First Selectman endorses overhaul of town buildings
Five days after First Selectman Jeb Walker unveiled a master plan to create a more efficient village center by upgrading and relocating several town buildings, the Board of Selectmen named four townspeople to join what will be a five-member committee charged with recommending a monumental town planning proposal over the next 12 months.
Jim Beall, Neil Budnick, Mike Hobbs and Christine Wagner, along with ex-officio member and Town Planner Steve Kleppin, were named Tuesday morning to the Town Center Planning Group, which will consider options for town facilities, possibly including the library, town hall, the fire station and the board of education central offices. The committee's over-arching task is to identify facility shortcomings and propose a solution to issues it finds plague town buildings, including the town's historic traffic and parking issues and the library's inability to meet the modern needs of its patrons.
Walker said the planning effort "was a long time coming."
"Over the years the town has studied parking, we've studied traffic, we've studied renovating town hall, we've studied this, we've studied that and for all sorts of different reasons we have not taken cohesive and comprehensive action -- [and this plan] is to do just that," he said to nearly 100 town officials and community members gathered for a press conference at town hall last Wednesday.
No specific proposal was introduced at the meeting, but Walker said it might be desirable to bring together the town government and service bodies into a central downtown campus. The price of the multi-year project could fall between $35 million and $100 million, depending on which facilities and projects it includes, Walker said.
With construction costs and borrowing rates "historically low," Walker suggested that now may be an ideal moment to embark on this project.
The project proposal grew from a long-term research project conducted by the New Canaan Library board over the last decade aimed at solving the dilemma of keeping up with a rising demand for library services in an aging, and in some ways outdated, building.
The current library facility, constructed in 1913 and expanded in 1979, has "aged dramatically and is in constant need of repair," according to library board President Karen Stevenson. It is too undersized to keep up with the 25 percent circulation increase over the past four years, she said. The children's room, auditorium, circulation desk space and parking space fall short of efficiently accommodating the library's patrons, she said.
In 2005, the library privately funded a $60,000 study to gut and renovate the interior of the facility with a local architect, according to Steve Karl, a Town Council member and former library board member. The board drafted a campaign to raise enthusiasm and funds for the $6 million project, but it soon came to a screeching halt when the board decided that a band-aid approach to the facility's shortcomings is not financially sound in the long run, Karl said.
The board began to investigate alternative locations for the library, and in 2008, it hired renowned New York City-based architect Robert Stern to study four town-owned sites for a potential new facility, according to Karl. The potential sites are the current library lot, the railroad station parking lot, the Park Street parking lot and the Center School parking lot.
This second study, also privately funded by the library, cost $100,000, Karl said.
About 18 months ago, the board approached Walker about the possibility of using town-owned land to host a new library, Karl said. The focus of the study ultimately fell on the Park Street parking lot, which is wedged behind town hall at the corner of Park and Elm streets.
"[Walker] liked it because it would facilitate a community center," Karl said.
Walker described the library's desire to modernize its facility as a "catalyst" to rethink the organization of downtown and its facilities.
"The decision by the library board to build a new library presents a unique opportunity for the town to plan for and implement some necessary civic improvements," he said. "While in the past we have looked at various projects individually, such as the town hall renovation, expanding parking and upgrading downtown, the need for a new library is a catalyst for action."
Facilities that may need upgrading include town hall, which has accessibility and operational shortcomings; the fire station, which has structural and operational deficiencies; and the board of education central offices, which incur annual rent that could be avoided with a move to a town-owned facility, Walker said.
The Stern study, conducted for the library board, is one of myriad future proposals of how to reorganize and improve town facilities and the downtown center, according to Karl.
The Stern study proposes the creation of a village campus in the space now occupied by the Park Street parking lot, the Outback Teen Center, town hall, Vine Cottage and the Red Cross building. In the draft plan, the Outback Teen Center, Vine Cottage and Red Cross building would be moved to alternate locations to make way for a 124-space underground parking facility, additional above-ground parking, a new library building, an expanded town hall, a new building to house the board of education central offices and a series of small parks. The document dictates that vehicular access to the campus would be available from Main Street and smaller outlets would guide pedestrians between the campus and Elm Street.
The Stern study provides space for a 60,000-square- foot-library with a large auditorium to be shared with town hall officials for large meetings and events, Karl said. The new town hall facility would maintain its current facade and ideally be large enough to allow town workers now based in Irwin Park to relocate back to the town government headquarters, according to Karl.
"This is one of what might be hundreds of ideas about how to improve downtown New Canaan," Karl said. "If we get it right, this could be a home run for everybody."
The Selectmen tasked the new Town Center Planning Group with consolidating the mass of research already funded or conducted by the town and the library board over the last several years, determining what else needs to be investigated and proposing a recommendation.
"The whole reason we're starting this out in the open is because if we can't get it right this time, we will miss a unique opportunity to do this," Walker said. "And getting it right means that the whole town knows what's going on and everybody gets the opportunity to have their say and we get to hear every idea and we get to analyze every equation and do what's right, because whatever decision we make and whatever plans get put in place are going to be the heart of this town for decades to come. I know all the warm feelings we all have about the town -- we don't want to lose any of that, but yet we want to enhance it so that we have a vibrant economy, we have efficient services for the town government and a great library."