The Board of Selectmen created new problems for New Canaan Library and its estimated $35 million rebuilding plan by reopening questions regarding preservation of its original 1913 building without the organization’s knowledge, members of the town’s legislative body said last week.
Last March, the Town Council voted down a motion that would have effectively halted the library’s project for one year so that preservationists could figure out a use for the 1913 building and fundraise for its restoration and maintenance. The library is seeking a $10 million contribution from the town toward the project and is fundraising the balance.
Yet it came to light last week that a draft agreement between the town and library—a Memorandum of Understanding or “MOU” that the selectmen approved and that now is making its way to the Board of Finance and, eventually, Town Council—includes a new clause that allows for a decision on whether to demolish the original 1913 library building to be put off for at least two years during construction.
“I was surprised to see that paragraph in there, in the MOU, because I thought the MOU after waiting which is six months—you could actually say a year—where we emotionally came to the decision that we did,” Councilman Steve Karl said during the elected body’s regular meeting, held Feb. 24 via videoconference.
“And that came after hours of phone calls, emails, all kinds of discussion leading up to the point where we took that vote and that was a big moment. That was sort of the moment where you say, OK here is the beginning of what this is going to look like. And by inserting that language—and to me, not telling the library that we have inserted it—I have always looked at it, the library is New Canaan and New Canaan is the library. The town and the library are working hand-in-hand as a team on this. It’s a huge project. It’s going to take everybody to work together. And if we are not completely upfront and on board giving them the information, the back-and-forth that needs to happen, it’s a courtesy where we shouldn’t insert language and then say, ‘Here it is,’ without telling anybody. That’s the thing that I’m kind of scratching my head about. After waiting all this time to see it, and then getting it, it’s a Memorandum of Understanding but it almost seems like it’s a Memorandum of Understanding from the town, not from the library. Not together.”
The comments came in response to an update from First Selectman Kevin Moynihan on the draft agreement.
Expected to come before the finance board as early as this week, it includes a provision whereby the library will lease 76 spaces in the Center School Lot for parking for the new facility, as well as a clause that says, in part, “Subject to prior action by the [Planning & Zoning] Commission or the Town Council resolving the future of the 1913 Building, until completion of the new Library building, the Library will not take action that will preclude preservation of the 1913 Building. If, by the time of completion of the new Library building, a viable and funded plan for preservation of the 1913 Building has been presented to the Commission for approval, then the Library will incorporate the preservation of the 1913 Building into the Building Project.”
Moynihan noted that library officials object to the paragraph “because the town cannot dictate what to do on their private property.”
“So I think I can think of ways that perhaps that can be dealt with,” he said. “It’s not my issue to resolve at this point.”
“The Board of Selectmen is not the one that could decide what to do about the 1913 library building,” Moynihan said. “So we [the selectmen] put in a provision that simply moves it forward to the other bodies, both the Planning & Zoning Commission and the Town Council, to decide what to do about the 1913 building. My sense is there is a groundswell of support. I think there is a number of people in town that would like to see that building preserved. I can’t predict whether that is going to happen or whether it should happen, but we at least want the opportunity for the other bodies to make that decision. And it should be decided in the next 60 days.”
Moynihan indicated that he expected that the clause would be altered by the Board of Finance.
“I suspect that paragraph will change by the end of April or May when it’s finally finalized,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear why—if Moynihan is anticipating that the clause will be changed later—the selectmen inserted it into the agreement at all, or why they did so without the library’s knowledge.
Referring to himself as well as Selectmen Kathleen Corbet and Nick Williams, Moynihan said, “The three of us felt that the work of the preservationists should be recognized and if the consensus is by the Planning & Zoning Commission or by the Town Council that more time should be given or whatever, we ought to be respectful of people who feel that the building should be preserved. There are people on the other side that feel equally strongly that that building sitting there would detract from the new building. But the process has to play out. That paragraph was designed to just let the process play out.”
This is a municipal election year for local offices including first selectman, selectmen and Town Council.
Karl asked, “Did you communicate that to the library? Adding that language?”
Moynihan did not respond to the question.
Instead, Town Council Chair John Engel said, “The library says that they did not know and in my conversation with P&Z today, I have to say that they did not have a clear understanding. So it looks like we just need to communicate with the library, the preservationists, P&Z and figure out a process to get to an acceptable MOU. Neither the preservationists nor the library want this to linger on. Nor does P&Z. Nor do we. So we have our work cut out for us.”
Since the library publicly unveiled its rebuilding plans at a Board of Finance meeting last January, including plans for an open space where the 1913 building stands, preservationists have argued that the century-old structure is a rare architectural and historic gem of New Canaan that lends to the look and feel of the downtown. Keeping the original structure is called for by the document that guides planning decisions for the town, the preservationists have argued, and though the library owns the building and property, the organization is quasi-public in that taxpayers fund its operations. The preservationists also pooh-poohed plans to create a library green where the original building sits, saying New Canaan can have plenty of green space there in addition to keeping the structure.
Yet others, including library leadership and board members, said the town green is an integral part of the overall design for the property and cannot be sacrificed without sending architects back to the drawing board and forcing the project’s development team to go back to all of the donors who have pledged money. No one has identified a use for the building, the municipality shouldn’t be taking on additional vacant structures at this time and the structure itself would be out of harmony with the future library, they said.
During last week’s selectmen meeting, an attorney for the library asserted that the fate of the 1913 building will need to be decided by P&Z as part of its decision on the library’s applications for site plan and Special Permit approval.
Karl said that P&Z will weigh in though that Commission would’ve benefitted from “a little guidance as to the way the Board of Selectmen is thinking, the Board of Finance and Town Council.”
“I mean it would be nice to give them some of that sense,” Karl said.
Barring a special meeting, P&Z is expected to take up the library’s application at its regular meeting, scheduled for March 30.
Councilman Mark Grzymski said that he and Karl have been sitting in on meetings of a library building committee and that they’ve been “pretty impressed with everything that is going on there, a lot of talented people working hard.”
“My concern is that we are running the risk of sort of disenfranchising the volunteers that are doing amazing things there,” he said. “We are probably also hurting the generosity of many residents if we continue to punt here, and I personally think there is probably greater risk to the town going forward if we keep stalling on this. I think the Town Council personally, it’s my opinion, we need to step up and show some courage and leadership and move this project along. I personally think the MOU in its current form does not represent what we voted on last year and I think we need to move to at some point amend it and happy to do a special meeting or something, but this is very frustrating.”
Engel said that it’s the Town Council’s responsibility now to “take the ball and work with the library and other stakeholders—P&Z—in order to get an MOU done that everybody can accept, and do so in the next two months.”
“I don’t know how we are going to do that,” he said. “It’s probably going to take a few meetings. I can commit to all of you that they are going to have to be public meetings, because the public is very interested in this question. So we will invite the public to these meetings. But it seems to me the Town Council is being asked to figure this out, with the library and the preservationists in a way that doesn’t leave an open-ended cause in the Memo of Understanding, and that what we end up with is a Memo of Understanding that is acceptable to both parties. And so I can’t tell you how we are going to do that, but we will accept the challenge.”
It’s a difficult one.
Karl said that he and Councilman Sven England had attended two or three meetings of library board members and preservationists “to try and bring the two sides together” and “get them to come to some sort of agreement, some sort of answer.”
“And after sitting through hours the discussions, I don’t know that we are any closer to resolution,” he said. “I think the library has its stance that they want to build this new building the way they’ve designed it, and the preservationists want to keep the ’13 building in place and short of—I don’t know that it’s Planning & Zoning’s place to say, ‘OK let’s just build a building.’ I don’t know. The issue here, it comes back to the fact that it’s private property. The library owns that building and the library can do pretty much what they want with the building and they’ve offered it to the preservationists to preserve if they can come up with a plan and we’ve talked about this, but it keeps going around and around. Obviously we’ve got to make a decision because the plans to put a shovel in the ground are close… the library is fully expecting that they will have a fence go up and a project going soon, within months.”
Councilman Tom Butterworth said it wouldn’t be fair for the Town Council to act that it has time to reach a decision regarding a clause in the MOU on the 1913 building.
“Whatever we are going to do, we really ought to try to clarify this” he said.
“My view was that the only way for the preservation project to really be practical at all—to happen and to be practical—is if there is if the land changes title because right now if you got the library to agree, ‘OK, yes we will leave building there,’ you have no control or influence as to what they are ultimately going to do with it,” Butterworth said. “Is it going to be an ongoing discussion, every month somebody is going to have to go out if went they are doing this month works for them, when it’s not part of their vision and it’s not something they want to manage? So this idea of sort of making nice-nice through an MOU and saying if we have a better relationship somehow we can work together and all be happy—I just don’t think it’s going to work. Certainly the behavior, the conduct, the statements from the library side doesn’t lend itself to that strategy at all.”
Referring to the Town Council’s own discussion in reaching its vote last March, Karl said, “It’s like Groundhog Day. This is what gets me crazy. We literally are having the exact same conversation.”
Engel said that’s untrue and that “the MOU has changed significantly since we last voted.”
“It’s not Groundhog Day at all,” he said.
Engel added, “A lot of people have spent a lot of work in the last year, and a lot has with respect to parking, the design, everything else. Traffic studies. So I think we have to just approach this with an open mind and get the parties together and we if we can get an MOU squared away in the next couple of weeks.”