New Canaan Library: $1.5 Million Needed Now to Move ‘Legacy’ Building in Time for Feb. ‘23 Opening of New Facility


Rendering of the "new" New Canaan Library, at left, with the original 1913 building preserved near the northwest corner of the library's property (at right). Image courtesy of New Canaan Library

New Canaan Library officials said Tuesday that unless their organization is able to secure funding to move the original 1913 building to the western edge of its campus—as conditioned by the Planning & Zoning Commission via approvals last July and December—they could end up with two facilities, the present-day library and a new one, sitting next to each other.

The library has already has raised more than $33 million toward its new approximately $40 million building, including a $10 million gift from the town, Executive Director Lisa Oldham told members of the Board of Finance at their regular meeting, held at Town Hall and via videoconference. 

Yet the library sees the P&Z-approved project of preserving and moving what remains of the 1,200-square-foot 1913 or “legacy” building as a separate project, and need $1.5 million now in order for that structure to be secured on a new foundation behind the Sunoco gas station by the time the new facility opens to the public Feb. 1, 2023, Oldham said. (A further $1 million will be needed to fit out the building for use, such as by getting insulation, heat, bathrooms and plumbing in it.)

Asked by Board of Finance Chair Todd Lavieri how the library is going to get the $1.5 million, Oldham said, “That is a good question.”

Drone view of new library under construction (lower left) and existing library (top right). From April 12, 2022 Board of Finance meeting

“As our primary investors, our biggest investor, you will appreciate that I am full focused on fundraising the last $6.5 million for the main project,” she said. “This [new library] can’t wait for me to finish that [legacy building] job, so we need a source of funding immediately. I think one of the things that’s maybe not obvious is—we will move into the new building, that’s for sure, that’s all going to happen, the new building will open, we’ll move in, that’s not a problem—the challenge will be, if we’re not ready, if we don’t start this process right now, when we get to Feb. 1, if we don’t have all of the relevant approvals, permissions, et cetera, we will have two libraries sitting on that site.”

Unveiled in January 2020 with a formal application that followed in March 2021, the library’s rebuilding project received P&Z approval last July, following eight hearings. As part of that approval, P&Z set several conditions, including these two:

Within a hundred and twenty days (120) after the effective date of approval the New Canaan Library shall work with the Town Planner and if desired by the Commission or Town Planner, an external adviser, hired by the Town and paid for by the Library to present options to preserve appropriate portions of the existing library building older than 1937. Appropriate items recommended, by the Commission, for preservation could include, the façade, pillars and roof line of the pre-1937 buildings.

The final preservation option plan shall be reviewed by the Town Planner and shall be brought back to the Commission, for approval prior to the implementation of the plan.

Then, in December, P&Z by a 7-2 vote approved an option for preservation that includes moving the legacy building 80 feet away from the new one, with a grove of trees separating them, placing it on a new foundation so that the front stairs could be preserved and closing off its walls. (The other option was to preserve just the facade and portico from the legacy building.)

The issue of whether and how to preserve the 1913 building dominated much of P&Z’s deliberations. The New Canaan Preservation Alliance sued P&Z over its approval for the project last summer, then tried (and failed) to force a referendum vote on the town’s $10 million contribution, and sued again three months ago after the Commission approved the preservation plan.

Board of Finance member Victor Alvarez said P&Z’s conditioned approval should be a “cautionary tale” for the town.

“When the P&Z board decided to place a condition on the permission granting the new library project, they essentially were driving up the cost by $2.5 million by saying, ‘In order for us to approve this, you have to move the old building,’ ” he said. “And from my point of view, the people that were in support of preserving the old building were a special interest. They weren’t the majority of the town, and so going forward I think we need to be cognizant of the fact that very vocal, very well-organized people can come in and have strong opinions about projects that are going on in the town but they could ultimately lead to very significant cost overruns.”

Oldham showed the Board a present-day drone image of the project, which is already more than 30% complete and includes the installation of all steel. 

“You can see how these two buildings fit on the site,” Oldham said.

“At the moment, what we have approval for does not contemplate how we will preserve the legacy building,” she added. “For that we will have to go back to P&Z and get the relevant approvals. If we don’t have that, once we’ve done the punch list—we’ve moved in, we’ve opened the doors to the public—we don’t have a way forward if we haven’t gone through this process.”

Lavieri noted that the Board of Finance itself cannot create an appropriation to vote on—such a funding request would have to originate with the Board of Selectmen.

“Or you can put that request in, but there’s got to be a vehicle for getting that ball rolling,” he said.

Lavieri continued: “And then, just to play it out a little bit, if the selectman’s office is going to recommend $1.5 million—and I don’t know how this is all going to work out, by the way, we have to figure out whether there’s going to be some private funding that makes up the other $1 million over time or whatever, that all needs to be worked out—but assuming that the ask may be $1 million or $1.5 million that the town funds, we need an appropriation request. We’ll need to process it. And then the taxpayers will have a bite at that. That may be something they want to have a point of view on, as to whether or not there are people that are very supportive of preserving the legacy building, and there are people that aren’t. We have to recognize that in this town. So we will have to sort out how all of that unfolds. We will absolutely need a request for that and it probably needs to happen by our May meeting.”

The discussion, which followed Oldham’s update on the project, raised several questions.

For example, it wasn’t clear whether P&Z or other town bodies view moving the legacy building as a separate project from construction of the new library, whether the library itself is allowed to spend some of the money it already has fundraised on the $1.5 million preservation piece (or whether it’s committed specifically to construction of the new building), whether those who advocated for preservation (such as the NCPA) will pay to move the the 1913 building, whether the library could draw on a line of credit from the town for the preservation project and why, given that P&Z approved the preservation option in December, the need for $1.5 million only emerged in April (Oldham noted during the meeting that the overall $2.5 million cost of the preservation project hasn’t changed over time).

It also isn’t clear whether, in the future, the library would be able to demolish the legacy building (along with the rest of the existing library) if it can’t secure funding for the preservation piece, or what the consequence would be for such demolition. 

Lavieri noted that a taxpayer appropriation to preserve the legacy building would itself be subject to the will of New Canaan voters.

“We could move it and 800 people could sign a petition saying ‘We don’t want to spend that money’ and then there could be a referendum and it might not happen,” Lavieri said. “And then if it doesn’t happen and the taxpayers don’t want it, then there won’t be a legacy building. Right? So to your point, this will be how it will unfold, whether we like it or not. We have to get an appropriation and people can referendum an appropriation that we make.”

It also isn’t clear whether the Board of Selectmen will take the matter up at its meeting next Tuesday. The agenda for the April 19 meeting had not been published at the time of this article’s publication. First Selectman Kevin Moynihan sets the Board’s agenda, though because it’s a regular meeting, the elected body also may amend the agenda to add a voting item during the meeting itself. (There’s another selectmen meeting scheduled for May 3, which also is prior to the Board of Finance’s next meeting.) It’s unclear where the selectmen stand on the prospect of such an appropriation. Moynihan said nothing during the library discussion at the finance board meeting.

Asked by Board of Finance member Colm Dobbyn what the library would do with the legacy building after moving and restoring it, Oldham said, “The best answer I can give is, this wasn’t part of our original plan. It’s what we’ve got now. It’s a beautiful looking compromise and it will be, when it’s secured—that’s our main goal right now, secure it, preserve it, make it safe— move into the new building and then thoughtfully, carefully work out what the correct use of this space is. And I think it’s really important that we don’t just manufacture a use because we’ve suddenly got a building. But rather, we think very thoughtfully about what is the best use for this building. And I think there’s no particular reason to rush that.”

19 thoughts on “New Canaan Library: $1.5 Million Needed Now to Move ‘Legacy’ Building in Time for Feb. ‘23 Opening of New Facility

  1. To clarify: The NCPA was not involved , at all, with the referendum concerning the new New Canaan Library. As a matter of fact, we contacted all town bodies, and made very public statements to make that perfectly clear. It was a distraction then, and would be one now.

    The real issue is the historic 1913 Building which sits in the Business District A and should have been addressed under the Village District Guidelines by the New Canaan Library with P&Z. Only after significant out-cry by New Canaan residents did the Library say that they heard New Canaanites and presented what they called the “Recommended Option” to P&Z to meet the condition put on their building permit 4 months prior. All conditions imposed by P&Z on a private entity are paid for by that entity. It would be an outrageous precedent to set that P&Z conditions, put on development of any private property, would be paid for by New Canaan taxpayers. Clearly, the Library understood they would be responsible for the cost, when they agreed to meet this condition.

    If the Town decides not to allocate even more taxpayer funds to the Library, the Library will still be responsible to fulfill the P&Z condition. A clarification should be made by the BOF that the “Recommended Option” proceeds regardless of who pays for it. A referendum would only stop tax-payer dollars from being used.

    That is unless the Libary would consider and present to P&Z the NCPA option.

    The position of the NCPA is very simple. We will raise the money necessary to preserve the 1913, in situ, as a preservation gift to the New Canaan Library. And the best part is it will cost half of what it would to cut the building in half and move it, and without additional tax-payer funds!

    • Bravo for your eloquent explanation to this formidable situation. My parents Elizabeth & Theodore Dyke would be horrified by the antics.

  2. Hundreds of people are on record as wanting to see the full 1913 building preserved in place. Removing it, or trying to relocate any portion of it to anywhere else, has never been a sensible idea.
    With the right people in the room, and strong town leadership, this dilemma can be solved responsibly. The high visual quality of our downtown, to which the 1913 building is an essential contributor, should not be allowed to remain at risk over this issue.

    • I completely agree with Mr. Simpson. The solution presented by NPCA for keeping the library in place is simple, beautiful and useful!

      • I thoroughly agree with Keith & your stand. My parents would be horrified with this on going continuous situation which is proving costly to resolve.

  3. Thank you to Neele Stichnoth and Keith Simpson for their clear, comprehensive explanation of the issues and for offering a practical, fiscally responsible way forward.

    In my view, the “new” Library has struggled with identifying a use for the moved front-half of the building.

    Now they’re asking Town to pay up to $2.5M to pay for their adhering to P&Z-imposed Conditions on what the “new” Library has continuously stated is “private property”?

    The good news is that the NCPA (New Canaan Preservation Alliance) has identified a fantastic potential use for the re-purposed 1913 Building, which would leave the 1913 Library building in situ with no tear down or relocation costs, would be complimentary with the Library’s outdoor programming, and would transform the building for the future.

    See the video here:

  4. To me it is quite simple.

    Those who were vocal about preserving it should raise the funds to move it. If there is not significant enough interest to raise the full $2.5m then the legacy building should be demolished.

    The library came up with a great compromise, to keep a building that they do not want and did not budget for. The preservationists now need to step up and put their money where their mouth is, or concede that there are not enough town residents (the folks like “George Clooney” – and countless others NOT from New Canaan – that signed their petition should not be considered) interested in preserving 1913 to do so, and let it go.

  5. You’re right, it is simple! Preserving the historic 1913 Building, in situ, is the easiest and least expensive way to re-purpose and transform it for the future. It also maintains the building’s historic significance and maintains the historic character of our downtown.

    The NCPA is eager to raise the money for that and give the gift of preservation to the Library! NCPA will not fundraise for and does not support moving half the building.

  6. The New Canaan Preservation Alliance will pay for the PRESERVATION of the 1913 Library, providing it is NOT MOVED. Period. That is what the P&Z conditions require.

  7. It’s a terrible idea to cut the 1913 Library building in half and move that half of a building at great and unnecessary expense to the back of the library property. The great number of us who care about the 1913 building want it to remain a whole building where it is. It has been well demonstrated by the NCPA how to keep it in situ, very useful, and as beautiful as ever. It’s made clear on the NCPA website.

  8. Let’s let logic prevail please. For those who want the existing building to remain in place, let them raise the funds to do so. For those who want the existing building to be demolished, not so fast, that was not the deal. For those to want half the building to be moved and go back to the taxpayer well to pay for it, that should have been part of the original funding plan, not an afterthought. In short, it appears to me, we need two buildings and the preservationists should raise the funds to make it happen. Demolishing the existing, historic building is a non-starter. The “half a sandwich” approach does not seem to make economic nor aesthetic sense. This is just one view, so let’s all think in terms of what is best for our great town. The New Canaanite has a series on “Now and Then.” Let us make this chapter perfect and current and future generations proud of the ultimate outcome. If i missed any important facts along the way, please note them.

  9. Why does the old Library have to be moved… and just have the new Library built around it…sounds crazy and costly moving it…

  10. Yes, the answer is indeed simple, and fiscally responsible. Hundreds of New Canaan residents have gone on record in support of saving the historic 1913. To preserve, in situ, costs much less than NCL’s odd plan to move it up against the Gulf station. Sacrificing our venerable landmark for an unneeded green is pure folly. A popular battle cry against unwarranted development rings throughout New Canaan right now: Save New Canaan’s character and soul. Save 1913.

  11. It seems like library Executive Director Lisa Oldham is using revisionist history to shake down New Canaan tax payers. If there wasn’t funding for the move, why wasn’t this brought to light when P&Z was reviewing the plan? There was never any expectation of the town needing to pony up additional funds. This approach is right out of the NC Athletic Foundation playbook when they were 1 million dollars underfunded for the fields/ track project. Break ground and then come back hat in hand to tax payers when there is no turning back. It’s insulting and intellectually dishonest. I would expect better from an organization like the library.

  12. Mr. Condon,
    In fact I and others did clearly state during the process last year that preservation of the original Library would cost an additional $2.5 million. This was discussed at length during the hearings last year.
    Nor is anyone “shaking anyone down”. There are only facts, which have been explained in answer to queries from town officials. Furthermore, 23 million dollars have been donated by families in this town from their own pockets.
    100 dollars has been donated to date to preserve the original Library.
    To preserve the original Library in ANY location adds between 2.5 to 3 Million dollars to the costs.
    The NCPA proposal is for a much larger structure with extensive rebuilding and despite unsupported claims to the contrary, is demonstrably more expensive than the plan which was APPROVED by the P&Z. Furthermore, the NCPA have not suggested a source of funding for the long term costs of maintenance, operation, staffing etc of their proposed structure.
    Perhaps, in future, before you malign individuals with inflammatory and erroneous comments, you first establish facts and not rely on the unsubstantiated claims of those with a narrow special interest.

  13. The Library wants even more money from the Town? That’s nuts. As it is, the Town already pays 70% of the Library’s annual operating costs and is contributing $10 million (plus over 70 parking spots) to the new library’s construction. And that’s still not enough? Please. At some point the Town should consider taking over the Library entirely and installing an oversight board there that would be accountable to taxpayers. In the meantime, what a farce this has become.