The Bank of America property opposite the Playhouse on Elm Street is unkempt and unsightly, and New Canaan should have some mechanism—in its Town Code, budget or Zoning Regulations—to either force the bank to spruce up the area or empower the town to fix it promptly, officials say.
If New Canaan doesn’t have the authority now, then the Town Council should adopt an ordinance that would force the Bank of America and other businesses whose properties front public sidewalks downtown to “do a decent job,” Planning & Zoning Commission member Laszlo Papp said Wednesday at a meeting of the Plan of Conservation and Development (or “POCD”) Implementation Committee.
“The area in front of Bank of America is atrocious,” Papp said at the meeting, held in the Training Room at the New Canaan Police Department. “Bank of America doesn’t even deserve the name—it should be called ‘Bank of Somalia.’ That is the way it looks.”
The criticism emerged during a wider discussion of improving aesthetics downtown, among members of the committee—an advisory group of elected and appointed officials, municipal employees and residents, charged with seeing through relevant recommendations of the recently updated POCD (see especially Section 4, starting on page 29 here).
The parcel occupied by Bank of America is owned by a company, care of a separate company whose principal is a Danbury woman, according to records on file with the town Assessor and Connecticut Secretary of the State. Bank of America spokesperson T.J. Crawford when reached by NewCanaanite.com said that landlord and owner, J. Elliott Smith Holdings LLC, is responsible for the landscaping, under the lease.
Because there’s no separation now between downtown and non-downtown on certain line items in the municipal budget—for example, on major sidewalk upgrades and repair (all of which goes to the downtown, in any case)—what’s needed are dedicated funds for items such as garbage cans, signage, maintenance and special projects such as the Bank of America property, said Tiger Mann, assistant director of the Department of Public Works.
“[New Canaan-based landscape architect] Keith [Simpson] did a fantastic plan for that area, and it can never come to fruition, because we don’t own it,” Mann said. “We can’t go on private property without their permission, without everyone telling us it’s OK to go, so we are stuck.”
Yet the town might establish a “building line” that includes the Bank of America “alcove” that runs differently from the property line at 96 Elm St., said Simpson, also a member of the committee.
Specifically, P&Z could designate the area as “public” based on use, freeing up the town to access and improve it, Simpson said.
Committee Chairman Jean Grzelecki (of P&Z) and New Canaan Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tucker Murphy both said that the question of keeping up the Bank of America property and other downtown projects comes down to money.
Grzelecki referred to the planters outside Bank of America as a “non-garden.”
“All that’s in the planters is gum wrappers and junk,” she said.
Murphy noted that Bank of America was responsive when the cupola atop the building (it originally was constructed in 1929 as the New Canaan Post Office—then on Main Street—and was designed to complement the 1923 Playhouse opposite) had been deteriorating.
“Is it what I would think is acceptable? No it is not,” Murphy said of the property out front.
She added: “I see it as being just a dollars and cents. I mean everybody is doing all they can do. But we really need to have some money” and “exactly what it is going to be used for: the crown jewel of the town, which is the downtown.”
Mann noted that the “downtown still gets the lion share of money” allocated for things such as sidewalk repair.
Mann and others walked through the downtown and made notes on improvements that are needed, he said, “but I feel the town fathers have to put their money where their mouth is—if they feel the downtown is the lifeblood of the town, then we need to spend money on that.” New Canaan must “put together a budget number and say, ‘This is our budget number’ and then fund that budget number and say, ‘OK,’ and they can narrow down” what it must be used for specifically.”
For Papp, the problem is not a matter of funding only.
“This committee should press the so-called town fathers to do better,” he said.