Op-Ed: New Canaan Library Deserves Better

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Proposed rebuilt New Canaan Library—Maple Street entrance. Rendering courtesy of New Canaan Library

One of New Canaan’s most compelling attributes is its sense of community, in particular the cooperative and supportive nature of our citizenry. Growing up here, I have always been most proud when New Canaan public entities and private donors work together to invest in institutions and activities that are iconic to our identity: leading edge schools and sports programs, caring community services and iconic traditions like carol singing and Waveny’s Fourth of July celebration. During this unprecedented and difficult time of COVID, I have been proud to see New Canaan come together in its best nature to support neighbors and turn out for events like the peaceful protest and the New Canaan High School graduation parade.

Therefore, I am very dismayed and saddened by the mean-spirited and rancorous rhetoric coming from a small number of disgruntled citizens about the longstanding and exemplary service that the New Canaan Library has provided to our community for more than 140 years. Our library is one of our most successful examples of a public-private partnership that serves our community and enhances our town. We are extremely fortunate to have an association library, an uncommon model of library ownership and governance except for in certain towns in New England. Our library is an independent non-profit that provides world class library services to our community using a combination of private donations, volunteers and a yearly operating grant from the town of New Canaan. Because the library is an association vs municipal organization, New Canaan tax-payers benefit from annual fundraising that supports 30% of the annual operating costs as well as all of the maintenance and capital costs of the buildings and grounds. We are also extremely fortunate to attract and retain extremely competent and committed staff and volunteers at all leadership levels of our organization.

Since its founding in 1877, our library has always, and only, been focused on serving the public good of our community. During public emergencies like Superstorm Sandy and the recent COVID-19 quarantine, library staff and volunteers have pivoted nimbly to provide extraordinary service and support the community’s most basic needs. During normal operating times, the library sees up to 1000 visitors a day and has developed an array of programming, events and services that has been vastly oversubscribed and has brought some of the country’s most notable and prize-winning authors to town. And the library has done this in an outdated building that is poorly designed, inefficient, leaking, flooding and expensive to operate and constantly repair. The building is so bad, in fact, that the library had to rent space at Woodway Country Club to accommodate the oversold crowds interested in attending recent events with celebrity authors such as Ann Patchett and Nelson DeMille. To note, all of the work to create and maintain this cherished community gem has been done without ever going to town to cover cost overruns or ask for capital contributions. The library team is a proven, highly competent and responsible partner in all they have undertaken. 

New Canaan is the only town in Fairfield County that has not rebuilt or redesigned its library. In fact, our library hasn’t been renovated since 1979. Like the good partner it has always been, the leadership of the New Canaan Library has worked fervently for many years to bring a modern, well-designed, efficient and well-executed building to New Canaan and enhance New Canaan’s village by including a Library Green that could be used for both library programming and public space. Not only that, they have followed a well-organized and professional process to gather community input through independently conducted focus groups, consider alternative designs and their financial implications, coordinate with town leaders and, most importantly, plan and execute a private fundraising effort to raise $25 million of the $35 million in projected cost. In accordance with town requests, the library team raised $16 million of private leadership funding and pledges from over 175 donors in the space of just one year. We accomplished this agreed upon milestone to demonstrate the project’s wide-spread community support and commitment prior to asking town for a $10 million contribution, a financial contribution which is in line with neighboring town projects. In addition, a private donor paid to have an economic impact report commissioned which demonstrated that in addition to providing world class library resources, this new building project would provide a needed boost to New Canaan’s lagging downtown economy. All of this has been done with talented and committed volunteers and private donations. Throughout the entire process, the library has continued to be a responsive and reliable partner with the town. The library has, and continues to, meet often with town leaders and work cooperatively to make this valued resource become a reality for our community. 

So why would anyone disparage the competence and dedication of library staff and volunteers? Why would they suggest that the library’s motivation is not in line with public feedback or the public good? Who would twist information to suggest that the Library is a burden to taxpayers, rather than a tremendous benefit? Why would anyone suggest discarding years of work and investment so the town could buy or save an outdated building that has no purpose and would cost millions to reconstruct? 

The only answer is because this small group of people have their own agenda or opinions on what library should build, despite never actively engaging as volunteers or donors. I am sure that they are disappointed in the Town Council vote (10-2) this spring that denied the Preservation Alliance’s request to tie building design and preservation to town funding. It is much easier to criticize, stoke fears, and misconstrue than it is to work diligently to create a viable plan, cultivate donors, fundraise and coordinate with constituents to create valuable change. Sadly, this small group has chosen instead to attack a valued institution that so ably serves our town and to obstruct a well-designed and feasible project. This not the type of behavior New Canaan prides itself on as a community. This is not the behavior that gets ringing endorsements on social media nor attracts new families to our community. It is distracting and disrespectful. C’mon New Canaan—we are better than this.

For 140 years, New Canaan has reaped great economic and cultural benefits from the New Canaan Library, the cherished center of our community. We now stand to benefit to an even greater extent by providing a resource that can help us compete with our surrounding towns at a time when our real estate market and economy are beginning to revive. C’mon New Canaan—it is time to act and show the world what our town is really made of.

16 thoughts on “Op-Ed: New Canaan Library Deserves Better

  1. I am hard pressed to see how anyone can advocate for repair of our crumbling outdated library when they compare it to the new proposed structure. Over the years my family has spent countless hours at the library from story time to lectures from celebrated authors. It reminds me of when we had the opportunity to rebuild our high school or retrofit the existing structure and the town eventually opted to take a short term approach and fix a poorly designed structure. The fact that we have a community that came together and took the time to design and raise the majority of necessary funding to invest in the future of our youth our families and our town and the thanks they receive is to have all that hard work dismissed as unnecessary has to be frustrating. The new space looks to address so many needs within the community, it reminds me of a University library which is the central learning hub for such institutions. Our family looks forward to the day when we can come together again as a community and what a wonderful space to expand our knowledge and community involvement. Thank you so much for all the hard work and preparation that went into this endeavor, we hope that a few naysayers do not hold the community back!

  2. This letter makes a number of good points about the value of the library. It’s quite reasonable for the community to come together to support the proposal as it’s been outlined. However, I don’t see it as mean-spirited to ask for greater transparency about the current and future costs associated with the construction (and potential overruns) and the ongoing commitments from the town to support an operating budget that includes the additional overhead costs that go with a larger facility. The idea that people come forward with alternative views is called democracy. Let’s try not to get sucked into demonizing other peoples’ views when thee should be plenty of opportunity for an open discussion.

    • I agree entirely with the views expressed by both Kim Norton and Timothy Curt.

      There are so many clarifications needed to be made to Eileen Thomas’ letter so I won’t even begin to address them here. All the info is available at https://newcanaanpreservationalliance.org/

      But it’s important to note that:

      1) We are not against the new library build and we are not for delaying it. We are asking for the 1913 Library to be put in the MOU in order for us to develop a workable plan to reuse 1913 so that it is self-sustaining and useful for another 100 years

      2) It’s hard to understand how a vote of this impact to the town and the taxpayers could even be considered without a) due diligence on the part of the town b) an operating plan and budget that illustrates the current and future costs associated with the construction (and any potential overruns) of the new library, and full transparency around the ongoing commitments from the town to support an operating budget that includes the additional overhead costs that go with a larger facility

  3. Friends of Our 1913 Library couldn’t agree more that one of New Canaan’s most compelling attributes is its sense of community and its iconic landmarks like the 1913 Library. We are a diverse group of volunteers whose mission it is to Save the 1913 Library from the proposed demolition by the New Canaan Library Board. You characterize our group as “small number of mean-spirited…disgruntled citizens.” But alas, we are a growing and diverse group with a petition signed by over 275 New Canaan residents who believe the 1913 Library is in excellent condition per our building report and can be reused/repurposed/recycled providing a huge benefit to our community. You letter claims we are questioning the library’s “longstanding and exemplary service that the New Canaan Library has provided to our community”. Just to set the record straight, we have not questioned the value library services provides for New Canaan residents, nor have we”disparaged and competence and dedication of library staff and volunteers” as you claim. We are an extremely nice and competent group and we have offered to meet with the Library Board to open up the lines of communication to work together in the spirit of one of New Canaan’s greatest strength-its community. Lastly, you claim we never “actively engage as volunteers or donors”. However, as New Canaan residents, we are donors by virtue of the fact that we pay taxes in New Canaan, Seventy-five percent of the library’s operating budget comes from taxpayer funds, as well as the 10 million and growing monies being asked for from taxpayers for a proposed new library. So please do not distort who we are, do not name call, do not disparage and do not twist our group’s mission. Thank you for your attention to the rules of civility. We agree with the claims made in your letter – in your own words -are “disrespectful and distracting and do not get ringing endorsements on social media nor attract families to our community”. And we agree, again in your own words, “C’mon New Canaan- we are better than this.” So we ask that you follow your own tenants of decorum and proceed as such. We await an invitation to come together as a good community does with all its constituents and work in tandem to find a solution that benefits all.

  4. I too agree entirely with the views expressed by both Kim Norton and Timothy Curt. As a resident of Wilton and New Canaan since 1976 I think the 1913 Library should be spared the wrecking ball. The 1913 library was built with locally-sourced granite and is literally solid as a rock. It’s also terrific looking. I think a lot of my financially conservative and like-minded fellow New Canaanites would agree that a proper refurbishing with a modest expansion would be both suitable and cost efficient. The world is changing folks. Library attendance is down while costs are up, and technology has rendered bulk book storage obsolete. And should Nelson Demille ever show up again, I’m sure Grace Farms would love to host that event for free. Does our little, quaint village really require a University-scale library? I think most would agree and vote “nope”

  5. Thank you, Ms. Thomas, for capturing the sentiment of the majority of the Town that our Library is being abused by those with a singular objective: to force the retention of the old portion of the library building. Having failed to persuade the governing bodies to block the library project until they get their way, they are now doing everything they can to create leverage by undermining the library and the project. It’s too obvious, and it ought to be ignored.

    • Having the highest per capita debt in the state, alongside our already exorbitant infrastructure costs, at a time when the future of the economy couldn’t be less certain, might also have something to do with it.

  6. The Friends of the 1913 Library Building have never been against a new library building.
     
    None of the The Friends of the 1913 Library Building have used “mean- spirited and rancorous rhetoric” about anything, especially our Town’s fine library.
     
    In order to save a landmark building one must speak up and inform others that may be unaware of its threatened demolition.  In order to save a landmark building one must inform all as to what it can be re-purposed to become.
     
    When we all save, repair and re-purpose the iconic landmark 1913 Library Building we will preserve a beautiful element of the history of our town, an existing, functioning example of the unique quality that is New Canaan.”

    • Patricia why do you keep saying it’s a landmark when it isn’t even registered as a landmark? It is also not historical. It is just old and falling apart and would cost more to repair and restore.

      • First, “landmarks” are buildings or places of outstanding historical, aesthetic, or cultural importance — and do not need to be “registered” to be so considered.

        So — is the 1913 Library a landmark? In 1951, the New Canaan Historical Society published a well-researched book, “Landmarks of New Canaan,” based on a series of articles called “New Canaan Landmarks” that ran for years in the New Canaan Advertiser. There on page 8 of the book, in a chapter written in 1946 by Stephen B. Hoyt and illustrated by Edwin Eberman, you’ll find the New Canaan Library. Here’s how the article begins: “The architectural gem, designed by the late Alfred H. Taylor and built by John Mahon, of native granite, every piece of which was thoughtfully selected for its particular spot in the structure, is our Parthenon.”

        According to the library’s online search, under the subject “Historic buildings — New Canaan, Conn.,” multiple copies of this book are available in the New Canaan Library itself.

        Sidenote: in 2014, the New Canaan Library was featured as one of the Historical Society’s “Landmark” Christmas ornaments.

        So, given that the New Canaan Advertiser and the New Canaan Historical Society (to say nothing of many, many residents) have considered the 1913 Library a landmark for nearly 75 years, I think you don’t need to harp on Patricia Funt Oxman for doing likewise.

      • Sarah,

        Let’s have the state historian, Jenny Scofield, come down and take a look before deciding to tear it down. I suspect she would find it to be eligible for the state registry which would then qualify for it for restoration credits. Where’s the harm in doing that? Let’s have a dialog based upon facts.

  7. Eileen Thomas has grossly mischaracterized those who wish to see the 1913 library building preserved and re-purposed as a small group using, “mean-spirited and rancorous rhetoric” that is “disparaging the competence and dedication of library staff and volunteers”. The Friends of the 1913 Library and those who have written letters to the NewCanaanite, and/or commented about letters, are themselves dedicated community volunteers, as well as longstanding patrons of the library. Nobody has disparaged the good works of the library or its many volunteers and staff. We are not opposed to a new library. We are trying to preserve and repurpose the old 1913 library building at an estimated cost of $700,000 as it is an important architectural and cultural aspect of New Canaan’s heritage. Our criticism of the Library Board is that its request for $10 million of taxpayer capital funding has been documented with pretty pictures and a lot of arm waving, but without detailed plans and construction and operating costs. The Board refuses to consider saving the 1913 building as a stand-alone building under the management of an unaffiliated not-for profit, despite the growing public support to do so.
    New Canaan is a community of 20,000 inhabitants with over 7,000 households. Ms. Thomas’s letter cites that over the past year a total of 175 library donors have made commitments to fund the new library. I find it a bit arrogant that the library board and 175 donors think they know best when it comes to the demolition of one of New Canaan’s iconic historic buildings. Hopefully our town governing bodies will attempt to determine how the majority of New Canaan’s citizens feel about preservation of the 1913 library as part of their due diligence on the Town’s capital and operating cost contributions to the library.
    Skip Hobbs
    (Board member New Canaan Preservation Alliance)

  8. I am 50 years old and grew up down the street on West Norwalk Road. I recall fondly driving up Main Street into New Canaan and my mom would take me to visit the library often. While I respect the desire to preserve structures of historical significance, to me, this 1913 structure is not worth saving. The style has little connection to New Canaan architecture – neither colonial era, red brick, nor mid-century modern. The layout of the library is not conducive to a library of the future. The children’s library is too small. Regular reading rooms need to be larger. The layout is not functional for a modern library or as a community gathering space.

    I greatly respect everyone involved in historic preservation, and preservation plays an important role in keeping New Canaan unique. However, it seems to me a faulty conclusion that the current library is somehow a valuable endangered species in need of protection. My wife Elsa and I have restored a historic home in New Canaan ourselves, and very much care about preserving New Canaan’s rich architectural history. Given our experience with historic renovations, I believe it’s quite unrealistic to think the current library can be adequately repaired and repurposed for remotely close to $700k.

    To me, investing $10mm to make a major positive impact on the town, at a juncture when many families are moving back to Fairfield County, is a no brainer. To put things in perspective, the Gulf gas station lot (next to the library) just sold for nearly $5mm. Would it be better to buy two gas stations or allocate $10mm towards a beautiful new library and community gathering space? Let’s not forget that it’s a huge positive that $25mm of $35mm of the cost is coming from private philanthropic donations. If $10mm is too large a sum, then $25mm in philanthropic dollars is 2.5x “too large a sum” to turn away. I have seen no indication that there has been any arrogance or lack of transparency by anyone involved and find those allegations unfounded. Anyone who saw the overflow crowds in support of the new library at the Town meetings knows there is an overwhelming groundswell of support for this project to get done.

    This new proposed new library is frankly also about preservation. It’s about preserving New Canaan as one of the most beautiful towns in New England, one of the best places to raise a family. The new library will show the commitment by New Canaanites to town, to community and to education. Having seen the 3D renderings of the proposed new library, I have no doubt that this will be a major positive for New Canaan, a structure everyone loves and fights to preserve a 100 years hence.

    George Sykes

    • Mr Sykes, you have made some very compelling points and I commend you for setting a positive tone. I think it’s entirely reasonable to support the $10 million investment.

      But I continue to believe that there are legitimate questions that can be answered. When people ask questions about responsibility for cost overruns and additional operating costs, if there were a fully transparent process, I would expect someone to respond with something like: “The annual operating expenses are budgeted to be $x and that represents a y% increase.” Instead, the responses have been to point to the good intentions of those in favor and to challenge the motives of those asking the questions, so I’m wondering if the process is as transparent as it should be.

      Note that residents have reason to be skeptical about the town’s management practices after seeing the town’s management of the public/private partnership to build the athletic fields a couple of years ago. One might argue that members of the select board were less than forthcoming about the town’s financial commitment to the project.

      Also, when considering big financial decisions like this, it’s easy for people to put forward arguments that sound good but fall apart upon close scrutiny. For example, if you live in a third floor walk up apartment (with no yard) and someone offers you a 60% discount on a $10,000 backhoe, the only question you need to ask yourself is whether you will get $4,000 of utility from the backhoe. Much like the $25 million in private donations for the library, the $6,000 you’re saving on the backhoe is not relevant to the decision; what’s relevant is the $4,000 you’re spending.

      Some members of the community (myself included) may view the library as providing enormous utility (worth the full $10 million investment), but to others (including those who are skeptical about the role of bricks and mortar in a digital world) this might just be like spending money on the backhoe you can’t use. So it’s fabulous to live in a community with so many generous people and the $25 million in contributions is outstanding. But it’s not unreasonable for people to want to know whether the $10 million is truly only $10 million.

      If answers about the town’s financial commitments are readily available and I (and others who have raised questions) have missed something, then I apologize. But the given the town’s financial condition, it would be nice to know that there has been a truly disciplined approach to budgeting this. We can’t afford just to rely on good intentions.

  9. George:

    Please contact this true historical property preservationist at your earliest convenience at:

    charleslrobinson@mail.com

    or/and

    203.972.0876

    to discuss.

    You will likely find a kindred spirit to discuss your response.

    With kind regards,

    CLR

  10. Dear Editor,

    I find this letter disturbing in its characterization of New Canaan residents taking the time to study this issue and stand up with input and ideas as “mean-spirited and rancorous rhetoric coming from a small number of disgruntled citizens “as stunningly insulting to the NewCanaanites I have known who have worked to create the best for this wonderful Town. This is a smart Town with many people able to thoughtfully contribute sound ideas. The shouting down of honest discourse is not our tradition and should not be part of this discussion.

    Jack Trifero

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