Town officials said Tuesday that a new inspection of the former Outback Teen Center—shuttered for two months after an engineering firm had found it structurally unsound—shows that the building only needs relatively minor cosmetic work to make it usable.
What that use may be remains a major, open question, after a nonprofit organization that had operated out of the 2001-built teen center failed to self-sustain and—following an aborted effort by a second group—handed it over to the town July 1.
Yet the dramatic July 19 report from a Danbury-based firm—a report that Selectman Beth Jones said cost her sleep after reading it, as the study painted a picture a building that presented a danger to the New Canaan teens and others it was designed to serve—now appears to have drawn wrong conclusions.
“It’s like someone screaming ‘fire’ in the movie theater when there is no fire,” Jones said at a regular meeting of the Board of Selectmen, held at Town Hall.
“The engineering firm that first gave us that [report] should have said, ‘We are not qualified to do this, this is not the kind of building we do,’ or we should hold them responsible for a completely false report,” Jones said.
She added: “What upsets me more than anything else about it is then it makes me question everything I hear. Can I trust what I hear? Because a lot of these decisions are things I do not have expertise on … And if I find out I cannot trust what I am hearing it makes me really uncomfortable.”
Rather than the approximately $500,000 it would cost to bring the building into ADA compliance, Jones said the cosmetic work needed could amount less than $10,000, according to early estimates.
The original report—from Danbury-based Di Salvo Engineering Group, a firm recommended by the architects who oversaw the renovation and expansion at Town Hall—had found that a number of the beams in the former teen center were cracked, warped or twisted.
In fact, according to First Selectman Rob Mallozzi, following a suggestion from members of the Town Council and a formal investigation by those who oversaw the physical construction of the Outback—including A.P. Construction—the building’s beams have a steel skeleton that the Di Salvo appears to have overlooked.
In presenting an update to the selectmen at their meeting, New Canaan’s Department of Public Works buildings superintendent, Bill Oestmann, said Di Salvo rendered an opinion based on its review and that what appeared to be needed now was for Outback to be “tightened up.”
Mallozzi said of the new findings: “It was a pleasant surprise, let’s put it that way.”
“It was apparent that that building was different from what the engineering firm that we had asked to get in there was probably as familiar with, because it is so unique. It was a little disappointing to see that what he thought could be major issues were rather simple by the builder—who has been extremely responsive, and these two other builders and designers, to come in and correct—so I think we start the process all over again in terms of evaluating the building and looking at the zoning requirements for what we can do with the building. But it certainly was a very different take than the one presented to me and the town and it is major. It is just a totally different take on it and I feel much better about it.”
According to Oestmann, town officials met with A.P. Construction and the Outback’s designers Sept. 8 to review their findings.
Mallozzi said that those construction experts met with the town “inside the building.”
“I would not have had that meeting inside the building [after the Di Salvo report],” he said.
That’s because when asked whether the building was safe or in danger of coming down, Di Salvo responded to town officials that it was unsafe.
The new findings mark the latest, strange twist in the unusual story of the Outback.
Citing a threat to public safety, the Board of Finance at its Aug. 9 meeting voted unanimously to discourage spending any taxpayer money to look at alternative uses for the former Outback building, according to draft meeting minutes. The finance board also approved a special appropriation from the town’s General Fund of up to $75,000 to address any public safety or emergency issues related to the building.
In the wake of the July 19 report that found Outback to have been poorly and incorrectly constructed, a handful of those who had been involved with the teen center as volunteers and/or donors pushed back on what they characterized as the unfair pinning of the building’s problems onto them.
It appeared from comments made publicly by one former board president that Outback officials had been made aware of an anomaly with the building that would emerge as a potentially major safety hazard, according to Di Salvo.
Mallozzi has said safety considerations have been top of mind in figuring out what to do with the Outback now that the building belongs to the town.
A.P. Construction, the builder of the Outback, told NewCanaanite.com when the Di Salvo report first emerged that as far as the firm was aware, the structure was built to design specifications.
The selectmen said at the meeting that a new, formal report on what’s needed to restore Outback should materialize some time this week. Selectman Nick Williams asked whether that work would trigger ADA compliance issues that could get costly for New Canaan.