To The Editor:
New Canaan is truly a special place – a wonderful community to have bought up our children and a beautiful community that I am proud to call home. It is a quaint New England village. It is also a town with some of the most wonderful and innovative modernist architecture in the world. (The Glass House, Grace Farms, The works of the Harvard Five.)
In these troubled times, as society collectively debates its history, and the monuments to that history, we question what is worth preserving and what is okay to let go. And in doing so, we all seek to leave our communities better off than we found them. Leaving behind a better community for the next generation to call New Canaan home.
I believe that the plan for the new Library does exactly that. It shifts the paradigm from a building whose primary job is the lending of physical books to a complex whose job is to bring the community together – whether through lectures, concerts, or the lending of physical media. The plans are beautiful, and in keeping with the modern architectural tradition we have in New Canaan. The fact that the board of the library will raise $25 million to leave a better community for all is simply amazing – and they should, as a group, be applauded for making New Canaan a better place to live.
To those would would seek to preserve the existing 1913 facade and building, I say bravo. Preserving our history, the look and feel of our town, the fabric of our community is important – but not at the cost of the bigger picture, which is leaving the community better off than we found it. By all means save the facade – but do so by raising funds to move it elsewhere – I’m sure the board would agree.
But raise those funds now – and don’t delay.
I am urging the Town Council to approve the memorandum of understanding between the library and the town, and to do so without attaching any restrictions on the 1913 building. Those who wish to preserve it will have plenty of time to do so as the new structure rises around the old.
A new town center, a new green for the community, a new communal gathering place is too important to delay. We’ve just spent months inside our homes – we need places to come together as a community, and we need to revitalize our downtown. We are taking out parking spaces. We are fighting over signage on Elm Street. And we are doing so against a global retail backdrop that makes it harder and harder for small retailers to survive. If we are to truly preserve what makes New Canaan a special place (and let me give you hint – it is not the facade of an outdated building but what goes on inside that building) let’s focus more on leaving New Canaan better off, and less on preservation for the sake of a time that no longer exists.
I, for one, look forward to seeing our new library.
Eileen Thomas’s recent Op-Ed letter in support of the new library could not have stated the case for the new building more completely or compellingly. Having witnessed the development of the Library’s thorough, thoughtful and widely vetted plans for a new building over the past ten years, it is truly disappointing to see a small group of citizens trying to derail the single most important Town project since the acquisition of Waveny Park. I absolutely support historic preservation. But just because a building is 107 years old and to some has sentimental value does not qualify it for preservation. It’s time to look forward, not backwards. The new Library building will raise our great Town‘s repute to an even higher level.
During the past month, New Canaan taxpayers have asked our town officials to provide more due diligence information to understand and support the $10 million they are asked to contribute to the new New Canaan Library. To date the taxpayers’ request for more information has been ignored. Last week, on June 30, Mr. Henry Hawley wrote: “We need a process that better involves the citizens of New Canaan. The process is broken. Perhaps we start with a detailed and transparent budget for the project. “ Thank you, Mr. Hawley.
The due diligence information regarding the New Canaan Library Association, Inc.’s proposed new library building that I and many others are requesting is listed below.
To date and to my best knowledge, neither the NCLA’s Library Building Committee nor the NCLA directors have provided concrete cost-estimating documents, including measured/detailed site plans, floor plans, elevations and detailed operating cost projections for the proposed new building.
Town of New Canaan officials have not provided projected carrying costs for the $10 million bond, the principal amortization and payments on which will be paid by New Canaan taxpayers. Even more significant, Town of New Canaan officials have not provided projections of any periodic contributions they will cause New Canaan taxpayers to make toward NCLA’s future operations, and any projections of NCLA future operating deficits or surpluses.
NCLA’s New Library Building Construction Cost Estimate. In 2018 NCLA estimated that the construction costs of its proposed new library building would be $25 million, and that it would request a $5 million capital contribution from New Canaan taxpayers. Providing no details or reasons, in early 2020 NCLA increased its estimate of the construction costs of its proposed new library building 20% to $30 million; and, initially with no details or reasons, increased its capital contribution ask of New Canaan taxpayers by the entire $5 million build cost estimate increase, to $10 million. In the last three weeks, NCLA has, again, inexplicably and suddenly, increased its estimate of the costs to construct its proposed new library building an additional $5 million to $35 million; and New Canaan taxpayers are becoming discomfited with the conspicuous absence of detailed information from NCLA and from New Canaan government officials. New Canaan taxpayers are asking: Where did the $35 million number come from?
The New New Canaan Library Building Program. Centerbrook Architects and Planners has developed a program, shown to date in the animated renderings, including an auditorium, children’s room, MakerLab, nine meeting rooms, business center, cafe, reading rooms, gas fireplace and public roof garden. These animated renderings were designed to appeal to the NCLA Board, certain NCLA donors and pledgers, elected Town officials and, ultimately to New Canaan taxpayers, However these visuals are divorced from dollars-and-cents reality; they do not address the budget and the associated burden to be carried by New Canaan taxpayers.
Design Development Documents. Tangible, measured and detailed documents are wholly lacking—site plans, floor plans, elevations. These are the documents needed to establish, support and control the budget. Renderers have relied on them to create their animated renderings. Why has the NCLA’s Building Committee restricted them from public review? They should be shared fully and transparently with the New Canaan Town government bodies and with the New Canaan taxpayers.
I understand that First Selectman Kevin Moynihan is prudently concerned that parking requirements attendant to a 48,000-square-foot new library building may be driving the latest sudden and yet unexplained $5 million increase to NCLA’s now $35 million construction cost estimate. There should be even greater concern that costs to construct the new building itself, and to feature rich landscaping and landscaping, (excluding the parking,) as shown in the renderings would exceed the $35 million budget as well. Without construction documents, estimating the construction costs is not possible. Is it judicious to commit $10+ million taxpayers’ moneys without construction documents? Who will bear the responsibility if NCLA’s ambitious project runs over budget? At the very least, New Canaan taxpayers must have certainty that, should the project come in over budget, they will not be responsible to pay for such overages.
NCLA Operating Costs. In addition to the $10 million capital commitment requested by the NCLA, New Canaan taxpayers pay the vast majority of NCLA’s operating costs. When operating costs increase because of the new facility (due to additional space, additional personnel, need for more parking, greater mechanical systems and their maintenance and more overall facilities maintenance) all will be covered predominately by New Canaan taxpayers. New Canaan provides additional significant support by covering Library personnel’s health insurance and pension costs centrally (as it does for other Town departments). I believe these are excluded from the Library operating expenses shown for fiscal year 2019 below.
The figures above will significantly increase with the new facility. Taxpayers should be provided these projections for various reasons as they will be responsible for paying the preponderance of the future costs as well.
Bond Financing and Carrying Costs. Taxpayers have not received this necessary information.
Yes, the process is broken at present, but it can be rectified with more due diligence information. Many agree with Mr. Hawley’s suggestion: “We start with a detailed and transparent budget and a strong level of oversight by the Town officials.”
I know that the Town Council conducted some manner of vote to proceed toward approval of the NCLA’s $10 million capital contribution ask, without any condition that could enable the landmark 1913 Library Building to be preserved in situ and re-purposed. Nevertheless, the Friends of the 1913 Library are performing good and proper due diligence toward repurposing the historic building. A budget, program, and construction documents are being developed. Feasibility studies are being conducted to determine operating costs, and an income-producing tenant to cover them will be designated.
Architects and preservationists care about neighborhoods and the integration of site and architecture in neighborhoods. The neighborhood in downtown New Canaan running north from 151 Main Street to the Historical Society campus is a controlled, historic span of our Town’s history. The masterfully designed and executed stone and brick 1913 library building leads the way to significant brick buildings such as the Telephone Company Building, the Town Hall, the Fire Station, and the beautiful wooden historical churches on God’s Acre. This distinctly New Canaan neighborhood has taken more that a century to create.
New Canaan has had the advantage of distinguished architecture and thoughtful planning and zoning: creative minds and skilled labor have made this neighborhood. We live in a town with a rich past and a drive for innovation in the future. To acknowledge and endorse the importance of both our past and our future is the affirmation of an enlightened community.
I want to thank the town officials for the all the work they have done to date toward a new New Canaan library building. More work, reviewing and analyzing the due diligence information called out above must yet be done to ensure that we are all best informed as we all optimize this opportunity.
Susan Leaming Pollish
I am writing in support of the Town of New Canaan’s contribution of $10 million towards the construction of the planned new New Canaan Library which, for its realization, requires the removal of the existing 1913 library building. I have not reached this conclusion lightly. In fact, as a preservation-minded and sustainability-focused architect, I generally favor adapting historic buildings for meaningful 21st century use. However, in this case, I believe that what we would gain as a Town with the new library building and integrated green far outweighs the cost of losing the original building.
Some have asked whether we can have a new library design that keeps the 1913 building in its current location. In the past year, I have spent considerable time as a member of the library’s Building Committee delving into that question and reviewing the many design iterations prepared by Centerbrook Architects since 2012. Unfortunately, such a plan is not practical for the following reasons:
Centerbrook’s design positions the new building footprint on the southwest corner of the site, toward Maple Street and South Avenue, which importantly allows the existing library to remain operational during construction. Retaining the 1913 building would require the library to vacate the premises and relocate to a rented facility so that the original structure could be renovated. The cost of this unnecessary and disruptive relocation would exceed $1 million.
The original building as a stand-alone structure on the library campus would contribute minimal interior space for library functions and make little sense to maintain as an independent library annex. The concrete block egress stair directly behind the 1913 façade takes up more than one third of the interior. Moreover, if the 1913 building were retained as a freestanding building, it would require its own mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems, ADA bathroom and egress. These are components that the new library building would also require and their duplication would be a costly redundancy. Adding to the project budget for little net gain in space and questionable utility would not be prudent. Even if the library would rent or sell the 1913 building for private use, what entity could commit to sustaining and maintaining a building that first requires a minimum of $1 million to renovate?
In addition, keeping the 1913 building would sacrifice the integrity of the comprehensive building design with its integrated green. In its current location, the existing structure will fall in the middle of the proposed green, dividing the outdoor space in half and reducing the potential for large outdoor gatherings. A single green which knits the landscape with the new building would be interrupted by the presence of the structure and by its elevated surrounding grade. The new design, with the 1913 building removed, creates an open green area that slopes down to the sidewalk on the corner of Main and Cherry Streets. It serves as an ADA accessible welcome to the proposed courtyard entrance of the new library where outdoor educational programs would take place and visitors would gather. A landscaped screening buffer will be planted along the gas station property line, serving as a backdrop to the landscaped green. Other town greens, such as God’s Acre, have contributed to the fabric of our town and have served as important community gathering places. Providing another green space will serve as a pedestrian destination from the town center in keeping with New Canaan’s reputation as a walkable village.
Practically speaking, changing the proposed library design at this time to include the 1913 building so that it is functionally and aesthetically integrated would amount to a complete, time- consuming, and costly re-design, incremental professional fees, escalating construction costs, and the possibility of jeopardizing generous private donations already pledged to the new library project. Moreover, delaying the project to consider alternative uses for the 1913 building and to find the money necessary to fund its refurbishment would not change the fact that its preservation is inconsistent with the library’s thoughtfully designed new building and integrated outdoor green.
Libraries have become the dynamic cultural hub for many communities. They are no longer only book depositories, but rather they are lecture and performance halls, meeting rooms, work spaces, teen centers, maker labs, art galleries, and, yes, book lending institutions. A vital and prominent 21st century library will be a strong magnet for new families considering New Canaan for their next home. Home sales and the influx of new families will result in both an increase in our tax basis and welcomed post-pandemic recovery. Although I will be sad to lose the 1913 building, I am excited by the new New Canaan Library project and the positive contribution it will make to our community.
Amanda Martocchio, AIA