working to support vulnerable residents said in the letter that they are frustrated by what they described as a patchwork of services that do not sufficiently address the real needs of vulnerable people in the Princeton community. “Despite being a world-famous town of plenty, we have neighbors who occupy the margins of society. In many cases, these neighbors don’t know where to go and are often recycled through a futile circuit of siloed agencies that fail to provide effective interventions,” the coalition wrote in a statement that was read by Fraga. “Too often, we send these vulnerable neighbors elsewhere to places like Trenton that are saturated with many of the issues that Princeton and similar communities export their way. We the undersigned know that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can and must do more for these vulnerable Princetonians whose ages span from infant to senior. To that end, we advocate for the creation of an innovative Princeton Community Center or PCC that combines services that will effectively address the needs of these Princetonians in a respectful, holistic, and coordinated manner.”

Coalition members envision the site as a hub that would have a dedicated staff, social workers, and community educators funded by the municipality. The center would be open during convenient hours, including evenings and weekends, and would be a welcoming place for all Princeton residents. For those who need it, the center would adopt a case management protocol and provide a centralized place for services and a “warm handover” to the appropriate agencies after facilitating appointments or connections to staff members. The municipality would partner with various agencies and faith-based groups to provide resources to people. Services could include: Grades K-12 tutoring, classes in computer and financial literacy, classes in cooking and nutrition, GED and ESL courses, employment advocacy and training, emergency housing support services, a community garden and environmental education space, meeting places for support groups, and screening and intake services.

Advocates said the former rescue squad building and the two homes next to it are situated in a strategic location that is walkable and is close to bike lanes, public transportation, laundry facilities and grocery shopping at the Princeton Shopping Center. They said the properties would require very little work to repurpose them, allowing the center to start operating within a short period of time until a more permanent and larger location is built.

“While the sale of these properties was briefly brought up during the introduction of the 2021 municipal budget, we believe such action is not necessary and the misguided waste of a strategically-located property,” reads the group’s statement. “It’s worth remembering that the pandemic, which has exposed and exacerbated inequities in our community, is not over. Indeed we believe things make it worse before they get better. With this in mind, we need to understand returning to business as usual will monumentally fail the most vulnerable among us. The council has the opportunity to commit to make history and raise the quality of life for all Princetonians by supporting the vision of this community center by first reserving the block 7301 properties and subsequently by working together with the coalition.”

Resident Maria Juega voiced her support for the center during public comment and said a community center has been part of the town’s master plan “forever.” She said seeking a potential site was added to the master plan for the town as a priority in 1996. She invited the council to have a member be part of a task force to make the center a reality.

Veronica Olivares-Weber, the chair of the town’s human services commission, said the community center would offer other benefits to residents that were not mentioned in the letter from the coalition, such as keeping teens safe, providing a meeting space for people, and connecting people with services from other organizations. “This will keep our youth occupied with other things,” she said, adding that the center would help people in the Princeton community who are struggling.

A house on Clearview Avenue that is owned by the municipality is currently occupied by rescue squad members who are students at Princeotn University. Photo: Krystal Knapp.
A second house on Clearview Avenue next to the rescue squad building is vacant. The house was bought by the rescue squad but is now owned by the municipality. Photo: Krystal Knapp.


  1. The battle over these 3 buildings indicates how valuable they are. Various people associated with different town entities appear to be making contradicting claims to suit their different agendas. The town needs to clarify what course of action they support.

    Advocates of the plan in this article say that it would, “require “very little work to repurpose,” these properties. A ​recent town-funded study states that the same buildings are in “an area in need of redevelopment.” The former PFARS building in particular is described as ,” ‘dilapidated’, ‘functionally obsolete’, ‘lacking in light’ and ‘conducive to unwholesome working conditions’. The…feasibility of an adaptive reuse of such a specialized building is questionable.”
    These contradicting statements spin the “truth”. Realistically, these buildings would take some work to renovate but are certainly not beyond repair. This entire neighborhood is filled with rennovated capes and other single level homes built in the 50s and 60s. We love our smaller homes. We believe that others would love them too.
    The town would do everyone a favor by selling the cape homes to people who would want to renovate them and live in them. This would provide immediate sale revenue and future tax revenue to support our schools and town.
    As for the mid century modern PFARS building, let someone buy it who wants to rennovate it into cool office space or cafe, in a similar way that Nomad Pizza rennovated the old gas station at the shopping center. This could be a beautiful bookend to the shopping center.
    In any case, the town needs to decide which argument they support and clarify their intentions.

  2. Response from another Clearview area resident. There is no contradiction or attempt to “spin” anything. The grassroots group supporting the idea of a community center at the PFARS location, of which I am a member, had not had the opportunity to inspect the inside of the buildings or read the report to which you refer (which I now have read), so we may have been too optimistic about the cost of refurbishing it for the purposes of becoming a temporary, (and I underline the word temporary) home to a community center. We anticipate that the eventual facility will need to be bigger and require a major investment, but our priority is to get something in place as soon as feasible, in 2022 to address the needs of many underserved neighbors. The municipality wants to redevelop this area. Speaking for myself, I don’t think there is a contradiction between this two separate goals. In fact there may be synergistic. The Princeton Shopping Center redevelopment, which I personally think is a forward-looking and necessary initiative, can go on with or without a community center. I hope it would be the latter and although I personally favor this location, I would be happy to consider other alternatives. What is important is that we move up the project of a Princeton Community Center to the top of our collective priority list.

  3. I agree that the redevelopment study is not at odds with repurposing the old PFARS building into a community center – something that Princeton’s Master Plan, adopted in 1996, explicitly calls for. The Master Plan states: “As the community approaches build-out it should take the necessary steps to preserve potential community center sites.” This is precisely what this group is advocating for. Despite what refurbishments may be needed, it is far easier for the municipality to repurpose properties it already owns (not to mention, are located near areas that have been identified as additional town centers) than to start from scratch and purchase existing properties or land. 25 years have gone by without the establishment of a community center which the municipality has planned for. Meanwhile, critical needs of our neighbors go unmet. This is something we cannot continue to delay.

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