Task force to examine town fire department consolidation
The Princeton Council approved a three-person task force to examine the need for consolidation of the three existing Princeton firehouses on Jan. 14. Possibilities for expansion include rebuilding the current Witherspoon Street firehouse and expanding into the Valley Road School.
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert explained that the purpose of the task force is to analyze the space needs of the fire department and that, if necessary, the municipality will look at expanding toward Valley Road School.
“As the mayor, I need to look at it primarily from the needs of the municipality,” Lempert said. “There’s likely need for expanding the [Witherspoon Street firehouse] to make it better for the volunteers and to make sure we can have equipment that’s needed.”
The task force consists of Princeton council members Lance Liverman, Bernard Miller and Jenny Crumiller, who were appointed by Lempert. Liverman, who also operates as fire commissioner and police commissioner, will serve as chair of the task force.
While the Princeton Fire Department currently has three separate firehouses on Chestnut, Witherspoon and Harrison streets, it only responds from the firehouse on Witherspoon Street. The other two buildings have been used as storage spaces or meeting areas since 2010, when the three squads merged and moved into the Witherspoon facility. According to Director of Emergency Services Bob Gregory, the fire department realized immediately after the move that it needed a larger building to accommodate the change.
Gregory said the main reasons for expansion are to obtain a training room, to store all necessary equipment in one location and to provide a comfortable space for the volunteers who stay overnight.
The task force will be responsible for producing a needs analysis of the firehouse and recommendations to accommodate an expansion. If expansion is necessary, several options are available. According to both Liverman and Miller, one option would be to move into the older portion of the Valley Road School building, which is across the street from the firehouse and will be vacated later this year. An alternative is to add sections to the top or sides of the current firehouse. A third alternative would be tearing down and rebuilding the firehouse.
Liverman said the choice would be based on cost but that the task force will first investigate the options that do not involve the Valley Road School.
If the task force chooses the location of the Valley Road School building, the proposition must be submitted to the Princeton Regional Schools Board of Education, the owner of the school.
“There just may be a way that we don’t have to expand to the Valley Road School side and that everything we need to do can be contained on that one site, on that one footprint,” Liverman said. “And if that’s the case, that’s probably the direction we’ll go.”
Lempert and members of the Princeton Council have agreed to submit a proposal to the Board of Education within the next two months if the task force recommends expansion into the Valley Road School.
The older portion of the Valley Road School building currently hosts local public station TV 30 and Corner House, a municipal agency that provides counseling. According to Superintendent of Schools Judith Wilson, both organizations will be moving out of Valley Road School by late spring.
Wilson said the use and occupation of the Valley Road School has been a subject of debate for decades. According to Wilson, the Township also used the building for offices many years ago.
Members of the community have also voiced concerns over the future of Valley Road School. The Valley Road School Adaptive Re-use Committee maintains that the building has historical significance as the first integrated school in Princeton. It proposes the Valley Road School’s renovation in order to become a space for non-profit groups.
Lempert acknowledged VRS-ARC’s efforts but also called attention to the costs of renovations. Estimates calculated several years ago put the cost in the $10 million range, and the school district wants to avoid spending large amounts for non-educational purposes, Lempert said.
“It’s obviously an important site because it’s right across from the Municipal Hall, and it is an essential part of town,” Lempert said. “We’d all like to see something that goes there that is going to be a benefit to the entire community, but also recognize that it’s a time when all of the government agencies are tightening their belts.”
Should the municipality choose to expand the firehouse to Valley Road School, it would be its second proposal submitted to the Board of Education in two years. The first proposal involved accommodating Corner House, the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad and the fire department in the school’s building. However, both Corner House and PFARS have found new locations. The town has since dropped this first application.
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