‘A Busy and Vital Community Center for New Canaan’: Library Files Rebuilding Project-Related Applications with P&Z

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An overhead view of the proposed new library. Specs by Turner

After years of planning, New Canaan Library last week filed applications with Planning & Zoning that are designed to allow the organization to build a new glass-and-stone exterior facility that features an auditorium, outdoor terrace, café and public concourse, and reimagines use of its gateway block to the downtown.

The 42,641-square-foot facility’s contemporary design “builds on New Canaan’s legacy of mid-century architecture and site planning and expresses its purpose as a principal community institution,” according to a Feb. 26 application to the Planning & Zoning Commission from attorney Ted O’Hanlan of Stamford-based Robinson+Cole.

“Layouts of interior and exterior spaces are intentionally open to promote community connectivity and engagement and flexibility in use. The building will be clad in native stone veneer at grade level and expansive low-e glazing with ceramic frit. The strategic orientation of the building, to extend east-west along Maple Street, and its proposal for required library parking to be located entirely off-site allows the library to dedicate virtually all of the north portion of the 2.18-acre site to outdoor amenities—the proposed terrace outside the auditorium wing and the new ‘library green’ open to the public and will be pedestrian and visually accessible from Cherry and Main Streets. The transparency of the building’s exterior at its southeast corner giving a view to activity inside will activate the streetscape at the South Avenue gateway to the town’s [commercial business district].”

The library’s voluminous filing consists of three separate applications—for site plan and Special Permit approval, text changes to the New Canaan Zoning Regulations and an attendant zoning boundary change.

P&Z is expected to take up the applications at its March 30 meeting. 

Calling the library “a busy and vital community center for New Canaan,” the applications make the case that the proposed regulation changes conform to the document that guides planning decisions in New Canaan and meet Special Permit criteria. They include drainage and traffic studies, review how the original 1913 building has been expanded upon and list additional parcels that the library has acquired on the block as well as limitations of the current facility.

“The existing library structure has not undergone a major expansion since 1977,” the application said. “Its layout is interrupted by columns and structural walls, creating chopped-up spaces that limit flexible and efficient use of the building and long-term sustainability. By community demand, the library offers a robust series of learning opportunities in the form of adult lectures, music performances, book groups, child, teen and adult computer and craft workshops, and art exhibits. Scheduling and attendance at these free programs are hampered by the lack of appropriate multi-purpose spaces on the main level (including the 1913 structure), and by the seating capacity of the lower level Adrien Lamb Community Room, the only large meeting room in the facility.”

It continues, “Experience has taught us that a library is organic, not static, in nature. While New Canaan’s total population has remained relatively the same for the last 20 years, its interests and demands for library collections, resources and services have greatly changed, prompted by advances in technology, the desire for expanded and diversified modes of lifelong learning, cultural experiences and information exchange, and a greater awareness of the impacts of climate change on public health and environmental resources.”

The new library will include a Children’s Room twice the size of the current one that will “include dedicated activity rooms and with additional learning opportunities in the planned outdoor children’s exploration/play area.” It also will include a Business Center, flex spaces for “new learning opportunities, workshops, meetings, lectures and cultural events,” a teaching kitchen and large meeting room.

The auditorium will be “complete with a stage and state-of-the-art audio-visual capabilities,” according to the library’s application.

“Folding, floor-to-ceiling room dividers will allow these spaces to be used separately or together, and with or without the adjacent outdoor terrace. Both the large meeting room and the auditorium will have portable seats and, when used on a combined basis will have a seating capacity of 355 persons. Other planned interior amenities—a small ‘café’ offering beverages and prepackaged snacks and a ‘Tween Cave’ on the ground level, and the ‘living room’ on the mezzanine level promote social interaction and enjoyment of the library’s facilities.”

It will cost about $35 million to build, library officials have said, and construction will last for approximately two years.

The filing comes as municipal officials work toward a Memorandum of Understanding with the library that includes the town’s contribution of $10 million toward the project and an agreement whereby the library will lease 76 spaces in the Center School Lot for patron parking. A widely discussed clause in the draft agreement—one that library officials have not agreed to—would forestall a decision on whether to demolish the 1913 building during construction.

The applications review how the library reached its decision that the best project did not include preservation of any piece of the existing structure.

Planning for a new facility started in 2012, the application said, and focused on “location, function, programmability, operations, and sustainability, all to best create a place of community for local citizens.”

The library held planning workshops and gathered citizen input before examining “all development options,” the application said, such as whether “to renovate the existing structure, to add onto it, or to build an entirely new facility in the southwest corner of the site.”

“Particular emphasis was placed on sustainability factors (fiscal, operational, energy, environmental) for each option,” the application said. “The land itself was examined, as were facilities currently found lacking. The library considered what other improvements could be made to grow civic engagement and to encourage connectivity with the downtown. The library concluded that a facility that is flexible both physically and programmatically is critical.”

The acquisition in 2017 of a mid-block parcel on South Avenue opened the possibility of constructing a new building on the western side of the block.

“This led the library to determine that the best option to meet these sound institutional and public planning objectives is to demolish the existing library building and to construct a new 2-story, sustainable 42,461 gross square foot facility,” the application said.

It continued, “After consideration of the numerous options and site challenges, the final proposal locates all required library parking off-site to the nearby existing public Center School Lot directly across the street for library patron and visitor use, and continues its practice, beginning in 1977 at the [Planning & Zoning] Commission’s directive, of parking staff off-site. This parking option will allow the installation of a proposed new 21,700-square-foot ‘library green’ open space amenity at the corner of Cherry and Main Street that will be available for library programs, cultural and civic activities open to the public. The project is consistent with the applicable policies and objectives of the POCD for enhancing community character for the downtown; the interrelationship of the public realm and private improvements; and economic, energy and environmental sustainability.”

The library’s application to change the zoning regulations calls for a new “quasi-public library overlay zone” that is “intended to encourage, improve and retain in downtown New Canaan a library of excellence that provides services and collections and enhanced facilities for lifelong learning, cultural enrichment, and information exchange for the local community.”

“These proposed provisions recognize a library’s unique spatial requirements, and the need for flexibility in the arrangement and dedication of interior spaces to adopt to future changes in the sharing of knowledge, collections and forums essential for this important civic resource to thrive in the 21st century,” the application said. “Only downtown sites are eligible for LZ Zone designation, where appropriate utility and road infrastructure exist, and which is intended to promote synergies between a library and the town’s shopping and commercial district. The proposed regulations would require the provision of open space for us for library programs, and cultural, passive recreational and civic uses open to the public, and the option to meet required parking off-site to further limit new impervious coverage and its associated environmental impacts in the downtown.”

According to a traffic assessment from Senior Staff Engineer Christopher McLean and Principal and Vice President Christopher Cardany of New Haven-based Langan CT Inc., the intersections around the library “will operate at acceptable or background levels-of-service with the use of the Center School Lot for library parking and the maintaining of Maple Street in its existing configuration.”

“This allows for a more equal distribution of traffic to and from the Center [School] Lot and will better balance the traffic operating conditions at the intersections on Cherry Street,” according to the assessment. “Finally, we recommend that the pedestrian safety measures mentioned be evaluated and implemented, if possible, to increase safety and also allow for effective traffic flow on Maple Street.”

The Board of Selectmen during its Feb. 23 meeting, when the elected body approved the draft agreement with the library, said safety concerns are one of the reasons that plans call for the two rows of parking closest to Maple Street to be reserved for library patrons.

“Because when young families come in the morning, with children, we didn’t want them to have to walk from the back of the parking lot, through the parking lot, with traffic,” First Selectman Kevin Moynihan said.

Public Works Director Tiger Mann said that safety measures for getting pedestrians across Maple Street may include creation of a “raised pedestrian walkway” or “table” connecting the library block to the parking lot, or a push-button-activated “rapid rectangular flashing beacon” such as those at Elm and Weed Streets or Saxe Middle School.

“Post-construction, it’s understood that the driveway itself to Center School [Lot] will almost line up with the library and then at that time we can put in a pedestrian table and then some other amenities to have a safe crossing, so to speak, almost like a combined campus,” Mann said.

The town additionally may ask the Police Commission to reduce the speed limit on Maple Street by 5 mph, or may seek an even greater reduction after commissioning a study.

One thought on “‘A Busy and Vital Community Center for New Canaan’: Library Files Rebuilding Project-Related Applications with P&Z

  1. This is going to be so great. I can’t wait for them to (finally) break ground and build this thing. Kudos to everyone involved in designing and making a new, amazing library a reality for New Canaan.

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