Though a clause inserted last week into a draft agreement between the town and New Canaan Library would appear to forestall a decision on whether to demolish the original 1913 library building for at least two years during construction, the fate of that structure must be decided far sooner, an attorney said Tuesday.
While it’s true that the library will operate out of its existing building until the new one is completed and ready for move-in, the Planning & Zoning Commission must approve the library’s full plan for the site even before construction starts, including for the century-old structure overlooking Main and Cherry Streets, according to Ted O’Hanlan, a longtime partner at Stamford-based Robinson + Cole who was nominated last week as a state Superior Court judge (the class of nominees awaits confirmation by the General Assembly).
P&Z “has to approve a plan before we can start anything, so this will be resolved by then,”” O’Hanlan told members of the Board of Selectmen during their regular meeting, held via videoconference.
“I don’t believe it can be an open issue,” O’Hanlan added, where construction can commence without a final plan for the 1913 library.
“The library plans to put forward a very articulated reason why it’s not proposing to save the 1913 building,” he said. “But the problem is that you can’t begin your construction until you have zoning approval for the entire site.”
The comments came during a discussion of a draft public-private partnership agreement between the town and library. Under the draft agreement—which ultimately must receive approval by the Town Council—the town will contribute $10 million toward the library’s estimated $35 million rebuilding project.
Since its unveiling more than one year ago, the project has called for a green space where the 1913 building stands. A group of preservationists formed to oppose demolition and work toward incorporating the original building into the new library campus. Members of the Friends of Our 1913 Library group addressed the selectmen, saying they felt encouraged by one clause of the draft agreement.
The clause 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.”
One preservationist, Rose Rothbart, said during the meeting, “I do hope that this may be a first step in our town government’s recognition of the importance of such an integral visual and cultural feature in our community.”
Yet the purpose of the clause was not to guarantee the building’s preservation, officials said.
First Selectman Kevin Moynihan said its purpose “was just to leave the issue open for resolution by those bodies.” He referred to P&Z and the Town Council.
“And you may be reading too much into it to say this Board is advocating that solution,” he said. “We are leaving the door open to that solution.”
Library officials during the meeting reiterated that the project—which already has garnered $16 million in gifts and pledges—calls for a green where the 1913 building stands.
Library Director Lisa Oldham said, “Our plan contemplates construction of a new facility, moving into the new facility and then taking down the old facility.”
Oldham said that library officials “absolutely agree” with parking provisions spelled out in the agreement. A plan that received a 3-1 favorable vote by the Parking Commission on Monday calls for 76 spaces in the Center School Lot to be reserved for library patrons.
Regarding the 1913 clause, Oldham said, “Obviously we have not had any time to review the new clause and we’ll get back to you—or obviously the the Board of Finance—on that, since we haven’t had an opportunity to input on that one.”
Selectman Nick Williams asked whether the provision regarding the 1913 building could affect the library’s ongoing fundraising efforts.
Oldham said in response, “I think ambiguity is not the friend of fundraising, I will say that. I will defer to others who have much greater experience than me but all the advice I have been given and what we have seen, even since that was made public yesterday, is that ambiguity is not the friend of fundraising.”
Eileen Thomas, a vice president of the library’s Board of Trustees, said, “Our donors were taken aback a bit by the New Canaanite article that came out [Monday] just because there was no—they didn’t understand how that headline came about. We reached out to them, but just to point out that it does make fundraising difficult when there is ambiguity about what is going to happen and what our funders have basically put money behind to this point.”
Kimberly Norton of the Friends group said the same principal applies to those seeking to preserve the 1913 building.
“I concur with Lisa that ambiguity is the enemy of fundraising,” she said. “So for us to be able to come up with a funding for 1913, we really need some kind of a—first I know you want a plan from us—but we need some kind of commitment that the building will be retained on site. And then we can fundraise. And we are happy to fundraise with the library to come up with a plan, and get our supporters to pitch in for a new library as well as retaining the old library. But unfortunately, we have not had cooperation from the library board who we wrote to in August asking them to reconsider, in addition to the other administration in the library. So that is why we are in the situation we are in today.”
“I don’t know if people know that we have met with—the group of people that want to keep 1913—have had two meetings with the library and we have tried to work this out so that we don’t waste all of your time and go through boards and drag this on, but we have not been able to come to any agreement other than the library agreeing to think about moving the building,” Norton said.
Norton added that she has consulted with a company experienced in moving such large structures and that doing so would be “prohibitively expensive and most likely result in the crumbling of the building, so that is not really a viable option.”
Moynihan, Williams and Selectman Kathleen Corbet all said they support the library. Yet Corbet added that she also is “supportive of finding some way of a common consensus that addresses not just a group—and maybe we reference it as ‘a group’— it is, indeed, I have seen a groundswell of support of people wanting to preserve as best we can 1913 facade or building.”
Corbet added that she “would like to see the library come up with a plan” and that the library “might want to think about, is there resolution or an opportunity to address the concerns of, more broadly, all of our constituents?”
“I would also like to see some way the the library actually addresses ways in which the current 1913 building may be preserved in some way that supports the library’s efforts and of course the entire community,” she said.
The selectmen voted 3-0 to approve the draft agreement, which now moves to the Board of Finance and, after the appointed body votes on it, Town Council.