Op-Ed: New Canaan Library Building Committee Chair on Two Primary Changes to Initial Plan

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New Canaan is blessed to have such an engaged citizenry and so many people who care about our town. We are also fortunate to have multiple news sources and public forums where people can voice their opinions. Our town is full of smart people and they show that we can have a civil discussion despite differing sentiments on the same issue. Certainly, in the case of the New Canaan Library building project beginning its land use approval process, there is a stepped up interest in the project and sharing of opinions. I have a concern that with so many ideas being debated that we are losing focus on the main issues. The intent of this letter is to help clarify the issues that we all pretty much agree upon, the issues that we do not agree upon, and to give the perspective of the Building Committee on how we have arrived at the plan that will be submitted to the town for approval. 

I am honored to serve on the New Canaan Library board and also proud to be the Chairman of the New Canaan Library Building Committee. The Library is the heart of our community. We are fortunate to have such a committed Library staff who provides us with amazing service, information, and programs. Since the 1979 renovation the role of the Library has changed significantly from a place to check out books to a place where people gather in search of information, knowledge, and community via all forms of technology, media, and programming. Today’s Library is more of a community center than just a collection of books. We have all experienced walking out of the Library and being grateful that we have one that offers so many great services to our town. 

Through all of the opinion sharing about the Library, I think that there is a fair amount of consensus. There is clearly a need for a new Library building in town and our current facility is past its useful life to serve our present day needs as a community Library. I also feel that the vast majority of the residents agree that the town should contribute $10 million towards this effort with private donations making up the balance. As near as I can tell, this seems to be common ground. 

There is one divisive issue and that is what will happen to the 1913 Library building. Does it stay where it is on property that is owned by the New Canaan Library and be restored and repurposed? Is it moved to a new location on town owned property, put on a new foundation, renovated and put to another use? Or is it demolished during the final phase of the project to make way for a park setting that will serve complementary uses to the new building. There is a lot of strategizing about ways to block the demolition of the 1913 building by leveraging issues such as parking or the size of the building, but those are just diversions. The issue to be decided is what to do with the 1913 building and who would bear the brunt of the costs for each option laid out above. 

For over three years, the Building Committee has been meeting frequently to develop all facets of the plan for the new library building and surrounding grounds. The volunteers and professionals associated with the planning process are smart, experienced, flexible, thoughtful, and caring. There is a line of attack by some of the people who would like to keep the 1913 building in place that any change to the size, budget, or parking related to the new project is a way of deceiving the public. I can guarantee that there is a lot of thought that leads to each of these changes and that this is typical in any pre- construction process. 

When various versions of the plans are released to the public, it is really important to keep in mind that this is a construction and design process. It would be great to come up with a schematic plan, determine a budget and construct this exact plan for this price. As most people in New Canaan have experienced, a construction process is much more complicated and dynamic than that. As plans develop and become more specific, the costs become more accurate. As the budget becomes more certain, the 

Building Committee has to prioritize the most important parts of the project, do a cost benefit analysis, and evaluate any new information that arises. 

There are two primary changes from the initial schematic plan and the current plan that will be presented for approval. We shrunk the footprint of the building and abandoned the idea of underground parking. As the plans developed it became clear that the cost estimates were going to exceed what we could afford, so we went through a value engineering process and re-looked at our priorities and options for saving money. 

It was determined that we could cut out some square footage in the usable portion of the building by being more efficient and deciding that we could do without some space. Once the footprint of the above ground portion of the building was shrunk, so was the foundation where the underground parking garage was to be located. Simultaneously, we were advised by our traffic consultant that each side of the library block is extremely busy and it would not work well to have an entrance and exit onto South, Cherry, or Main. And an entrance and exit along the building’s front façade on Maple Street would not work. Additionally, with a now smaller foundation and the determination that two ramps would be required within the underground garage for entrance and egress it became obvious that an expensive underground garage that might be able to house 40 cars was not practical or feasible. 

Fortunately, the Library is adjacent to the Center School parking lot. It provides an elegant solution. While I am always supportive of adding parking in town, the reality is that the location of the parking is extremely important…people want to be able to park close to where they are going. For this reason, using the Center School parking lot for the Library patron parking makes a lot of sense, since the Library is close and town and the train are not. As a lifelong New Canaan resident, I have observed many efforts over the years to try to make town and train parking more attractive at Center School, yet there have always been many open spaces. It makes sense for the town to work with the Library on this solution. 

It is my intention that by clarifying the Building Committee’s reasoning behind shrinking the square footage and eliminating an underground garage that would not work that it will refocus the discussion around the project to the right areas. We need a new Library building and the town should contribute towards it. The new New Canaan Library will be a great addition to our town. 

Sincerely, Ian Hobbs 

12 thoughts on “Op-Ed: New Canaan Library Building Committee Chair on Two Primary Changes to Initial Plan

  1. Before Covid, the Maple set parking St. was totally full on weekdays. Also wasn’t the waiting list for a spot in the hundreds? This will probably change of once covid is under control.

    Why do we need so many private rooms? Will people be conducting their business out of them?

    We have Lapham and the Y. It seems like the library wants to take over many things they provide.

    • Jill, thank you for submitting your comment. The questions you’re asking here likely will not come up at public hearings before P&Z or the Town Council.

      Because no one else has them.

      So at the risk of telling our readers what they already know: 1. No, there’s never been a waiting list for Center School Lot parking permits. 2. Meeting room space for local organizations in New Canaan for years has fallen far short of meeting demand. 3. Lapham—which serves adults only and primarily seniors—the YMCA and library all complement each other while serving different community needs and functions. Thank you again.

  2. Hi Ian. Thanks for this post and all the work you are doing on the Library. I agree with much of what you are saying including what appears to be the main ‘issue’ and that is what to do with the existing 1913 part of the Library. Throughout the process we should all remain flexible as facts become more clear (and cost estimates), as well as practicality of what was envisioned compared with what is possible. That leaves us again with the 1913 building. I may very well be biased, but my impression is that the Library Board and Management have throughout wanted that structure down and have not really been open to any other solution (moving the structure is not really feasible). So in the spirit of openness to alternative view points, reflection of the substantial (and ongoing) commitments from the town and its residents, I really encourage the Library to be creative and flexible and try to find a solution for the 1913 Library to stay where it is. My guess is if a practical solution on that structure was presented a year ago much of the dialogue on the new Library would be very very supportive, and I am not sure what it would take away from the project. But that is water under the bridge and as we now have much better facts on the table, it is a great time to solve that issue as well.

  3. Congratulations, and many thanks to Ian Hobbs, and his entire team, for this huge body of professional work.
    The library deserves a new building that does not leak and flood, which the current one does, and it has struggled with for too long.
    Now that the details of this project have finally become publicly available information, in the weeks ahead, we can study how this impressive new building can live harmoniously with the splendid, historic 1913 building, and gallery, which does not have to be, and should not be, chopped up into pieces, moved or bulldozed.

    • That’s right Keith – The new building should “live Harmoniously” in place with the 1913 building. It can be done, and it’s really our duty to do so. We are the current guardians of the landmark historic buildings in our town. It’s up to us to keep them around for future generations, as those from past generations have done for us.

  4. Ian thank you for providing more background into plans for the new library. More importantly thank you for all the time you have put into the project. We are in agreement that the town is in need of a new library. I was all on board with the plan that was introduced last year and has been in the public eye up on to last week. I have no issue with removal of the 1913 section which would be replaced by a town green. My support changed last week with the introduction of new plan that would commandeer 76 parking spaces at the Center School lot. Honesty I feel a bit deceived and wonder why the revised plan was not brought to the public sooner. As you note in your letter there was a lot of discussion of the changes long before last week.
    Did you not want public discussion?

    As someone who supports the removal of the 1913 building I am not raising the parking issue as a means of deflection. I am raising it because parking or lack there of has been a major issue in all the years I have lived here. Taking away 76 public spaces is not going to improve the situation. Suggesting that the Center School lot is for train commuters is not accurate. It’s mainly used as parking for those working in stores, restaurants and offices in town. Just last week our First Selectman was quoted as saying that the Center School lot was part of the solution to keeping employees from using the Elm Street spaces. You don’t need an expensive parking study to see that the lot is used. Just go to Google Earth. You will see in the most recent photo a lot almost full. ( by my count 107 cars) . Based trees in full bloom, schools in session and town pool in operation we can fairly assume the photo was taken sometime during the week in either early June or September .. pre Covid. To suggest that the lot gets very little usage could also be construed as deflection.

    In rush to gain town approvals it seems like the new parking plan was put together in a haphazard manner with little account pedestrian safety or convenience to the handicapped. You are asking library patrons to cross what will fast become a very busy street. If you’ve been to the Farmers Market on a summer Saturday you would understand. The solution of cross walks and flashing lights are just bromides.

    All is not lost. I would suggest that you will gain a lot more support for the structure as planned if you can find a way to replace the 76 spaces somewhere else in town and also rework Center School lot so that it’s safer and more convenient for all.

  5. Thanks Ian for the overview of the current progress on the New Canaan library project.

    I have benefitted much from the generally well run, culturally rich history of the New Canaan Library. All the librarians have shown exceptional resourcefulness and patience during the pandemic and before. So many kindly and helpful staff members and friendly faces.

    Management has been professional. Jeff Zaino who recently retired and David Bryant worked hard to create an open minded and professional oversight of library activities.

    Over a year ago before the pandemic became critical, Brian Lehrer of WNYC gave a talk in the Main St. level auditorium. He has fond memories of that talk as local people have called in on his program .

    There have been numerous speakers at the library over the years who have brought vital culture to the local area, such as the late Jimmy Breslin, LBJ biographer Robert Caro, a hedge fund manager, Temple Grandin and so many others who have sought to enrich the culture with aspirational presentations with a reality based narrative.

    One of the main originators of American libraries was of course Ben Franklin. His objective that everyone who wanted should enjoy access to vital literature should be a core principle in an age of constant media and distractions.

  6. For more opinions on the new New Canaan Library, please read letters written by Ken Klenk and Rose Rothbart under the March 7, 2021 Letters to the Editor feature. Some excerpts are:

    Over the course of the year, the price tag for the new library building went up from $30,000,000 to $38,000,000 (per current draft MOU).

    During the same year, the size of the new library building shrank from the original 49,000 +/- s.f. down to 40,461 square feet, less than 1000 square feet larger than the existing building, but the price has gone up

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