What follows are three ideas for new uses of town-owned buildings that attendees at last week’s panel discussion presented during the two-hour Forum on Public Buildings.
Designed as a follow-up to a comprehensive committee report released in December, the event was sponsored by the New Canaan Historical Society, New Canaan Preservation Alliance, Town of New Canaan and NewCanaanite.com.
The panelists—First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, Town Council Chairman John Engel, Town Council members Penny Young and Cristina A. Ross, and Board of Finance member Amy Murphy Carroll (Young and Murphy Carroll also are co-chairs of the Town Building Evaluation & Use Committee)—responded to the suggestions.
Swapping Irwin House for Additional Park Space
One resident mulled whether tearing Irwin House down completely to add more green space would benefit New Canaanites since the park itself is a more popular attraction. The panel agreed that the idea of tearing the house down isn’t completely off the table, but involves building a new structure in its place.
“When Irwin Park was purchased, one of the ideas was to tear the main house down and to possibly build a Board of Education building, and that was one of the first ideas that came into play,” Young said. “So, there was a plan as to how to move forward and some of the things that could be done, and taking it down was another option.”
Engel said the Council’s choices for what to do with Irwin House are similar to that of the former Outback Teen Center: The town is willing to lease it as well as consider proposals for alternate uses, but will also consider keeping it for its own use. He added that it’s unlikely that the council would agree to tear Irwin House down for during the next 10 years or so since has recently served as flex space for the town. The New Canaan Police Department, in fact, is currently in need of flex space as its building prepares to be renovated.
One of the proposals that the town has considered is permitting the Watson family and IBM to use the building as a historical museum about the company. IBM founder John Watson, Sr. was the original owner of the Weed Street property, which included 36 acres, a house and a barn. The original home was destroyed in a fire, but the barn remains standing. Watson’s daughter Jane Watson Irwin inherited the property in 1961 and designed a new house to replace the one that was destroyed. The new house was completed in 1963.
Mead Park Brick Barn As A Restaurant?
Should the Mead Park Brick Barn at Richmond Hill Road be converted into a restaurant, condominium or private home community? The panel didn’t seem to think so.
“It’s in a park, so I think that would complicate things dramatically as far as sales,” Murphy Carroll said.
Moynihan chimed in with a more definitive response. “The answer is ‘No,’ ” he said.
The Mead Park Brick Barn, which was listed on the CT Register of Historic Places in 2016, was built by Standard Oil in the early 1900s. It’s the last remaining structure of the company’s industrial complex and perhaps the last of its type in the state. The town purchased the land surrounding the industrial complex in 1915 and then the complex itself in 1933. The complex has been used as a town garage and storage facility for the Department of Public Works for the past two decades.
Engel reminded the audience later in the evening that just because residents haven’t heard or read about certain types of proposals being presented to the Town Council, doesn’t mean they haven’t been considered. In fact, Engel said, the idea for restaurant use has also been suggested for the former Outback Teen Center.
“But if you own a restaurant downtown, you probably wouldn’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. “So, there are a lot of ideas that have been thought of that would be competitive with businesses and other things going on. So, we have to be very careful finding a use that would not screw up our parking and would not screw up the dynamic of other businesses.”
Can the Police Department Accommodate Even More Town Employees?
Can the 27,000 square-foot building that currently houses the New Canaan Police Department also house offices for the Board of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Recreation department? With just 20 people occupying the building at a given time right now, the resident who submitted the question wondered whether the move could save taxpayers some money.
“So, [New Canaan] schools said that they need 9,000 [square] feet,” Engel said. “Coincidentally, the empty third floor of the police station is 9,000 [square] feet. That being said, not every 9,000 [square] feet is equal to every other 9,000 [square] feet. So, we’re saying that this week, we’ll authorize $500,000 to begin that project to study it. For example, the police station needs a separate entrance from the Board of Education, so you have to create a separate entrance, you have to be sensitive to ADA and elevator access, security concerns, parking, so on and so forth.”
He continued: “I don’t think we’ll be able to get—and correct me if I’m wrong—I don’t think we’re even going to study whether we’re going to be able to pile on a few more departments into every last nook and cranny in that space. We’re saying that that if the building, which has 9,000 square feet, can accommodate the 9,000 square-foot needs of the Board of Education then that’s a good start and that’s where we’re going.”
The police station was built in 1932 and is the former home of New Canaan High School. It was renovated in the 1980s to accommodate the Police Department and also currently houses the Animal Control section and Parking Bureau, soon to move to the first floor of Town Hall.