Friday, January 18, 2008

Under the clock tower

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. 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.


Chrissy said...

We live in the same neighborhood as the high school, so this very literally is close-to-home for us. It seems senseless to destroy a landmark -- our city needs to hold on to its history; and to destroy a landmark and still be stuck in a stupid arrangement where the new construction would not be maintained is simply ASININE.

Based on the behavior of many young people in this city, it's obvious that many parents aren't doing their jobs; but reading LA Parker's article recently about the sharp decline in truancy after the parents got involved was kind of inspiring. Still, it's hard to envision a community-run school board right this very second, but I believe that is exactly what we need. The current Mayor Palmer-appointed group is not only NOT accountable in any way to the community it serves (which is a huge problem), but it runs completely counter to democracy in America.

I have no idea of how to go about it, but I think we, as a community, need to figure out how to wrestle back control of the school board. If the people on the board were in fear of getting voted out at the next election, we would not be in this situation. We have some great minds in this city, and the recent citizen lawsuit brought against the Mayor and Police Director is great inspiration that we can, even if we're reasonably small in numbers, make some important changes around here.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to the school board, I believe it would take a referendum to change it.

For the record, Trenton has had both an elected and appointed board (a couple of times each) during my life time. I know a lot of people are starting to mutter about changing back to an elected board, but looking at who we elect (repeatedly) to public office I wonder if we'd be any better off.

And you're right about the maintenance issue. We obviously haven't done a very good job at taking care of TCHS (or most of our other public buildings). Fortunately, the quality of the building allows it to still stand and be salvageable.

What are the odds that something built today will last 10 years, given our seeming inability to perform even the most basic maintenance.

Cal said...

Actually, the city is resposible for capital improvements, which is why Abbott included funding for construction. Otherwise schools would never have been built (or mmaintained)in impoverished districts.
The price of $90 to $100 million quoted for new constuction is snake oil. The quote for $250 million to renovate is crap.
Nothing gets done, because no one leads.

Guy on the Canal said...

The move to demolish the High School keeps coming back like some character in a bad horror movie. It really makes you wonder where this is coming from. It really begs the question who stands to benefit from the demolition and how are they able to continually push this through the school board.

Old Mill Hill said...

Maintenance is on ongoing issue in this city. We seem incapable of taking care of anything, regardless of how much money is in the coffers or from whence it comes.

As for the issue of demolishing the existing building coming back again and again, it is only a thought but it makes me wonder:

Could the powers that be at the former SCC have been "miffed" that Trenton decided to renovate rather than build anew and therefore stonewall the process? And now that the SCC has been succeeded by the SDA and funding be "tighter" could they be trying to manipulate the process inorder to "punish" Trenton for not playing along plus appearing (through the use of questionable finance numbers) to be fiscally responsible to the rest of the state?

Let's hope our school board and city administrations step up and do the right thing here.

Trenton007 said...

The School Board is being duped and force-fed false information by the School Development Agency (SDA). Why? Because any high school project for this city, whether it's renovation or building 1, 2, or 3 schools (I can't keep track anymore) will be one of the most expensive school projects in the state. You think the SDA wants to pay up? Now, with a limited pot of money they need to show progress-better to build 5 or 6 schools in other cities than blow it all on Trenton.

Get the Board to throw away a renovation plan that has already been drawn up and approved by all the powers that be, a plan that keeps the grand exterior of the high school and guts the interior for a new, modern facility is great for the SDA. The Board will spend years to figure out the new site(s), get new plans drawn up, and go through the whole process once again. Meanwhile, the SDA can build somewhere else, and by the time the Board finally figures out what they want and goes hat in hand to the SDA asking for money, guess what happens next? The project cost will have escalated, the SDA will have run out of money, and Trenton gets nothing.

The Board needs to dust off the renovation plans, modify them however it needs to be, and push it through now.