Committee: 20 Percent of Space in Town-Owned Buildings Is Currently Unused

About 20 percent of space in town-owned, non-district buildings is now unused, and another 25 percent need major repairs, officials said last week.

Just what the town should do about that empty space, and what capital maintenance it should invest in, are major questions facing New Canaan, according to Amy Murphy Carroll.

“I think everything jumps out to you with just the amount of square footage that is vacant,” Carroll, a co-chair of the Town Building Evaluation & Use Committee, said during the group’s Sept. 28 special meeting.

“And I will throw this out: I mean if things are not needed—and ‘need’ is a relative thing—sometimes it costs money to own more and the cost to tear down is not going to go down,” she added at the meeting, held in Town Hall. “So sometimes, I would say, it makes sense to bite the bullet. To the extent that people might think divesting of some facilities, I think we should realize it puts stuff back on the tax rolls.”

New Canaan has roughly 250,000 square feet of space collectively in its town-owned buildings, Carroll said.

Vacant or “underutilized” buildings—those not occupied to capacity—include Irwin barn (10,000 square feet), the apartment above the garage at Irwin (1,000), former teen center (4,600), Irwin house (7,000), Richmond Hill garage (2,500), the third floor of the New Canaan Police Department (27,000) and some 15,000 square feet at Waveny House, she said.

The seven-member committee is expected this month or next to deliver an analysis of town-owned buildings in New Canaan, including their physical condition, capital needs and uses.

Committee members noted that, other than the Food Pantry, which gets private support, the only rent the town pays is for the offices of the New Canaan Public Schools administration. Carroll, a member of the Board of Finance, put that annual rental at about $270,000. The school district in the Executive Summary to its budget for the current fiscal year includes a line item of $337,890 for its “Central Office & Launch” program, which both operate out of a building at Locust Avenue and Forest Street downtown (see page 5).

Committee co-chair Penny Young said an analysis that now is under development with a special software program that will provide a live, continuously updated “lifecycle analysis” of town-owned buildings “is going to be a real be an eye opener as to not only what we really need to be doing now but what we need to do next year and the lifecycle analysis of buildings of what’s going to come up.”

“How many, for instance, are going to die and when they are going to die? I think this is going to be dynamite information for budget-setting and perhaps even a philosophical discussion about ‘What are we as a government? What services do we provide? And at what cost? What level of citizenry is satisfied?’ ”

According to Carroll, occupied buildings that need major repairs include The Playhouse (6,600 square feet), Vine Cottage (2,300), a floor of NCPD (27,000) and Waveny House (25,000).

“Some of these are well occupied, some are not,” Carroll said.

Young said that “it’s possible that our observations” will lead to a conclusion that “there are departments that can move.”

“That [are] in a location that, is it actually appropriate for them to be in there?” Young said.

Carroll said there may be ways to reconfigure existing spaces in a way that makes them “more efficient” for town departments.

“And it would improve their workload and work environment,” she said.

Citing research done by fellow committee member Bill Holmes, who was not in attendance, Martin Skrelunas said that there are some spaces the group is studying that “you can’t change whatsoever, it is very specific.”

“Some spaces that have the structure to be utilized better, and then other spaces that should have been demolished and just weren’t,” he said. “It was $50,000 to demolish back in the day and now it’s $500,000.”

Bill Oestmann, buildings superintendent with the New Canaan Department of Public Works, said that while residential demolition jobs generally are affordable, commercial buildings can be far more complicated. The government in doing that work often is under special constraints, committee members said, and sometimes must see to the removal of lead paint, asbestos or other health-risk elements carefully and at great expense.

Skrelunas during the meeting said he viewed the committee’s work as “fact-finding” and that he saw the group as providing “options” rather than “recommendations” back to the town.

Along those lines, committee member Christa Kenin said it would be important for the group “to tread lightly” in terms of how it worded its report, “especially if we are going to wait for a public hearing” after it’s released.

“People can connect the dots” with the information provided to them, Kenin said.

“I don’t want our committee to come across as having agendas or be accused of that and derail the projects,” she said.

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