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Lincoln Annex School advocates voice concerns as City Council passes ordinance in support of hospital expansion

The Daily Targum previously reported Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital wants to build a pavilion for the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey on the site of the Lincoln Annex School. – Photo by Sandra Casanas

The New Brunswick City Council held a remote meeting last night and passed an ordinance to adopt a healthcare and research pavilion redevelopment plan regarding the expansion of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital’s (RWJUH) Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. 

The Daily Targum previously reported RWJUH wants to build the new pavilion on the site of the Lincoln Annex School. Community advocates called into the meeting to ask the Council to vote against the adoption of this plan. 

Charlie Kratovil, editor of New Brunswick Today, said RWJUH has been busy due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and asked the Council whether it communicated with hospital officials to make sure they are still committed to funding replacement school for the Lincoln Annex students if the project were to proceed.

City Council President John Anderson did not say whether it had contacted RWJUH and did not say the plan was confirmed to move forward. 

“I think basically we’re just passing this to adopt this idea of healthcare and research pavilion redevelopment as a possibility,” Anderson said.

Kratovil said it is irresponsible to move forward with the project without a clear confirmation or a timeline of how soon the project will proceed.

He also said the Council passed a two-part ordinance in February. The ordinance required the New Brunswick Planning Board to evaluate how to demolish the Lincoln Annex School and build the Cancer Pavilion as well as create the plan for the replacement school.

The Targum previously reported Daniel Dominguez, community development administrator for New Brunswick, told residents at the Planning Board meeting on March 10 that a plan for the Cancer Institute was ready but the replacement school plan was still being looked into. 

“For some reason … the Planning Board was allowed to disregard the half of your resolution that had to do with building a new school, and it went ahead on the part about destroying the current school,” Kratovil said. “If you vote for this, you're voting to move forward on the destruction of one of our best performing public schools … you're looking to demolish that without a real plan to replace it. These (plans) were supposed to be paired together and somehow they got separated.”

Julienne LaChance, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University, also spoke to the City Council about the contamination issues at the sites of the potential replacement schools.

She said records show there is a vapor intrusion risk, meaning the contaminants can seep through cracks in the building and pollute the air, causing health risks for students. Additionally, she said these sites cannot be fully decontaminated and would require regular maintenance. 

“What (the New Brunswick Development Corporation) DEVCO is legally required to do as a remediation strategy is what we call a ‘presumptive remedy.’ So that means (it is) only legally required to cap the site and put in some engineering controls to help mitigate that vapor intrusion risk,” LaChance said. “But the problem with that is that this type of presumptive remedy comes along with extremely frequent investigations and rather expensive maintenance and engineering strategies.”

LaChance also said she has been working with hospitals, including RWJUH, to help get them access to more personal protective equipment and ventilators during the COVID-19 outbreak. She said many intensive care units have been overwhelmed, which could affect the status of the Cancer Institute project.

“I know exactly how overburdened RWJ is at this time, so I can't imagine this being in any position for the duration of this year to dedicate any serious effort into coming up with a good plan for extending the hospital or working with these students,” LaChance said.

Elizabeth Ciccone, a resident, said proceeding with the project without a timeline could impact not just the approximately 760 current students of Lincoln Annex School, but future generations as well. She said past projects in the city, such as the construction of A.C. Redshaw Elementary School, took many years to complete.

“If this particular project drags on as, for example, the Redshaw project dragged on, 10 years of students not attending at the Lincoln Annex School is 7,000 students, which is actually approximately a 10th of the entire population of the city of New Brunswick,” Ciccone said. “That amount of people being displaced for that amount of time is very troubling, especially when we're talking about grade school students who shouldn't be displaced in the first place.”

Ciccone said other sites are available to build the Cancer Institute but they are not being looked at, because the developers believe moving the children of Lincoln Annex School elsewhere is more convenient. She also said one of the proposed sites of the replacement school, 50 Jersey Ave., is owned by a RWJUH board member, which she said is a conflict of interest.

The Targum previously reported the New Brunswick Board of Education also held a vote regarding the replacement of the Lincoln Annex School amid the COVID-19 outbreak, prompting questions as to why the plans could not be put on hold until the outbreak subsides and why members of the Board could not provide members of the public with information about the plans. 

Ciccone also asked the City Council why it is focused on something other than responding to the viral outbreak and how it is impacting the city’s healthcare system.

“I don't understand why we're rushing to anything but emergency issues, the type of administrative function that is enforced during a state of emergency is intended to cover exactly that — emergency issues,” she said. “This is not an emergency issue. This is a convenience to the developers, and everyone's trying to shuffle it on through because it's a convenience.” 

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