New Canaan Library through many early design iterations sought to include the original 1913 building, the organization’s executive director said last week.
Yet in acquiring an adjacent South Avenue property in 2017, opening up new possibilities for the best possible design, as well as a fundraising feasibility study “and a careful assessment of the functional needs for the building and grounds, the design could no longer incorporate the original facade into the building within these parameters,” Lisa Oldham told members of the Planning & Zoning Commission during their regular meeting.
“The library then began to explore how it might retain the original structure, freestanding on-site,” Oldham said during the March 30 meeting, held via videoconference. “Several options for relocating it on the green were explored. In weighing these options, the library considered the following: First, the cost to rebuild the structure. The library sought estimates from several companies to preserve the viable remnants of the original library. Specifically, the front section and the east- and north-facing walls. And then to rebuild the whole at a reasonable standard of quality. These estimates have been updated with current pricing and information, and they’ve also been sent to a third-party for peer review. The estimates for this 1,300-square-foot building are around $3 million, plus significant additional costs due to contamination issues.”
She addressed P&Z during a 4.5-hour meeting dominated by the library’s multiple applications for site and Special Permit approval as well as text changes to the New Canaan Zoning Regulations and an attendant zoning boundary change. The building is expected to cost $36 million to $38 million, including contingencies, Oldham said. It will take about two years to build, officials have said. New Canaan Library has raised more than $16 million toward the project and has asked the town for a $10 million contribution toward the project.
A local group, Friends of Our 1913 Library, is trying to ensure the structure’s preservation, and the building’s future dominated much of the presentation and hearing.
P&Z Chair John Goodwin in introducing the library item, said, “Clearly the understatement of the night is that this is a huge deal for the town, a potential signature change for the town.”
“We have received a lot of letters regarding this application and one thing I can assure the public is we read all the letters,” Goodwin said.
He added, “The one thing—I think that I can speak on behalf of the Commission—is to say that we know that there is a very large, significant part of the New Canaan population that supports this application as-is. We also know that there is a very significant, large portion of the New Canaan population that supports the preservation of the 1913 library.”
According to Goodwin, P&Z will entertain public input on the library’s plans either at its regular meeting April 27 or at an earlier special meeting.
Last week’s hearing was dedicated to the library’s own presentation and Oldham discussed the history of both the library and the organization’s planning for redevelopment, need for a new facility and the role and importance of libraries generally—and P&Z commissioners’ initial questions (see below).
Those advocating for the 1913 building’s preservation say it’s in good condition and that it’s an important and historic structure in the downtown. It forms an essential part of New Canaan’s character and can and should be incorporated into any future construction plans, especially since the town funds a large portion of the library’s operating budget and the organization has asked for a sizable taxpayer contribution, preservation advocates say.
Yet renovating the original library building would significant work, including installation of an HVAC system, plumbing, wiring and making it ADA-compliant, as well as site work to account for drainage and contouring, she said.
“A foundation would need to be rebuilt, as would the missing walls,” she said. “The roof and portico columns were replaced with modern synthetic materials several decades ago. And there would be an additional cost to move it on the site. Hazardous materials: An investigation by hazardous materials engineers shows significant levels of asbestos and lead in this original building—in the basement, in the floors and in the roof.”
The cost of abatement “would add significant cost increases,” she said.
Adding $3 million-plus plus the future operational funding “is simply not possible.”
“New Canaan Library has made an offer to the New Canaan Preservation Alliance, to allow them to take possession of the original building, through legal correspondence, and followed up with a meeting with their lawyer,” Oldham said. “They have declined this offer, but continued agitate for the library to change its plans to keep the building. New Canaan Library will not keep this library on site. To preserve this facade would be an attractive reminder of earlier times. But it comes at enormous expense to the library, yet no functional purpose. New Canaan Library is an association library. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with an independent board and a private philanthropy base. The building and grounds are private property. The town provides a generous grant each year to partially support library operations. This grant is an exchange for value. The library provides enormous benefit to the community—one that, were it a public agency, would come at a far greater cost to the municipality annually, than a single grant. Philanthropic donations provide the remainder of annual operating funds, as well as 100% of the capital costs. This system works for New Canaan. The decision not to keep the original building was careful, reasoned, and was reached by dedicated volunteers advised by professionals.”
In addressing P&Z, Oldham referred to a timeline filed last month with Town Planner Lynn Brooks Avni and Goodwin that reviews the library’s efforts to find a way to preserve the original building, among other things. It includes a note that, in 2012, a study group of library officials and outside specialists “initially favored maintaining the original (1913) Library wing, if it could fit in with the new structure.” Later, in 2017, following the acquisition of 48 South Ave., the architects proposed a new concept and design that was “the first that does not integrate the original (1913) building on site as a freestanding structure,” the timeline said.
Unveiled publicly in January 2020, the “new” library will feature a glass-and-stone exterior, 300-seat auditorium, rooftop terrace, café, public concourse, fireplace, two large conference rooms and “green” at the corner of Main and Cherry Streets, including where the original 1913 building now stands.
Mark Herter, an associate principal with Centerbrook architectural firm, and Chris Cardany, a principal and engineer with New Haven-based Langan, reviewed the design of the site and building with P&Z, including inspiration from Midcentury Moderns and features such as a flexible auditorium, drainage, utility services, sustainability, consistency with a document that guides planning in New Canaan and parking and landscaping plans.
The library is to be served by 76 parking spaces in the Center School Lot leased from the town—those located nearest to Maple Street. A raised crosswalk and pedestrian-activated flashing beacon is proposed for those walking between the library and lot.
Herter said the proposed library green would comprise about 14% of the library’s approximately 2.2-acre site (including its South Avenue, Main Street and Maple Street parcels), and that landscaping and seating plans for the Cherry Street-facing stretch of the green and sidewalk re-create the area as a gathering space. The overall site will include some 38,000 square feet of native trees, shrubs and ground cover that will be “an extremely rich habitat for wildlife.”
“The library is on the pollinator path,” Herter said. “And what is essential, really, about the way in which we designed and developed this landscape is really to think about those terms—think about native species, think about the habitat, the ability to maintain and enhance and enrich the environment of open space and of downtown.” He added that a planned Children’s Garden at the corner of South and Maple will be a “secret little garden and a private oasis” that extends children’s experiential learning outside.
Commissioners asked why there are no on-site parking spaces for the disabled (there is no parking at all on the new library site, though the disabled spaces in the Center School Lot are closest to the library and the site will include an ADA-standard drop-off zone), whether someone in a wheelchair would need to go out into Maple Street to use the crosswalk (no a sidewalk on the north side of Maple will be extended), whether the site includes access for emergency response vehicles such as firetrucks and ambulances (yes), whether designers had considered an “overpass” between the Center School Lot and library (no, partly due to complications of developing a structure on two sides of the street), whether the Farmers Market that’s operated in the Center School Lot would be held elsewhere in town (yes, probably in the Lumberyard Lot), how far the new building will be from the Maple Street sidewalk (26 feet), what will be the use of organic compounds in finishes that harm air quality (materials such as glues and others are examined carefully), whether runoff rain could be captured and used for non-potable functions such as toilet flushing (that was looked at but ruled out for reasons of cost and logistics, though low-flow fixtures are being used for water conservation), whether restrooms will be gender-specific or unisex (first-floor bathrooms are gender-specific and bathrooms are unisex throughout the rest of the building), whether thought has been given to a partial closure of Maple Street for safety reasons (it’s been examined but would divert too much traffic into the downtown), whether a large truck can be maneuvered in a planned loading dock (trash, fire and box trucks can turn there, and normal tractor-trailers wouldn’t use it), whether shadow studies have been performed (yes), whether there’s a wall enclosing the Children’s Garden (yes), how high it is (the stone wall along Maple is just 30 inches high but there’s another 1.5- to 2-foot drop in grade to the Children’s Garden itself), how the library is thinking about safety issues for the Garden considering children like to climb (there are plantings, there’s no way into the space for a small child without an adult and there will be supervising staff), why a 2011 application to re-zone the entire property as Business A had been withdrawn (not sure—that predates those now on the project, though it may have to do with a parking lot expansion at the time), whether there’s any back-of-house support for the café (it would be operated for an existing independent entity in New Canaan as a second site, and that business would prep food and store goods off-site), whether an outdoor concession is planned for the new library (no), whether it will be closed at some time (the library property is not currently restricted at night), whether the new library will have a backup electrical system (yes), how much of the building will be powered by solar panels (there’s no specific figure at-hand), and whether there’s been thought about deed-restricting the library green area against development (the proposed quasi-library zone protects use of the property).
Noting that other than limited specifications—such as height and floor-area ratio—the new library largely would be allowable in the existing Business A and Apartment Zones with just minor tweaks to the New Canaan Zoning Regulations, Commissioner Krista Neilson questioned whether the creation of an entirely new zone was merited.
“I am not usually a fan of what I’m calling ‘project-specific zoning,’ which is zoning districts that are written to enable a specific project, which is what’s happening here in this case,” Neilson said. “And in looking at the Business A Zone and the Apartment Zone which this project falls in both of, they both allow quasi-public libraries already, so I’m wondering if you can explain further why you think the new zoning district is necessary, as opposed to just making some minor modifications to the zoning districts where this project would already be allowed by Special Permit.”
Smith responded that what would be required is “more than just a tweak to the two existing zones that we are talking about here.”
“They [the proposed new regulations] are something that should be incorporated for a library that lands here or anywhere else in the town that meets these criteria,” Smith said. “It’s not what people fear of a ‘spot zone.’ It’s really a design element that is useful because it’s more expansive than what was considered just as a tweak to those two zones that you are expanding.”
Herter said that having the property straddle two zones with different criteria in setbacks, coverage, FAR and building height has been a “challenge” and that the question was raised whether to change boundaries so the entire parcel would be located in a single zone or to “develop a unique zoning regulation specifically for that property.”
Some P&Z commissioners asked follow-up questions regarding the 1913 building.
Commissioner James Basch questioned whether the library’s project adheres to goals laid out in the Plan of Conservation and Development that call for a balance of preservation and development.
Smith said preservation of the building was part of the library’s plans for many years. Oldham noted that library officials had 12 iterations of the rebuilding project that enabled preservation of the 1913 structure, but when the final parcel along South Avenue was obtained, it changed the picture.
“This is a building funded 75% through philanthropy and the green is such an amazing part of this project,” she said. “That, along with costs—it’s a matter of tradeoffs to get best project we can for the community.”
Commissioner Dick Ward asked whether some elements of the Main Street-facing facade could be incorporated to “sort of give a little bit of recognition to its existence.”
Oldham said the library has made an offer to the New Canaan Preservation Alliance to remove the structure if the group wants to.
“That offer still stands—however, if they retain the same position they’re in now of saying ‘no,’ then we have discussed repurposing those stones in the new perimeter wall at Cherry Street and possibly using some of the stones in the fireplace,” she said.
Herter said the architects studied several ways of integrating the original building in some way into the new one and the idea “was rejected for a number of reasons.”
Commission Secretary Jean Grzelecki called on the library to explain its plans to raze the 1913 building when others in town say there’s room for both the planned new library and existing original structure. She called for an explanation of “why your green space needs to be so large.”
Oldham said in response that where the 1913 eluding sits “in the middle of the lawn completely bifurcates that space.”
“So the idea of a green that would be suitable for performance space is absolutely impossible with that building sitting in the middle,” she said. “Not to mention the contours of the space that would not allow for any sort of useful public performance or large group gatherings on that space, if that building were there.”
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