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