There could soon be a birdcage installed at Waveny House … a birdcage elevator, that is.
Actually, a birdcage elevator is technically a “lift” and not an elevator, because it is not enclosed and utilizes hydraulics instead of cables. Aside from that trivial fact, the town is studying the possibility of installing the elevator for the purpose of bringing the historic building into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Currently, there are two ways to get from the first floor of Waveny House to the second floor: Stairs and an original “baggage elevator” that runs from the basement to the attic. However, the baggage elevator has not been used in decades and no longer works.
The Town Council’s Infrastructure & Utilities/Public Works Committee met on Wednesday evening to discuss the possibility of funding the installation a birdcage elevator as part of a larger plan to upgrade the building and bring it fully into ADA compliance – as the town continues to consider new uses for the underutilized building that could bring in additional revenue.
“The ADA mandate is why we’re here,” Director of Public Works Tiger Mann told the committee members during the meeting held at Town Hall.
He explained that the Act was signed into law by George H.W. Bush in 1990 – however, in 2011 the U.S. Department of Justice amended and finalized the Act to make its standards enforceable. This, he explained, led to the passage of Project Civic Access, a federal program involving un-announced spot inspections of municipal facilities to ensure that towns are taking measures to meet compliance.
“They started working through municipalities, just basically coming for any reason – a letter, a phone call or just that they wanted to visit this beautiful town in lower Fairfield County,“ Mann explained “It’s sort of like an OSHA investigation, or review. They come once every several years – unannounced – and we have to comply.”
Back in 1993, Mann explained, the town’s former public works director “put together several things towards this compliance.”
“They actually asked the town to provide a notice of ADA requirements, establish a grievance procedure, conduct a self-evaluation and develop a transition plan,” he said. “In 1993-1994 the town did just that.”
Later, in 2008, Mann approached then-First Selectman Jeb Walker and asked him to form a compliance team, “basically comprised of town employees and one representative from the disabled community,” to address the issue of ADA compliance town-wide.
“We did our own notice, with regard to the policies and procedures, and established a new grievance procedure, conducted a self-evaluation, and then reviewed the existing transition plan,” he said, adding that the compliance team determined that “throughout the town, we were actually pretty compliant.”
“The only thing we were lacking … was the infrastructure … our buildings, our parking lots, our sidewalks,” he said. “But as far as the programs themselves and the training for the staff – the staff was well-versed in the law – the only thing they needed to do was make sure that they understood that they had make accommodations for people with disabilities in non-compliant buildings.”
Mann said in 2008 “the town started working on sidewalk upgrades … when we did all the ramps on South Ave. from downtown to the schools, both sides of the street.” Following that, the town “started on the parking lots,” to get them up to ADA compliance as well.
“Are we fully compliant? No, we are not – not every parking lot has been done,” he added. “But we’re still working through it.”
After the new Town Hall was completed in 2015, the town started looking at Waveny House for ADA compliance, Mann said. He pointed out that it is one of the only town facilities that is used by outside residents.
It was in 2015, at the behest of the now defunct Waveny Use Committee, he said, that engineering firm KSQ Design was hired to look at ways the building could be upgraded without impacting its historic elements.
“At the time, they came up with the idea of adding a birdcage elevator and other accessible routes,” Mann said. “That brings us to where we are today.”
Mann said the main reason ADA compliance for Waveny House was not tackled in 2016 is because the roof needed replacement – and it did not make sense to start upgrading the building for ADA compliance when the roof was no good.
He added that the idea of adding a birdcage elevator to the interior of the building is considered “the least intrusive and most economical” of the discussed options – plus it would result in the least amount of damage to the historic building.
The elevator – if approved – would likely be located where the open stairs are, near the front entrance of the building.
This option is preferred because it does not require the removal of walls or anything architecturally significant, Mann said.
“The only other thing that is required is an acceptable [ADA] entrance… which would be on the west side of the building, entering the western wing,” he explained.
Also discussed was the possibility of adding ADA compliant bathrooms on the second floor.
Other potential measures that have been identified include providing an ADA access ramp to the Waveny House outdoor patio, adding signage and bringing the west parking lot more fully into compliance. However, during Wednesday’s meeting, the committee members stayed focused on the elevator, bathrooms and any additional ramping that might be needed.
Lea Cromwell, an architect with KSQ Design, told the committee members that when her firm was retained in 2005 to assist the Waveny Use Committee, it investigated four possible locations for an ADA-compliant elevator – including the possibility of adding a tower to the exterior of the building. However, it was determined that this would not work, as it would have a significant impact on the exterior of the building.
“There was just no place where it would not compromise the exterior of the building,” Cromwell said. “So we looked at the interior of the building.”
KSQ, working with the Waveny Use Committee, looked at putting an enclosed elevator (i.e., not a birdcage type) where the women’s restroom is, near the front entrance. However, this would require major reconstruction, she said.
“There would be several detrimental impacts there,” Cromwell said. “There’s beautiful limestone and wood surrounding all the walls in that area – it would require major reconstruction of those, and it would really destroy the appearance of them.”
It would also require damaging some of the paneled walls and possibly some of the murals located there, she said.
However, the positive aspect of putting an elevator in that location is that it would be near the front entrance, she explained.
The firm also considered using the existing baggage elevator – which is near the kitchen – however, Cromwell said the existing shaft is not large enough to contain an ADA-compliant elevator. Making the shaft large enough, she said, would require rebuilding the first and second floor bathrooms.
“Heavy masonry walls would have to be destroyed – plus the service corridors on the first and second floors leading to the baggage elevator are not wide enough for ADA accessibility,” she said. “They’re only four feet when they should be five.” In addition, it is in a potentially “congested area” where patrons would have to “mingle with kitchen staff” during events.
“We also thought that that shaft space would be better used later for mechanical systems and electrical,” she added.
“The last option we looked at, was [installing a birdcage elevator] by the open stair – which would be more of a lift than an elevator, serving only two floors,” she said. “The detriments to that is that it would require modification of the existing historic staircase and some structural modification – but not as much as the other two [interior] locations. It would cause the least physical damage to the building, plus it is on a primary route.”
One of the issues with installing ADA-compliant bathrooms on the second floor is that because the future use of the building is yet to be determined, it is not known how many bathroom fixtures will be required. Mann said the town caps occupancy for weddings at 160 (plus staff), however, there are other events such as the post prom party where occupancy can rise to more than 300. What’s more, he pointed out that the occupancy load varies depending on the type of event – for example, some events are standing room only while others involve seating with tables.
Town Council member Christina Ross said she was concerned that a bird cage elevator could be distracting for visitors during events – that it could add noise during use. In addition, it would be an attraction for children, who might be tempted to play with it, she said.
Several residents expressed support for the idea of adding the birdcage elevator. Rose Scott-Long, co-president of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance, said making Waveny House ADA compliant “is an incredibly important thing.”
“We think it can be done properly – and not damage the historical materials,” she said. “We really have not messed up Waveny too much in the past 50 years – and we don’t want to do that now.”
Beth Jones of Harrison Avenue said although she is “very sensitive to the historical significance of Waveny … I think it’s important that as you move forward with this, to keep in mind, how is this going to work best for people with disabilities who use this space?”
Alyssa MacKenzie, who was accompanied by her mother Elaine, also supported the birdcage elevator – and ADA upgrades in general.
“I really appreciate that as a town we’re trying to be a good role model for other towns,” MacKenzie said, “because making ADA accessibility a thing in New England towns is a very tricky task.”
“I am disabled, my sister is disabled and thus I have the perspective of being disabled,” MacKenzie said. “I do not use a wheel chair but I know a lot of people who do. And then on the other side, as a taxpayer I am little bit nervous that [if we don’t do this] in a timely manner that we’re opening ourselves up to. There’s a lot of movement toward picking on… pointing out where things are going wrong and making examples out of towns. And I don’t want to see that happen to New Canaan – I want us to be a leader.”
Marty Skrelunas, who was on the now-defunct Building Evaluation and Use Committee, said in his view the birdcage is “the most feasible and financially the best decision … and it’s certainly the easiest to un-do in the future.” He said installing the elevator “is like purchasing another 5,000 square feet, because it provides handicap access to the second floor, which, in turn, opens up the floor to additional uses.”
Resident Neele Stichnoth said she thought the idea of the birdcage is “great … but shouldn’t this be part of a bigger, better master plan for Waveny, so we can address all of the issues at one time?”
Recreation Director Steven Benko said the birdcage elevator “is a reasonable way to preserve the integrity of the building. “
“We have to meet the code… and I think it’s a good idea,” he said.
Use Committee co-chair and Board of Finance member Amy Carroll also approved of the idea. She said it allows the town to evaluate how we can use the building more effectively. “It opens up the opportunity to see how best we might use the space,” she said.
Although there is a placeholder in the 2018 town budget for $1 million toward the project, it’s unclear whether that funding will be approved during Thursday’s full Town Council meeting.
As Mann pointed out, the project is going to be bonded, which means it does not necessarily have to fall neatly in with the budget cycle.
“Tomorrow’s budget vote has absolutely nothing to do with this,’ Mann said. “This is a bonded item. So, we’re going to have to come back for an authorization to spend, regardless.”
“The problem is, there’s architectural work and engineering work and code compliancy work that currently we do not have funding for,” Mann added. “So, now you’re looking at two separate authorizations – one for the engineering phase and one of the construction phase.”
[An earlier version of this story misidentified two of the public speakers at the meeting – they are Alyssa Mackenzie and her mother Elaine.]