The town’s highest elected official said this week that he would prefer to find a different site for New Canaan Police Department headquarters and build a new station there, rather than renovate the existing South Avenue structure or rebuild on the parcel.
The cost of renovating the 1927-built police station, which comes with the expense of creating “swing space” elsewhere during construction, likely is far higher than many realize, according to First Selectman Kevin Moynihan.
In addition, if the town builds anew on a different site in New Canaan, it can sell off the South Avenue building to a residential developer, Moynihan said during Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Board of Selectmen.
And if the town were to renovate or redo the existing police station in some form, “we are essentially going to get the same building with new guts or a new facade and that will be controversial, I think, like a lot of other building projects can become in town,” he said.
Architects seeking to win a town contract for the work have said that about 2.5 acres of buildable land is needed. Moynihan said during the meeting, held via videoconference, that the town owns 500 acres, though it also may consider purchasing private property.
“Ideally we would find town property because then we do not have a land cost, but this is a major decision for the long-term of the town,” he said.
“This is an essential building. I know a lot of people think South Avenue is the right location for it, but if the price tag comes for that something that’s going to knock our socks off, we have to look at alternatives. Keep in mind if we sold the South Avenue location to a developer—we’ve had conversations with a commercial real estate broker. We believe that has more value than we realize in terms of a residential development property. This is a complex decision we have to make, as to what’s the cost of renovating or building on South Avenue versus building a new building elsewhere.”
The comments came as the selectmen voted 3-0 to approve $50,000 in contracts with the two architectural firms— Berlin-based Jacunski Humes Architects, LLC and New Britain-based Kaestle Boos Associates, Inc—for professional services. Jacunski Humes will evaluate the existing South Avenue building—originally constructed as the first New Canaan High School—to study possibilities such as constructing a new Police Department behind the existing one, renovating the structure or demolishing it and building anew, while either preserving or re-creating its prominent facade. Kaestle Boos will take on what Moynihan called a different “work stream,” namely, to identify where else in New Canaan the town might construct a new station.
“If we want to build a new Police Department elsewhere—which quite honestly is my bias, because the expense of building at South Avenue location is going to be surprising to people—we need to determine possible locations,” Moynihan said.
Funds for the work approved this week will come out of a $500,000 allocation made for this fiscal year for preliminary work on the project.
A volunteer committee chaired by Bill Walbert is expected to make recommendations about a future police station. The committee met Wednesday to discuss the work in front of Jacunski Humes.
During the selectmen meeting, officials asked about possible hazardous materials in the South Avenue building (an updated assessment is needed), whether town counsel will advise on the legality of sites under consideration (yes) and whether that legal work will be covered by retainer or charged separately (the latter).
“I’ve already worked with the town attorney on some locations that perhaps raise legal issues, and we certainly have zoning issues that have to work with Lynn,” Moynihan said, referring to Town Planner Lynn Brooks-Avni.
Selectman Nick Williams said it was unusual to hire consultants to study two different concepts for a new building.
“I am a bit surprised we are not further down the road with respect to the identification of the best place to put the new Police Department,” Williams said. “We do need a new Police Department, for sure.”
The New Canaan Police Department got its last major renovation in 1981. Officials have called for a project there for years. In 2017, a panel that studied and made recommendations about town-owned buildings in New Canaan said the town should fund architectural and engineering needed for renovations. The town since then has considered re-locating NCPD entirely.
Moynihan said two years ago that at least one developer has shown “serious interest” in converting the Police Station into senior housing. Around the same time, Moynihan also aired idea of building a new police station on a portion of the Saxe Middle School playing fields where a baseball diamond now stands.