As officials discuss town-owned buildings such as Irwin House, Gores Pavilion, and Vine Cottage, residents are raising questions about the town’s responsibility to maintain those structures and how their use can be measured—factors expected to help determine their futures.
The topic was heavily discussed at last week’s “Forum on Public Buildings,” starting when a resident asked why, in the report issued in December by the Town Building Evaluation & Use Committee, Mead Park Brick Barn is only being given a six-month window for proposals to be submitted and presented when all other buildings were given one full year.
One panelist, Penny Young—a Town Councilman who served as co-chair of that committee—answered that new Canaan is “looking at very different economic times.”
“We are looking at every single line item in our budget with a critical eye and, also, looking at it from a perspective of ‘What’s the town’s responsibility and the provision of services and is the town’s responsibility the preservation of building, or is it community response to those buildings?’ ” Young said during the forum, held April 26 at Town Hall.
She continued: “The Carriage Barn and the Powerhouse [agreements] were done years ago before those kinds of thoughts were being exercised. What is also being considered [for] those two building and others, like the Nature Center buildings, [is] how many New Canaan residents are utilizing those buildings? Are they [for] town functions or are they [for] organizational use? And in the case of organizational use, is there not a responsibility for the organization to be a partner in support of those buildings?”
Sponsored by the New Canaan Historical Society, New Canaan Preservation Alliance, Town of New Canaan and NewCanaanite.com, the forum was designed to give residents information about many of the town-owned buildings whose future uses and ownership are in question, and to open up lines of communication between taxpayers and decision-makers both elected and appointed. It featured a panel that included Young as well as First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, Town Council Chairman John Engel, Town Council member Cristina A. Ross, and Board of Finance member Amy Murphy Carroll. Murphy Carroll is the other co-chair of the Town Building Evaluation & Use Committee.
When Murphy Carroll pointed out that the “Brick Barn” on Richmond Hill had remained vacant for 20 years and, during that time, no proposals were presented to the town for possible use, Engel questioned whether the decision to shorten the window for submitting proposals should be applied to other buildings listed in the report.
“By that logic, you should take down the barn at Irwin Park—by that logic, you would have taken down the Gores Pavilion a few years ago because nobody was using it and it was in a state of disrepair,” he said. “So, by that logic, we probably would have lost the Powerhouse and all of the smaller buildings at Waveny. And the second [point] is an economic argument, which is ‘Why was so important that we hit the pause button and give a little bit more [time to think about] the Outback, which costs $50,000 a year to delay?’ And yet my understanding is that we’ve spent nothing, zero [on the barn]. Why are we in a hurry?”
Young replied that the time has come to draw a line in the sand.
“The town cannot keep continuing to support the number of buildings that we have,” she said.
Ross reminded Murphy Carroll that the town’s Fire Department requested permission to park engines at the barn, but the proposal was turned down by the town. “There was no process with this report to get the public’s opinion on how important a building is or isn’t to the town as a whole,” she said.
Murphy Carroll added that the town’s ability to come together and find acceptable uses for gifted buildings is what makes New Canaan special.
“It’s a tapestry of different cultural and social things that are going on to support the town and [it] delivers a quality of life that’s unlike any other town, so as we look at how much these [buildings] cost us, I think we have to gain back the value of what it gives us as well because it’s not just a dollars and cents issue,” she said.
The discussion moved to Gores Pavilion and whether the town has any responsibility to upkeep the building, currently under the care of the New Canaan Historical Society. Murphy Carroll questioned whether the town uses the building enough to justify spending taxpayer money on upkeep.
“The one thing that I don’t have a sense for the Gores [Pavilion] is who uses it,” she said. “I don’t know how many people use the Gores Pavilion or what portion of the population uses it. Right now, it’s a building that we have a contingent liability to maintain, but the town doesn’t really have use of the building. So, that’s the type of information that we need to know as well.”
Co-moderator Charles Robinson, a member of the NCPA Board of Directors, replied that the Gores Pavilion is currently being used for art exhibits and for visitors to the Glass House. It was also confirmed that the New Canaan Historical Society currently uses it as a meeting space.
Young said that Gores is a proper example of an ongoing dilemma that town officials have been dealing with. “From a government standpoint, what is the government’s responsibility in using taxpayers’ funds to support buildings that are not government function buildings?” she asked.
Ross stressed the importance of looking beyond the cost of the buildings and also looking at what the town receives in return.
“The Gores Pavilion, just like the Glass House and Grace Farms, brings in a tremendous amount of tourism into the town,” she said. “Its value is very significant to all of the shops and the stores that are here in town. It is not just about the building, it’s about attracting people to come to New Canaan. There is an intrinsic value in [these buildings]. It’s just not being understood by the committee.”
Murphy Carroll said that cost-sharing discussions between town officials and private organizations are a part of the process that to determine how the status of the buildings going forward.
“You can love every building, right? But the town has many functions and preserving these buildings is not the only function we have,” she said.
Residents should not expect town officials to put a specific number on how these buildings are utilized versus how significant they are to residents, Engel said.
“The Gores Pavilion is never going to be expected to service a large number of people. Next week, we’re going to have several $70,000 capital requests in the budget. One is for another paddle court and the other is for an extension trail at Waveny. Which one of those is more valuable?” he asked. “It’s impossible to measure 200 yards of Waveny trail and another paddle court and, ironically, what else is going to cost another $70,000? The demolition of the Brick Barn. Which is the most important? It’s not a fair question.”