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Princeton School District makes an offer for Westminster Choir College campus (updated)

Westminster Choir College

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
The Princeton School District made an “initial proposal” to Rider University to acquire Rider’s Westminster Choir College campus, despite a threat of a lawsuit by a group of Westminster alumni and others fighting to block a sale of the property.
Superintendent of Schools Stephen C. Cochrane said Tuesday that the district is waiting to find out next month if it advanced to the “second round” of consideration. He said he could not say how much money the district is offering for the property, only that the offer was due in June 7.
“We signed a nondisclosure agreement, everything is confidential at this point,” Cochrane said by phone. “We’re waiting for the next phase.”
“I’m imagining that there will be more information that can be forthcoming by the end of the summer,” he said.
At a time when district enrollment is growing and expected to grow still more, officials are weighing their options for expansion. Cochrane said the potential ways the district could use the Westminster campus are still “in discussion.”
“And it will probably be something that I can talk more about after we share it … officially with Rider, assuming we get to that point,” Cochrane said. “We haven’t, yet, sat down with them for what I described as that second round to talk to them about what we would be hoping to do. And I think it’s important that I be able to share that with them first, before putting out a proposal to the whole community through the paper.”
Rider announced earlier this year that it would be shedding Westminster, a once private music school that has been a part of Rider since 1992, by looking for a buyer for the choir college. For its part, the university said it would not disclose the names of the bidders.
University spokeswoman Kristine A. Brown said Tuesday that Rider is keeping that information confidential “to assure the legitimacy of the process.”
“I’m not going to confirm or share any of that information about any of the bidders, no matter who they are,” she said.
But a group of Westminster alumni, students and others is fighting back. Two weeks ago, the attorney for the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College in Princeton sent Cochrane, school board president Patrick Sullivan and municipal attorney Trishka W. Cecil a letter warning of a lawsuit.
“It is my understanding that the Board of Education and the town of Princeton are considering a proposal to purchase the buildings and grounds of Westminster Choir College for use in school expansion, creation of a magnet school and other potential school district or municipal uses,” lawyer Bruce I. Afran wrote in his June 14 letter that the Princeton Packet obtained. “The coalition is aware that the board and the town have considered a plan following sale to the municipality or the school district under which the choir college could continue in truncated form in some of the present structures. No such solution is acceptable to the coalition that will litigate if there is any substantive change in the current operation of Westminster Choir College.”
Later in the letter, Afran raised the prospect of Princeton University having a role in a deal.
“In addition, we are advised that the board and the town recognize that the community will not likely approve a bond issue for the purchase of Westminster Choir College property or for construction of new facilities,” Afran wrote. “My client is aware that the town and the board have considered a loan from a local non-profit organization, including one identified as Princeton University, to effect the purchase of the Westminster campus. To the extent such information is accurate, any such loan would be considered by the coalition to be an illegal measure to avoid calling for a vote on a bond issue. My clients would bring direct litigation against the town and the board to have such loan arrangement declared illegal.”
For its part, Nassau Hall on Tuesday dismissed Afran’s claim.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” said university Vice President and Secretary Robert K. Durkee by phone. “I don’t know what that’s based on.”
Afran is representing a group of clients in a class action lawsuit, in New York federal court, to block Rider from selling the school. The suit contends a series of real estate developers, including Toll Brothers, has expressed interest in acquiring the more than 20-acre property.
Town zoning rules, though, will influence how the site is used.
“I think you can have some residential on it, but it would not allow for the whole property to be developed as your typical multi-family development without a zoning change,” Mayor Liz Lempert told reporters at her press conference Monday.
She said a “major zoning change, in town, is extremely difficult,” and said the municipal master plan does not call for the Westminster campus “to be redeveloped as residential.”
Town planning director Lee O. Solow said Tuesday that he “couldn’t even begin to guess how many units somebody could get.”
“I think depending on what ultimately is decided,” he said, “I’m sure the town will be interested in working with whoever the successful bidder is on ensuring that there’s a plan that’s good for the institution as well as for the community at large and the neighborhood it’s in.”

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