This article was originally published in the June 2018 Princeton Echo.
Towns and cities across the country are now figuring out ways to leverage their own assets — including municipally owned real estate such as antiquated schools on prime land — to achieve long-range goals. There are few helping hands in Washington or Trenton.
Princeton has just such an asset in the old Valley Road School, at the corner of Witherspoon Street. And it has the goal of preserving Westminster Choir College, which is being shopped around by its present owner, Rider University. Now some out-of-the-box thinking has evolved that would enable the town to buy the Choir College, and partially underwrite the cost by selling the Valley Road school to a private developer. The thinking began with a letter to our sister paper, U.S. 1, and continues below.
Town: Buy Westminster
Rider University, having decided to sell Westminster Choir College, is in negotiations with a Chinese company which, until very recently, was called the Jiangsu Zhongtai Bridge Steel Structure Co. These negotiations have not been concluded after many months; meanwhile, Rider is facing two separate lawsuits alleging that it cannot sell the college — and many friends of the college, including townspeople in Princeton, have become increasingly worried that the transaction, if concluded, will fundamentally change the nature of the school.
Perhaps there is a better way to resolve this matter. Considering the excellent education that the Choir College has given its students for so many decades, and the prestigious, nationally acclaimed school that it has always been, suppose the town of Princeton were to float a bond issue and buy the Choir College from Rider University, thereby keeping the college alive and functioning.
Obviously the college would have to repay the town, perhaps by allowing a portion of its land to be made into housing. But since Rider is only interested in getting its money wherever it comes from, Princeton’s contribution would maintain the college in the form that it is in, while investing in an institution that perfectly fits its residential neighborhood.
Westminster is too valuable an asset to the town to simply let it disappear or change in deeply fundamental ways. I urge the government and the people of Princeton to appreciate the wonderful school they have in their midst and raise the money to restore to Westminster the independence that it once enjoyed. That would surely be the greatest gift that Princeton could give to the amazing students and teachers of the Choir College.
— Marvin Harold Cheiten, Meadowbrook Drive
Schools: Sell Valley Road
Marvin Cheiten suggested that the town of Princeton float a $40 million bond to purchase Westminster Choir College from Rider University and thus rescue the choir college from a fundamental change or worse.
What a great idea, and I would like to expand it and suggest the following course of action which will require the cooperation and combined coordination of the following public bodies: the township, Westminster, Rider, and Princeton Public Schools. The latter is in the process of asking for public approval of a $129 million school bond whose major features are renovating the high school and building a new 5/6 school at Valley Road after demolishing the old Valley Road School building.
The town of Princeton should:
- Close Franklin Avenue from Walnut Lane to where it makes a right turn around Westminster’s parking area. This will create an open land parcel of about 30,000 square feet.
- Sell the above area to Princeton schools for $1.
- Buy back the entire Valley Road School area including the administration building and parking area from the schools for $1.
- Sell the Valley Road complex to a builder who will erect residential housing in that area. The price realized will reduce the size of the $40 million bond. The annual taxes on the new housing will reduce the service costs of the new bond, and the new complex will provide additional affordable units.
- Buy the choir college for $40 million from Rider [assuming that is the lowest price it will accept] and sell it for $1 to the choir college’s non-profit organization.
- Agree to float the bond to buy the Choir College.
- Agree to pay part of the bond’s carry costs if the taxes on the new building and other gifts cannot cover 100 percent of the cost of carry.
- Organize fundraising events to raise money to reduce the size of the bond: the same as we did to build the great Princeton Public Library we can do it again to retain the Choir College.
The Choir College should:
- Agree to become independent and pay part or all of the cost of carry of the bond issued by the town of Princeton.
- Sell to Princeton Public Schools for $1 a parcel of land of about 40,000 square feet bounded by Walnut Lane, the removed section of Franklin Avenue, the west side of the parking lot, and about 100 feet deep in the open space south of the removed section of Franklin Avenue.
- Agree to relocate the entrance to the parking lot.
The Princeton Public Schools should:
- Agree to sell the Valley Road complex for $1 back to the township.
- Agree to buy the two parcels of land as described above, about 70,000 square feet, and use it to build the new 5/6 school. This move will have the following benefits: It will eliminate the cost of demolishing the old Valley Road School building. It will reduce the cost of the new school having the 5/6 graders use the existing athletic fields as well as the cafeteria of the middle school. After all, the sixth graders are currently part of the middle school.
- Agree to postpone the bond vote to next year so that all the numbers can be reworked to establish the new size of the school bond.
Rider University should cancel the pending sale agreement with the Chinese and sell Westminster to the town of Princeton.
The above is not a pipe dream. It can be done.
— Ralph Perry, Random Road
Editor’s note: Perry is a retired financial engineer who worked as a production engineer for Western Electric on Carter Road, and as manager of operations research for Time-Life International, and as an efficiency consultant to the New York police.
All parties: Collaborate!
From a personal perspective as a longtime Princeton resident involved professionally in a variety of facilities and infrastructure planning issues, I can only describe Ralph Perry’s paper as “breathtaking.” A virtual tour de force bringing together objectively pragmatic, achievable solutions to virtually every significant master planning challenge confronting Princeton Township today.
The number of projects and programs in play as well as competing interests is daunting. It requires an unprecedented degree of collaboration and coordination among diverse public and private bodies. This is area-wide master planning in its broadest context. Unbelievably, the planning area encompassed lacks a clearly defined, overarching authority to guide or direct, review, and approve such an evolving master plan. The key case in point in Princeton is the perceived independence of the school district to pursue widely impactful plans incident to the scheduled October 2 facilities referendum. Unchanged as to timing and content, it is possibly the proverbial Achilles Heel of Perry’s master plan.
To move forward requires we first address the key actions each body must take to make implementation of Perry’s master plan practicable. Perry has proposed innovative, well crafted actions to effect changes in real property ownership focused on legally imparting authority and responsibility for required actions to new owners best suited to the task. This strategy is truly remarkable as it removes obstacles to progress that stem from the difficulty of securing required “buy in” from the current public and private owners.
My initial “shoot from the hip” assessment leads me to concur with Perry’s view that “it can be done.” Also, overall capital costs/debt payments as well as future operating budgets of included entities can be reduced or at least not increased significantly as projected for the district’s plans proposed in the referendum. Perry’s reputation for financial prowess adds to one’s confidence that his plan is well grounded from that perspective.
Now to other commentary on the particulars of Perry’s visionary master plan:
Perry’s closing comments to “postpone the bond vote to next year” for “rework” are extremely important. Whether you are for the bond issue or against it, there are too many unanswered questions rightly characterized by Perry as needed “rework.” Even strongly supportive local media recently headlined, “referendum’s impact on future school district budgets unknown,” but there will be significantly increased costs.
The planned immediate extension of the Cranbury sending district agreement should also be delayed. The downside risks to any possible successful outcomes after these delays are much less than possible defeat of the referendum and related costly, time-consuming “do-overs.”
Community-wide, the adverse master planning and fiscal impacts of execution of the schools’ plans as now conceived are severe and not widely understood within the town. Substantive concerns about the referendum have emerged.
— John Clearwater, Governors Lane
Editor’s note: Clearwater, a retired engineer, is a former member and president of the Princeton Regional School Board.