A few thoughts regarding the debate over renovating or demolishing the Trenton Central High School building.
Let’s start right at the top with the money.
We all know that the city only pays 10 percent or less of the school district’s budget as it is. The rest comes from the state. And that includes construction funding…regardless of whether it for building new or renovating existing structures.
So yes, on the surface, it looks like a no-brainer cost saving measure for the state to spend $90-$100 million on building a new school than an “estimated” $250 million on renovations to the old school.
The problem is the “savings” are only superficial. In fact, there may not be any actual savings at all.
In a letter to South Ward Councilman Jim Coston that was posted to his blog, a local professional with some knowledge of these kinds of projects raised some questions about the cost figures the state is providing.
Stephen Doyle is a project manager at KSS Architects, city resident and member of the Trenton Planning Board. His comparison of cost figures quoted in the press with what he knows from his work is somewhat enlightening.
Mr. Doyle questions whether the $250 million price tag quoted for “renovating” the existing high school doesn’t also include some new construction costs. Apparently the project was originally to include about 400,000 square feet of renovation and 100,000 square feet of additions to the existing building (new construction). This calculates to what Doyle terms an “insanely high” cost of about $500 per square foot.
At the same time, assuming new construction of an equal amount of square footage, the estimated costs of $90 - $100 million yields a cost of between $180 and $200 per square foot. This, Mr. Doyle asserts, is below the average for school construction projects in New Jersey. He goes on to quote his firms school projects coming at $250 to $325 per square foot.
And are the costs quoted for new construction taking into consideration the acquisition of land for new buildings? Planning and permits?
Let’s not discount the aesthetic qualities of the craftsmanship and materials that went into constructing the current TCHS building. There is simply no way new construction will come close to matching that level of workmanship. The simple fact that the building is still standing 75 years later is a testament to that quality. We’d be hard pressed to say the same for anything built totally new today…especially at the apparently low price point the state quotes are indicating.
Many people have pointed out that there has been no talk about the dollar cost of demolition of the building. We’ve not addressed the environmental impact of disposing of the material once the building is torn down. And then there are the energy costs to carry out the above. (What happened to Trenton going green?)
This situation is not unique to Trenton, and there are rational precedents for saving the beloved TCHS.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a document that addresses the renovation vs. demolition question. The document suggests that you look at all the factors and solicit community input.
Facilities.net has a similar article comparing renovation with new construction. The article notes that renovation is not without its difficulties and pitfalls, but comes down in favor of it over new construction.
One of the main things not being discussed in the current reporting of this story is the planning and scheduling of the project.
Certainly, renovating the existing building while students are in attendance will be an issue. But since the students are currently spread over a handful of “campuses” throughout the city, it would seem that accommodations could be made fairly easily. This is especially true if the work is scheduled and phased in a sensible fashion.
A little more difficult to deal with would be providing for the students during wholesale demolition of the main (existing) building on Chambers Street. Where will they go to school in the interim? How much will the additional transportation cost?
And, as Mr. Doyle pointed out in his letter to Councilman Coston, what about the cost of maintaining the existing building while new construction is occurring, only to then tear down the 75 year old edifice. Seems rather wasteful, doesn’t it?
We may need to get creative and seek ways to mitigate some of the costs of renovating the existing structure, but it will be worth it. The sense of pride and accomplishment might just help bring the fractured community that is Trenton back together.
To be sure, it is an emotional as well as a fiscal issue. But when you look at all the costs, cash and other, it seems to make sense to save and renovate that grand lady on Chambers Street.