Divided P&Z Nears Decision on Library


New Canaan Library on June 9, 2021. Credit: Michael Dinan

During their seventh hearing on New Canaan Library’s application to rebuild its facility, members of the Planning & Zoning Commission last week set up a vote between two options regarding the fate of what remains of an original library building.

One of them, tagged “Option A” and developed mainly by P&Z Chair John Goodwin, would allow for the library project to commence and, one year in, the organization would present options to P&Z to “appropriately commemorate” the 1913 building and 1936 addition. “It is the assumption that significant aspects of the 1913 and/or 1936 building will be preserved in some meaningful way on the site,” according to the language of the draft approval, obtained by NewCanaanite.com through a public records request.

The other, “Option B,” developed mainly by Commissioner Dan Radman, calls for construction to be put off until the library has submitted a plan to “incorporate and integrate” the east and north facades and roof of the old buildings so that they’re “maintained on the site in a location satisfactory to the Commission.” If there’s “no feasible way” to do that, the project can start without a plan for preservation, under draft Option B.

As drafted for the start of the meeting, neither scenario meets the standard set by a preservation group that has said the 1913 building must be restored—that is, its southern and western walls re-closed—and remain in place. Library officials last month said they’d be willing to preserve and move the Main Street-facing portico and facade of the 1913 building to the western property line. 

The language in both options is expected to undergo revision based on the commissioners’ discussion at the 4.5-hour meeting, held June 29 via videoconference.

Commissioner John Kriz said he preferred Option A, citing the proposed new library’s benefits to the community, such as supporting downtown merchants, serving as a socialization venue and assisting with children’s education as well as continuing education. He added that Option A still gives P&Z discretion to approve or deny the library’s proposal for the older structure. 

“If we look at the 1913 and 1936 building, 40% of the building is already gone, and has been taken away when the current library was constructed,” Kriz said. “So what we have now is remnants of those original buildings.” 

He added, “I don’t see trying to re-engulf these remnant walls as really a practical solution.”

Of proposed changes to the New Canaan Zoning Regulations related to Option B, Radman said, “We need the library to present a plan on how they’re going to preserve the existing structure before they put a shovel in the ground, before they get approval for the new building.”

“I’m not against the new building,” he said. “But what I think, and many have expressed this, we are just looking to see how the existing historic structure can be incorporated into the design. One of my suggestions at the last meeting was, even if they shifted and relocated the existing structure, not just the facade, closer to their proposed footprint, they could find an easier way to integrate it and still maintain a lawn or a great lawn.”

He added that the 1913 building and 1936 addition should either be kept where they are or moved on site, but in either case plans should “tie it into the new building, making it an architectural feature of the new building, not as written here and not as proposed by the library—which made the press and I’m sure all of you saw it about a week, a week-and-a-half ago—where they proposed taking a portion of the facade and sticking it on the back of the gas station and calling it a day. I’m sorry but that is not the goal of the POCD.”

Radman referred to the Plan of Conservation and Development, a state-mandated document that guides planning decisions and must be periodically updated.

As P&Z took up its discussion of the library’s applications, Goodwin said that in addition to himself, those seated for discussion and vote would be Commissioners Kriz, Krista Neilson, Radman, Claire Tiscornia, Kent Turner, Dick Ward, Arthur Casavant and James Basch. Commissioner Phil Williams was absent and Chris Hering, an alternate on P&Z, was not seated. The Commission also has one open seat.

As it sometimes does with large applications, the volunteer Commission has made accommodations for the library project since opening public hearings in March, including two special meetings and one weekend site visit. P&Z is expected to vote at a third special meeting this month. It has not yet been scheduled. Under state law, group (and subcommittee) meetings of municipal boards and commissions must be formally noticed and held in public. (The draft approvals discussed by P&Z last week came out of one-on-one communications between Town Planner Lynn Brooks Avni and individual commissioners.)

Plans filed Feb. 26 call for a new 42,641-square-foot library that includes flex spaces such as a teaching kitchen and large meeting room, 355-seat auditorium, outdoor terrace and ‘library green’ that includes the parcel where the 1913 building now stands. Many supporters  of the library’s project have said the green is an essential part of the overall plan, while many preservationists have tried to reframe the discussion by downplaying the green’s use and importance, and saying the new building can coexist with the old one so long as it’s restored and left in place. 

P&Z has 65 days from when the public hearing on the matter was closed (May 25) to vote on the library’s applications for Special Permit and site plan approval, and attendant applications for a new overlay zone and boundary change. That puts a deadline for a decisive vote at July 30, officials said. P&Z’s next regular meeting is scheduled for July 27.

P&Z is expected to vote on one or both of the two scenarios at a special meeting, which could be held as soon as this week.

Here are three conditions in the draft approval tied to Option A, as discussed by P&Z at the June 29 meeting:

  • “One year after the date of approval the New Canaan Library will present preservation options in a consolidated report to the Commission to appropriately commemorate the 1913 and 1936 buildings.  It is expected that the New Canaan Library will work diligently over the course of the next year to ensure that some portion of the 1913 and/or 1936 building will be preserved on site, though not necessarily in situ.  At the end of the year, the library shall submit a report of their efforts.  It is the assumption that significant aspects of the 1913 and/or 1936 building will be preserved in some meaningful way on the site.
  • “The Library shall work with the Town Planner and if desired by the Commission or Town Planner, an external advisor, hired by the Town and paid for by the Applicant (Library) to create a final concept plan that preserves and commemorates the façade of the 1913 and/or 1936 façade or some other significant portion thereof, which will be located on the library property though not necessarily in situ.  The timeline shall be no longer than one (1) year from the date of approval.
  • “The final concept plan shall be reviewed by the Town Planner and shall be brought back to the Commission administratively prior to the issuance of a Zoning Permit.”

Here is the condition of draft approval tied to Option B, as discussed at the June 29 meeting:

  • “The east and north facades and the roof of the historic structures shall be maintained on the site in a location satisfactory to the Commission.  The New Canaan Library will use best efforts to incorporate and integrate the historic structures into the design of the new library.  No construction shall commence on the proposed new library building, or the site, until the Commission has reviewed such best efforts with the Planning and Zoning Commission.  If it is determined that the Library has devised a reasonable plan to incorporate the historic structures, on the site, into the design of the new library, then once approved by the Commission, the plan shall be implemented and the library will revise its plans accordingly.  Alternatively, if there is no feasible way to incorporate such historic structures into the Library, then the Library will not be obligated to revise its site plan to so incorporate the historic structures.”

Goodwin called for revisions to Option A that would “put more teeth into it”—for example, tightening up the deadline by which the library would formally present options for preservation to the Commission.

Radman said Option B could be refined to be more specific about what would amount to an acceptable preservation plan regarding the 1913 and 1936 buildings. The Commission could approve the library’s project in a way that allows the organization to start construction while putting off a decision on incorporating 1913 building into its plans, he said.

In response, Casavant said, “The issue that I have to raise here, guys, is if you had a situation where either party showed any indication that they were willing to proceed on that path, that would make a lot of sense. From the evidence that has been presented so far, there is no indication that the library wants to go that way. I think that going down that path is quite difficult. I happen to agree with John [Goodwin or Kriz] that we need to get this library moving along. But I think to provide less than complete guidance about what the expectation is will not do them a service nor even the folks from the preservation community.”

Goodwin said no one on the Commission favors a requirement that the 1913 building be left it just where it is on the site. He also pushed back on Radman’s characterization of the library’s most recent offer regarding the facade’s relocation.

“It’s easy to say they are going to ‘stick it onto the back of a gas station.’ Now that sounds great. But I think they are willing to go much beyond that,” Goodwin said. “I think there has been movement through the process and probably and perhaps in their defense, perhaps there was not through their entire planning process sufficient communication to them of certain aspects of the town feeling that  the 1913 library should be preserved.”

Kriz said he thought the library has shown itself to be “very amenable to a very appropriate preservation strategy which this Commission would have full discretion to approve or not approve.”

Tiscornia said it seemed some on the Commission were viewing the library as “a bad guy, not trusting them to do right by the process.”

“I think they [library officials] may have been surprised by the level of support for the 1913 building,” she said. “But guess who wants this project to go forward more than anyone? The library. So if we tell them we want you to come back with something meaningful—‘preserving,’ ‘commemorating,’ however we want to use the words—I guarantee within six months—I wouldn’t do 30 days, I think that’s a little ridiculous—three to six months, I’m sure they are going to come up with something that will be amenable to us. So we are engaged in the process even better. But let’s just give them a chance. We are so busy saying they are not going to come back, they are just going to do this. Let’s give them a chance. Three to six months. See if they come back. We don’t need to decide everything for them. They know their task right now. Let’s just let them come back to us.”

Commissioners discussed the language of the drafts, providing feedback for Brooks Avni. Regarding Option A, some commissioners flagged the phrasing “preserves and commemorates” as overly broad in that the two words have different implications. P&Z members also suggested changes to the draft approvals in how they refer to the project’s consistency with the POCD. 

Basch questioned one of the proposed “Findings” in the draft which said, “The Planning and Zoning Commission finds that the New Canaan Preservation Alliance failed to present a compelling narrative as to why the Planning and Zoning Commission should require the New Canaan Library to preserve the remaining portions of the 1913 and/or 1936 building in situ.”

Basch said, “We have to acknowledge at this point how comprehensive the effort was on both sides, how much time it took for both sides to put into this. And this is subjective. But I think most of us would agree that there were a lot of compelling points on both sides. So I don’t understand the point of diminishing the effort on one side by saying it’s not a ‘compelling narrative.’ I think it just invites more divisiveness and some of us would find it not to be true. And I don’t think we want to introduce more divisiveness.”

Radman said another finding drafted for the approval should be removed, one that reads, “The Planning and Zoning Commission believes incorporation of the 1913 and 1936 buildings in situ into the new library design would have been the preferred option. Based on the advanced state of design, however, the Commission recognizes the design process has moved too far to require this outcome at this time. Nonetheless, the PZC believes an improved commemoration or preservation of the 1913 library can still be achieved.”

Radman said that P&Z cannot concern itself with “what state of advanced development this project is at in terms of evaluating its appropriateness to our zoning regulations and to the POCD.”

“I’m sorry that they spent 10 years developing something that does not work for some of the the town or some of the Commission members,” he said. “Maybe they should have done a little more due diligence on what was more important in terms of keeping the historic preservation of the older building. I don’t think anyone is disagreeing that everyone wants a new building. To John Kriz’s point, it’s an incredible asset to the town that will increase the vibrancy and all the aforementioned items. But to say we are now gong to be concerned about what advanced state of design the applicant is at and that they have moved too far for us to reject them, that is a huge can of worms for every future application coming to us, where we are going to have developers coming to us saying, ‘Well, we have just spent $1 million on design fees putting this together but it doesn’t comply with anything you guys have in your zoning regulations, but we still want to do it.’ ”

The library’s project most recently was estimated to cost $39.2 million, a figure that includes $1.7 million in contingencies. The library already has raised $16.9 million toward the project from more than 220 individual donors, is seeking a $10 million contribution from the town and has a four-year plan to fundraise the balance, according to the organization. It will cost about two years to build, library officials have said.

14 thoughts on “Divided P&Z Nears Decision on Library

  1. Leave the 1913 where it is and restore back walls and build your new library – Everyone wins – Who wants to read a book on grass next to the street that has the most loud traffic and fumes in New Canaan anyways and we already have a town green (God’s Acre).

  2. My main concern is total transparency plans for tax paying residents regarding proper parking for everyone, tiered auditorium, drive up drop box, several elevators not one, etc., blending in situ existing structure similar to telephone building on Main. This project is years overdue similar to Town Hall & Police Department my Saxe Junior High. NC continuously seems to remove many period structures unlike surrounding communities. Remember this is NE Northeast although close NYC not same mentality. The quaintness attracts many people definitely different then 1940s when my NE parents settled here due to employment. Let’s move forward with co-operation & consideration for everyone.

  3. Yes Todd! And maybe the back wall of the 1913 could even be glass, and tie in with the new structure.
    And of course there’s Keith Simpson’s plan which shows how easily the 1913 and 36 addition can be kept in place.
    I also feel it’s important to remember the beautiful Salant Room in the 1913 Library with its stunning Egyptian and Greece Revival murals painted on canvas and designed expressly for that room in 1913 by Charles E. Hubbell of New Canaan.

  4. If the town’s residents and the town’s P&Z has issues, then perhaps it is time for a bigger change than a new building. Let us have the library withdraw it’s funding and it’s operations and turn the library–lock, stock, barrel, operations and expenses over to the Town. Once it is a “Town” library, then the Town can do what ever it wants to with the land, existing buildings and future development. Every dime of cost will be on the taxpayers, and they can then exercise their ownership by developing whatever plans they want.

    • Hi Craig — thanks for that big picture take on a divisive and increasingly intractable issue. Your creative & original thinking is what drove me to cross the aisle and help w/your past campaign. You probably already know that the NCL is a Quasi-Public entity. Annually, approx. $2 million of their $3 million operating costs are provided courtesy the NC taxpayer. Not to mention the generous land grants, etc. along the way. Your suggestion underscores the neither fish nor fowl nature of our great Library’s existence. We love our Library and need to do the best by the Library — it does so much the community — but recognition must be paid to ALL the Stakeholders. And anyone who hasn’t reviewed Keith Simpson’s plan and critique should really do so.

  5. Love some of the ideas from the above. I hope a solution can be found that works for everyone.

    Interesting to read former New Canaan Advertiser editor Greg Reilly’s letter in the June 27 edition of NewCanaanite’s Letters to the Editor, here (scroll down to the end) https://newcanaanite.com/letters-to-the-editor-15-4750681 and here (direct link): https://patch.com/connecticut/newcanaan/former-advertiser-editor-comments-1913-library-nod

  6. A note on Library parking–every time I’ve driven past the Center Street Parking Lot in the last few weeks, it has been FULL! My understanding is that it has been “given” to the library with reasoning being its never full. Well that study took place during a different time when most people were not out and about. That lot is being heavily used….Don’t see how our town can afford to eliminate so many parking spaces!

    Also, if you haven’t done so, look at Kieth Simpson’s excellent plan. It would work so beautifully. Would also love to see the Library committee publish an accurate elevation of the proposed green above a gas station and holding pond.

  7. Hopefully P&Z will recognize the overwhelming majority of New Canaanites who actually still live here, pay taxes, are registered to vote and have kids in the school system want the new library built as proposed. With the green and everything. It’s not even close.

    That said, kudos to the very small minority who are against this proposal for making so much noise, submitting petitions with fake users, soliciting opinions from former residents who haven’t lived here for decades, and playing fantasy architect with make-believe designs that some in town believe there is a “50/50” split. That is some new level smoke-and-mirrors stuff right there.

    Hopefully the town decision makers don’t fall for it. Or let the thumbs-on-scale actions of some selectmen create a perception that outweighs reality.

  8. There’s no such thing as Center Street in New Canaan (though there is a Middle Ridge Road).

    The parking lot across Maple Street from the library is the Center School Lot. There used to be a school there. Center School was closed and knocked down following the 1982-83 academic year, to the horror of the teachers and parents. Bill Brown was our playground attendant. The school bell is preserved in the pocket park at South and Maple. Here’s an article about sanctioned violence at Center.

  9. Alternative designs exist. Lisa Oldham has confirmed this under oath at a FOI hearing and on a Newcannanite podcast. She has the design documents from the previous architects Robert A.M Stern etc. Let’s see them and perhaps a solution can be found where 1913 is part of the library and P&Z can then decide and move forward.

  10. Preservation of the 1913 Library is only one of many issues involved with the new library application before the P&Z, yet this issue seems to have consumed most of the five P&Z meetings on the library application. Where does the P&Z Commission stand on the proposed new building itself – coverage, loom factor, lighting and noise; disability access; water run-off retention ditches; and parking requirements? Is P&Z prepared to grant the Library a special zoning designation? Ignore its own parking requirements? Is the plan consistent with current POCD and Town Center historical preservation regulations? These issues must be addressed in the P&Z final decision.

    A tremendous amount of volunteer time went into preparing the Town’s current POCD. It would be a shame if P&Z ignored its own regulations in consideration of the fate of the 1913 Library, and a serious disincentive for citizens to volunteer for future town study groups.

    • Well said. Just on parking model alone, if a private concern brought this plan to P&Z it would not see the light of day. No on site parking and a plan for the handicapped that requires them to park across the street. Has anyone observed The Center School Lot recently? During the week it’s consistently 3/4 full. Where are all of those cars going when the library takes over?

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