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Renowned architects design $50M building for New Canaan's Grace Farm Foundation

Updated 11:12 am, Wednesday, October 3, 2012

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  • An artist's rendering of the River at Grace Farms. Photo: Contributed
    An artist's rendering of the River at Grace Farms. Photo: Contributed

 

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On Sept. 24, the Grace Farms Foundation of New Canaan unveiled its plans for a new building project to be built on the foundation's 75-acre property in the northern reaches of New Canaan, along the Connecticut-New York border.

The building, called the River, is estimated to cost between $50 million to $60 million, and will be a long, narrow, futuristic building, "in essence a single long roof" according to the foundation, that bends and meanders through a full acre of the landscape of Grace Farms. The project was designed by the internationally renowned SANAA architecture firm of Tokyo.

The building will be built of glass, concrete, steel and wood. It aims to allow visitors to interact with nature while in the building. According to architect Kazuyo Sejima, "Our goal with the River is to make the architecture become part of the landscape without drawing attention to itself, or even feeling like a building. We hope that those who are on the property will have a greater enjoyment of the beautiful environment and changing seasons through the spaces and experience created by the River," he said in the press release.

A walking tour of the property with foundation president Sharon Prince showed its natural beauty. On what was formerly a horse farm, there are wood-fenced paddocks situated on expansive fields which slope down to a wetlands area. Toward the back of the property there are a small and a large pond, each encircled by stalks of marsh grasses and pine trees. The Philadelphia-based firm OLIN will perform additional landscape design once the project is complete.

While the building will be primarily long and narrow, essentially a long walkway or corridor enclosed in glass or open to the air, it will also widen into larger spaces at some points. If the building is a river, these rooms will be ponds or lakes. The Grace Farms Foundation explained the different uses the building will have in an email.

"At its uppermost point, the River begins with a space that will be used as a sanctuary for Grace Community Church, which will hold services on Sunday. Ancillary areas in the River will accommodate a library, spaces for children, a dining room and a gymnasium, as well as meeting space that can also be used by not-for-profit service organizations, in accordance with our approvals."

The architects of the building are Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa who form the firm SANAA. The pair won the prestigious Pritzker Prize, sometimes referred to as "the Nobel Prize of architecture," in 2010. Past winners include Phillip Johnson, who was the inaugural winner in 1979 and is most famous for his building The Glass House here in New Canaan, as well as I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas.

The Grace Farms Foundation is a nonprofit organization connected with Grace Community Church. According to its website, it supports "initiatives in the areas of faith, the arts, social justice and community. The foundation carries out its work through direct grants and through the facilities and programs of Grace Farms, a 75-acre property that the foundation owns and will develop and manage for the benefit of the Town of New Canaan, the greater community and Grace Community Church."

The non-denominational congregation began in New Canaan in the spring of 2001 when a group of families met as a bible study group. It grew to include more families and a pastor, Cliffe Knechtle. It moved from members' houses to Waveny House and then to Saxe Middle School. Soon the church will move to the sanctuary part of the River building.

The building project has had a long gestation period. Litigation from neighbors, land-use requirements, building permits, and the process of finding architects and developing a plan has made it a long process for the Grace Farms Foundation. A final meeting with the Planning and Zoning Commission may be all that is left in the path of the building, Prince said.

"The Planning and Zoning Commission is reviewing the improved building design and site plan. The Commission is expected to open a hearing on the proposal on Oct. 23. Prior appeals from the original approval were conclusively resolved in our favor in April 2012," she wrote in an email.

She said that they hope to break ground in late winter or early spring of next year, but there is no completion date for the end of the project yet.

The property, formerly known as Windsome Farm, was bought in two parcels. Grace Property Holdings LLC bought 48 acres of land along Lukes Wood Road in July 2008, followed by the Grace Farms Foundation buying the 27-acre adjacent lot in December 2009.

It was thought that the town would stand to lose a good deal of money in tax revenue should this plan come to fruition. If the organization, which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, files for a tax-free status, the town would lose $301,992 per year, according to Town Assessor Sebastian Caldarella.

"Just because you are a 501(c)3 doesn't mean you'll get an exemption," he said. "You have to apply with the town. Under state law, anyone who owns property could be 501(c)3, but if you don't use the property for that purpose, then you don't get 501(c)3 exemption," he said, adding that the River could certainly fit that definition and that the deadline is Oct. 31.

However, Prince said the organization doesn't plan to file for the tax exemption any time soon. It may look into the exemption once all building has been completed and its programs are operational, but that may be years down the road, she said.

The $50 million to $60 million price tag may seem like a lot of money for a church that is currently being run out of a middle school. The foundation said in an email that it is not taking out loans, and that all the money has come from private donors.

"A group of individuals has arranged the up-front financing through the foundation. These donors prefer to remain anonymous."

Prince noted that they hope that the property and the building are not short-term investments, and hope to serve the next generations and hopefully for hundreds of years.

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