Representatives from a major cultural attraction in New Canaan say they’re willing to withdraw a request that visitors be able to park closer to the renowned architectural site on Ponus Ridge, so long as municipal officials appreciate their need to meet demand for tours and an expanded tour season.
Should the Planning & Zoning Commission approve a request to expand the season by two weeks at each end, the Philip Johnson Glass House also would reduce its request for 15 “special small group events” during the winter offseason to five or six, according to Greg Sages, executive director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation site.
Additionally, Sages told P&Z at its most recent meeting, if the Glass House could start tours earlier on Sunday and introduce some new evening hours, it would eliminate some midweek tour offers that don’t draw enough interest to justify staffing them.
“We can survive without that,” Sages said during P&Z’s regular meeting, held July 30 at Town Hall. “What is important to us is to be able to extend the season and to be able to start earlier on Sunday and have some evening hours.”
The comments came as Sages and attorney Diana Neeves of Stamford-based Robinson+Cole presented the Glass House’s application to modify an existing Special Permit that specifies when and how the nonprofit organization must operate between its visitors’ center on Elm Street and 49-acre site on Ponus Ridge, open to the public since 2007.
The application also seeks to up from 400 to 500 the maximum number of attendees allowed at the Glass House’s lone annual fundraiser, The Summer Party, elimination of a “moratorium” that prevents the Glass House from applying for a specified number of years to amend its operating permit, and to change when specific approval for some types of events requires official sign-off from the town (as opposed to notification from the Glass House).
Several neighbors of the Glass House, including P&Z Commissioner Dick Ward, voiced concerns about the what the organization proposed.
Ward noted that the Glass House “is undeniably an asset to the New Canaan community” and an “internationally recognized architectural wonder,” though he added that the organization, over time, has expanded its operation to a point where it could have a detrimental effect on the residential neighborhood where it’s located.
“Institutional creep,” Ward said, is “a problem that we have.”
“You are now asking not necessarily for more people to come, but to just sort of stretch it out and have it impinge upon the neighborhood more than it currently does,” Ward told Sages. “Particularly, you have made Sundays more available. You also, and I don’t understand why because you say that the neighborhood there have been no complaints—I accept that it is true though I don’t know that personally—the other side of that same coin is, I don’t see what problems the Glass House has had. I think the town and neighborhood have been pretty generous, in allowing you to function in a fair and reasonable and reasonable and balanced way. I don’t want to see that balance be disrupted.”
Ward referred to what he referred to as Johnson’s own interest “in establishing the balance between the the Glass House, or limited public museum, and the neighborhood.”
Donna Vock of Ponus Ridge, a direct neighbor of the Glass House property, said she and her husband objected to a number of proposed changes to the existing operating permit—for example, offering parking for visitors at a facility such as the West School or Country School lot, extending the season or offering later hours. Vock described Ponus Ridge in the area of the Glass House as “a residential road that is frequently used by neighbors, pedestrians, joggers, local bicycle riders who live in the immediate area.”
“The additional motor vehicle traffic after dusk, driven by those unfamiliar with the area, is a serious concern and a public safety issue,” she said.
Vock further described the Glass House as unique among important institutions located within residential zones in New Canaan in that it is not located on a state road as the New Canaan YMCA, Carriage Barn Arts Center or New Canaan Nature Center are. (Vock also asserted, incorrectly, that Grace Farms can be accessed by state Route 123.)
She noted multiple times in addressing the Commission that the application represented the fourth time that the Glass House has requested changes to its zoning permit. Vock called for a moratorium of 10 years.
“We are amiable to the goals and objectives of the Glass House,” Vock said. “However, the repetitive Special Permit applications are a nuisance. We ask for a moratorium of at least 10 years. The Glass House has had four Special Permit applications to request modifications to its first Special Permit. At least the neighbors should be entitled to consistency in the employment of their properties.”
Another neighbor from across the street, Mary Najmy, said she also wants a moratorium put on the Glass House’s ability to apply for permission to amend its operating gpermit.
“We would like a moratorium again put on so that we don’t have to be doing this every so many years,” Najmy said.
Ponus Ridge resident Michael Larson also spoke out against the idea of bringing more vehicular traffic to the area by having Glass House visitors park at West School.
“I don’t think Ponus Ridge is built for the number of traffic that exists there now. If you look at [Stamford-based] Camp Playland, if you look at the buses that go to both the Country School as well as West School, you have obviously had some accidents there with bikers,” Larson said. “More traffic doesn’t make any sense, nor does it make sense to have strangers parking in the West School parking lots where we are right across the street with young children.”
Sages noted that since the Glass House won approval three years ago for an amended permit, “[neither] the Glass House nor the Planning & Zoning enforcement officer has received any complaints about our operation from any parties.”
“So I believe we have demonstrated our ability to operate the site in conformity with the permit, and without impacting the neighbors while demonstrating economic benefit to the town’s merchants, restaurant and the community at large,” he said.
The Glass House and those who operate it have become deeply involved in the local community, and the organization last year donated 40 tours to organizations that use them as auction items to turn into cash. The reason for the need for changing the length of the season and to meet demand for certain tour dates is that the Glass House, which receives no outside funding, needs additional revenue to put back into the 14 structures on its site.
In addition to boosting visitors, the Glass House is expanding the offerings at its Design Store downtown, launching visitor tours and selling donated editions, Sages said.
“We intend to leave no stone unturned in terms of finding additional revenue streams,” he said.
Sages push back on the term “institutional creep” as a descriptor for the Glass House.
“I don’t feel that what we are asking for here represents increased intensity of use as measured by number of tours per day, number of visitors per tour and number of visitors on the property at any one time,” he said. “If each of the modifications we request are granted we will still be well below the visitation parameters that exist already in our permit. We will just be increasing the duration of the tour season to come.”
Sages also addressed some of the concerns that critics of the application had voiced in letters to P&Z. For example, to the concerns that additional “small group events” would increase traffic in the neighborhood, Sages noted that those gatherings represent fewer than 50 attendees and that those people come to New Canaan by way of train to the downtown. For such events, the Glass House hires special private duty police to ensure the safety of both neighbors and attendees, he said.
Tucker Murphy, acting chair of the New Canaan Tourism and Economic Development Advisory Committee, said the Glass House ranks high among the attributes of New Canaan “that make this town so special.” The Committee’s priorities include promoting tourism and the local economy, and attracting new residents, she said. The Committee (Sages is on it, but he recused himself) is in favor of the Glass House’s application and included a note in its meeting minutes that the proposed changes to the Special Permit “are consistent with the goals” of the appointed group.
“We have full respect for the process that you all have to go through, we understand that there are considerations that must be made, but we did feel that it was important that we put that in our record in and the minutes to reflect that that is our stand on this,” Murphy said.
Ultimately, P&Z closed the application though the Commission did not vote on it immediately. The next regular meeting of P&Z is scheduled for Aug. 27.