The town stands to benefit aesthetically, culturally and otherwise if New Canaan Library in planning its rebuilt facility has a properly sized and configured parcel with which to work, officials said Tuesday.
Because of setback regulations, a major gateway into the New Canaan at South Avenue and Maple Street realistically could only serve as a parking lot unless the library is able to acquire a key .19-acre property on its block, the town’s highest elected official said during a meeting of the Board of Finance.
So if it’s feasible and residents and town officials support the idea, New Canaan ought to consider helping the library purchase that property, according to First Selectman Rob Mallozzi, who serves as chairman of the finance board.
“There is an opportunity for this town to demonstrate to our library what we think and be a partner in their vision that I think is fundamental for the success of this community,” Mallozzi said during the finance board’s regular meeting, held at Town Hall.
Doing so would bolster “the look and feel of the community as you approach our downtown village, and, I think, truly jumpstart a capital campaign to the library that would lead to a phenomenal facility over the next few years.”
He added: “I think it would be a very good investment for our community.”
That investment, if it’s made, remains some months away, according to finance board member Neil Budnick.
Together with Mallozzi, Town Council Chairman Bill Walbert and fellow finance board member Chris Le Bris—former president of the library’s Board of Trustees—Budnick has been involved in conversations regarding the possible acquisition of 48 South Ave. for the past few months (more on how the deal unfolded below). Currently the site of a multi-family house, the parcel would cost a total of $1.5 million, and town officials “will probably review [the matter] in the fall, as far as any financial commitment,” Budnick said.
“It’s a long time until the final plans are ready for the project but we have the opportunity to purchase this property,” he said. “It would be about $1.5 million with about two-thirds coming from the library and one-third provided by the town in the form of a special grant from the General Fund balance.”
According to Le Bris, if the library was unable to obtain the property, which is owned by Dan Jones, “then it would have to build anything, any new building, along the same axis on which it currently exists—that is, everything facing Main Street.”
“What would result from that is essentially that all of the parking would be facing South Avenue,” Le Bris said. “And the reason that the library could not build on those areas is because of the setback rules, and the only thing the library could do, basically, and stay within the guidelines of the setbacks, is parking spaces. So from a town perspective as well as from a library perspective, that was not the most desirable.”
Instead, what’s envisioned is a newly built library with two major sections: A part that faces Morse Court that includes functional meeting rooms and an auditorium as well as offices, and then a part located closer to Maple Street toward South Avenue (roughly catty-corner to the Merritt Apartments, where a major redevelopment is planned) that houses the collection, Le Bris said. Above-ground parking would be located off of Main Street at Maple, and the grade of the library block would be used to put additional parking underground.
Finance board members asked Le Bris whether the lower parking level he described as ‘subterranean’ also would include library functions (no, just parking, and it would be sufficiently lit), whether the original façade of the 1913 library now facing Main Street at Cherry would be incorporated in a rebuilt facility (yes), whether the Jones house would be razed immediately and turned into a pocket park if acquired (unclear, as there are leases involved) and what happens if the town doesn’t come up with the $500,000 (it’s a timely opportunity to purchase the property and there’s no reason the library could not arrange to pay back the town).
John “Buzz” Kanter, a member of the Board of Finance, asked whether, given overall trends toward digital, it makes sense to expand the library to such a degree.
Le Bris said the library’s director, Lisa Oldham, is best positioned to respond to that big-picture question.
Reached by NewCanaanite.com late Tuesday, Oldham noted that library use is growing in New Canaan and nationwide (1,100 people through the door last Thursday), and that 10 peer towns in Fairfield County (such as Greenwich and Westport), Westchester County and northern New Jersey are in capital campaigns for new facilities.
All digital formats out of New Canaan Library are “going like gangbusters,” Oldham said (the library’s website now sees 1,250,000 pageviews per year), while the facility also lends more e-books than anyone else in the state (and about 21 print books per capita per year, she said). New Canaan Library runs 80 to 100 programs per month, and increasingly finds itself turning away groups to use meeting spaces due to full capacity.
Oldham, Le Bris and others long have said that a new library is needed. Just two-thirds or so of the current, 37,000-square-foot building is usable, and the library has experienced chronic problems with its elevator, condenser and other infrastructure.
For more than two years, designs for a new building that will cost about $25 million have assumed the Jones property would be acquired. Officials have said a new facility will roughly double the amount of usable space at the library, feature modern architecture and preserve a traditional look for an area dedicated to events and meeting spaces.
Yet, though a capital campaign committee formed more than one year ago, renderings are needed to approach prospective donors and fundraise in earnest.
According to Le Bris, “the infrastructure for a capital campaign is in place.”
“However, the Capital Campaign Committee is temporarily at a standstill because they cannot work with the architects with final drawings because of the expense involved until it knows that it has the Jones property, so it is kind of a chicken and egg situation.”
That situation came on Mallozzi’s own radar some months ago, following a kind of financially responsible rebirth of the library itself, he said.
Going back five years, transparency in the library’s finances was lacking, but “they have become a true partner of the town,” Mallozzi said.
“We have seen fit to grant them some increases in their operating budget, we have a much better understanding of their capital needs and, as a matter of fact, when we discussed a year or nine months ago a ‘debt roadmap’ and what could be forecasted that we would want to do for various parts of town, one of the things we discussed was doing something for the library out in later years. Related to that conversation is the fact that the library has been coveting property in and around their library and over the last five years they have bought and torn down and done a great job of expanding their campus in the hopes that someday they could reflect a much more modern and efficient library and deliver great services from a much better physical plant.”
Yet one of the obstacles they faced was the property owned by Jones, “who happens to be a very, very good friend to the town of New Canaan,” Mallozzi said.
“He is a former library board president, his son worked in my store [Bob’s Sports], we all grew up with Mr. Jones, he started New Canaan Bank and Trust which is now Bankwell with many members of the community. He’s really just a great New Canaanite.”
Mallozzi said that he spoke to Jones and said, “The town wants to participate with the library in this,” and that helped lead to a major development in negotiations with him: a hard selling price being affixed to the property.
Mallozzi underscored that the finance board faces no vote, and said that the question of helping the library acquire the final independently owned property on their block came before the group that night because the library’s own board was to be updated simultaneously. The Town Council is scheduled to take up the matter during its regular meeting Wednesday night, according to Mallozzi. Just as it was with the home of the New Canaan Volunteer Ambulance Corps on South Avenue, which received town support, the question of helping the library is “a function of [whether] you support treasured and valued institutions in our community,” the first selectman said.
Here’s a sketch that shows what the layout of the library’s block would be (note the parking at South and Maple) if the property at 48 South Ave. cannot be acquired:
Here’s a rendering of the library’s potential layout with the property at 48 South Ave. in hand: