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New Canaan Town Hall plans face the public

Published 1:03 pm, Sunday, March 17, 2013
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The Town Hall renovation plans came one step closer to fruition Monday, March 11, when roughly 60 residents gathered at New Canaan High School to hear and discuss the proposals for the building.

"The Building Committee has met 13 times since last summer. We believe we've come to a solution that is functional but not over the top in any way," the building's architect, Armand Quadrini, of the firm KSQ Architects, said, adding, "We think we've brought an idea that's timeless and complements the historic building."

The budget for the overall project, which has been a point of import for the committee, is $14.5 million, with $11.7 million of that for construction expenses. Some members of the committee found an earlier, more modern, scheme of the building to be too "grandiose" and expensive. The original building was constructed in 1909.

Many residents who spoke at Monday's meeting were not concerned as much with the budget, and in fact supported a building with perhaps more gravitas. Laszlo Papp, a resident and architect who also is chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said many visitors come to town to see its architectural gems and that he wouldn't want the Town Hall to be a dud comparatively.

"No one on this committee is going to be a hero by cutting $200,000, $300,000 or $500,000 from the budget to make an uninspired building," he said. "My message is ... that before the building is built all the talk is about the money. One day after the building is built, no one talks about the money, people talk about all the compromises in the building."

Aside from thousands of square feet of additional office space and modern technological infrastructure, the new building would have a skylight from which the cupola at the top will be visible. The plans call for a meeting room, which at 100-person capacity is almost half as big as the prior space.

Resident Jane Himmel asked why a more spectacular plan hadn't even been presented to the public for consideration.

"As a resident, I would like to have seen a plan that was what you would have turned down," she said. "I would love to see another rendering that for `x' dollars you get whatever bells and whistles. I think it should be up to the town to say, `Yes, we want that,' or, `No, we don't.'"

Dan Radman, an architect and member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, echoed Papp's and others' comments, adding that the meeting space would be too small.

"It's too conservative. We need Town Hall to be cutting edge," Radman said.

Similarly, Dick Bergmann, another well-known architect in town who worked with and for some of New Canaan's famed "Harvard 5" moderns, said the plans lack something.

"We've got to have a building that we're proud of," he said. "We want something that in 50 years we're not going to hang our head. Trying to wed a new building to a historic building is very difficult and I think they're working their way toward a good solution."

But others, who spoke after the meeting, found the building plans to be good.

"I think it has evolved into a very acceptable building," said John Tremain, a member of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance. "My biggest concern was that the front part of the building was not going to be restored, and it appears to me now that it will be. We got a very nice side entrance to the building with some landscaping."

Providing some pushback against calls for a more expensive building, Town Councilman Roger Williams warned against the idea of low-interest rates constituting "free money."

"I was an opponent of the whole project to begin with," Williams said. "Since then, I've become a convert. I will tell you that I think still we need to be fiscally responsible. I don't think there's any such thing as free money because we will pay a bill. When people say interest rates are so low, I just don't want us to get too swayed by interest rates of 1 and 2 percent and get us off budget."

A 30-year resident in the crowd, David Scannell, said he was satisfied with the plan but concerned that the new parts of the building might be too big in proportion.

"I'm glad to see that the front part will be preserved," Scannell said. "It does look a little bit more second fiddle than it does today. It will look a little smaller because the wings are so significant. But I like it and I think it'll be good for the town."

Bergmann got the last word at the public meeting -- a warning against listening to people too much.

"You all heard about the racehorse that was designed by a committee and was a camel," he began. "If you listen to everyone in this room, you'll get a camel."

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews