Plan to tear down school to build cancer center sparks protest in New Brunswick

A group of students, parents and community activists in New Brunswick gathered Tuesday in protest of a plan to tear down a school building to make way for a new, 12-story cancer pavilion.

The 750-student Lincoln Annex, a grade 3 through 7 school that just opened in September 2016, sits across Somerset Street from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, which is also the site of the existing Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

RWJBarnabas Health is an underwriter of NJTV News.

If the school is demolished for the expansion, students would be relocated temporarily to a converted warehouse nearly two miles away while a permanent replacement is built.

Among the marchers Tuesday were Amairani Marin-Juarez and Aylanni Peralta, sixth graders at the Lincoln Annex, who both say they want to be doctors someday.

“They say because we’re protesting we’re against cancer, but that’s not true. We’re just saying our education is also important,” said Marin-Juarez. “That’s why we need Lincoln Annex to stay here because Lincoln Annex is a great school.”

Officials have not confirmed reports relating to the school site, but they have also not denied them.

The plan to construct a new, free-standing building for the Cancer Institute at a location “adjacent” to the hospital is part of the public record, announced last June in a press release touting the $750 million proposal as a “state-of-the-art” cancer pavilion that would combine research, education and patient care under one roof.

“With New Jersey consistently ranked in the top ten for cancer incidence, it is imperative that the residents of our state and region have access to a world-class inpatient and outpatient cancer care facility such as the new cancer pavilion,” said Dr. Steven Libutti, director of the Rutgers Cancer Institute and senior vice president of oncology for RWJBarnabas Health.

Although the news release said the exact location adjacent to the hospital is “still being identified,” it also noted that work at the chosen site was anticipated to start in the summer of 2020 and that it would take four years to complete the project.

Among the partners in the project is New Brunswick Development Corporation, or DEVCO, an influential nonprofit which has spearheaded an extended and expansive remaking of Rutgers host city.

According to a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Cahill, the cancer pavilion project includes $55 million to build a new school on Jersey Avenue, roughly a mile from the Lincoln Annex. The proposed site is listed as a brownfield, where contamination has been remediated to industrial standards. A further clean-up, to residential standards, would take place, the spokesperson confirmed.

The young protestors were joined Tuesday by parents and other supporters, including Lilia Fernandez, an associate professor at Rutgers University.

“We’re out here today to support the 750 children who attend Lincoln Annex School,” she said.

One neighborhood advocate expressed dismay that the city’s newest school building could end up being demolished.

“New Brunswick taxpayers paid $22 million to open the school and after four years they’re ready to close the school,” said Charlie Kratovil of the Fifth and Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association.

Some parents questioned whether officials were giving due consideration to the interests of the students.

“A lot of parents themselves do not have transportation so it makes it hard for them to walk 1.7 miles with children who are under the age of 12,” said Maria Juarez. “They’re not putting that into consideration.”

The protestors also said it’s not fair to leave students in a temporary space during the time it takes to further remediate the new site on Jersey Avenue.

“You’re here worried about a cancer institute and then you’re going to put our children at risk,” said Juarez. “We are in this community so it’s very frustrating.”

The city’s Board of Education must approve the sale of the school before the project can move forward. A request for comment from the board went unanswered Tuesday afternoon.