Outback Board Unknowingly Alerted in 2007-08 To What Became ‘Potentially Disastrous’ Structural Danger at Teen Center


A former board president of New Canaan’s defunct teen center said Tuesday morning that the organization’s directors had learned through a study conducted as early as 2007 of a “hinge effect” in the building’s second floor—a part of the Outback’s design and construction that professional engineers now describe as unsafe for the young people it had been built to serve.

Inside the former Outback Teen Center (later called 'The Hub') in downtown New Canaan, on July 1, 2016—when the structure officially reverted to the town after it failed to self-sustain. Credit: Michael Dinan

Inside the former Outback Teen Center (later called ‘The Hub’) in downtown New Canaan, on July 1, 2016—when the structure officially reverted to the town after it failed to self-sustain. Credit: Michael Dinan

The danger developed over time as the flooring began to “crown,” and there’s no way the Outback’s board could have known the hazard it would create when the teen center opened in 2001, officials said during a regular meeting of the Board of Selectmen.

Yet the first reaction from an engineer who entered the Outback building before it was closed to the public last week was, “ ‘You’ve got to close this building. No one should come in here,’ ” according to Bill Oestmann, buildings superintendent with the New Canaan Department of Public Works.

The former Outback Teen Center. Credit: Michael Dinan

The former Outback Teen Center. Credit: Michael Dinan

“And when I told them what they were doing there, he explained that having a large dance up there, if you have 100 kids and people moving around, that whole weight load is bouncing going back and forth, and he just said that floor could drop down on one side because it’s just hinged up there,” Oestmann said at the meeting, held in Town Hall.

Specifically the “hinge point” of the Outback’s second floor meant the flooring itself could not, over time, safely carry a sizable “live load” moving back and forth across it, Oestmann said—for example, the weight of dozens of tweens and teens.

“When you have a live load and a lot of people moving and dancing, the building is doing this”—Oestmann moved his arms back and forth—“you really have to stabilize that floor to keep it where it is.”

It’s a problem whose cause had been flagged in a study commissioned some eight or nine years ago by the Outback board, according to one former president of the Outback.

While addressing the selectmen, Christina Fagerstal described a study completed prior to her term as president that “deemed the building to be structurally sound at that time [2007 or 2008].”

“There was the upper floor that he [Oestmann] is talking about—the ‘hinge effect’ or whatever—was deemed to be imperfect, but the entire building was deemed to be structurally sound at that time,” Fagerstal said.

Addressing First Selectman Rob Mallozzi, she added: “And the engineering report—I wish I could think of the company name [that conducted the study]—they said that it might be an issue in the future, but there was nothing at the time. Which is why we went forward with the organization. Your kids went there a lot, Rob.”

Mallozzi responded: “That’s why I have a pit in my stomach, quite frankly.”

Ultimately, with new information in hand regarding the Outback’s structural integrity—including the presence of wood-boring “powder beetles” in its interior framing—the selectmen asked Oestmann to price out a likely demolition, tabling a $17,500 allocation that would have gone to an architectural firm to report back to the town what would be needed to stabilize the building.

As Selectman Nick Williams said: “It strikes me as a blessing in disguise that the town took this over because of the potential for a human catastrophe of historic proportions is real. I am shocked.”

The revelations mark the latest dramatic turn for a building that, one week ago, drew speculation about possible future uses and no more. But an engineering study (see PDF embedded below) that Mallozzi commissioned days after the town became owner of the building, on July 1, found that it was structurally unsound and unsafe. Since then, though New Canaan’s prior building official issued a Certificate of Occupancy in the summer of 2001—a new person has been in that position for several years—the town has been unable to locate an important document that follows comprehensive final inspections. According to a July 19 report from Danbury-based Di Salvo Engineering Group, a review of original building drawings shows that what had been designed “is not what was built.”

Mallozzi underscored that it never was anyone’s intention to harm New Canaan youth.

“Maybe it’s a good thing that we did not have 500 kids waiting to get in there one night because it was never your intention, [former board President] Sangeeta [Appel]’s intention or the town’s intention to have that as an unsafe environment,” he said.

He added: “The fact is that in 2007-2008, everyone on that board believed it was a safe building. “

Mallozzi described the Outback as an inflexible “problem” that New Canaan inherited.

“It is a building that was purpose-built as a Teen Center. The town has it now,” he said. “I’m not looking to reinvent a Teen Center.”

“I think we owe it to everyone to rid ourselves of this problem. We inherited a problem. It is ours. We have it now. We’ve got to move on and the fact that this building is a single purpose-design building, when they built it 15 years ago, the town never got together to say, ‘Here, in case this doesn’t work out, let’s build it in this manner.’ That was not the conversation, and that’s OK. It is what it is. But we have an obligation to our firefighters, quite frankly, and to the public. The fact that this building was marketed to all of us for the last six, seven years since I’ve been here, as a safe environment for our children and we find out that the building itself may not have been [safe] is worrisome and upsetting.”

A.P. Construction, the builder of the Outback, told NewCanaanite.com that as far as the firm is aware, the structure was built to design specifications.

Mallozzi said the problem now facing the town “is not so much about the builder.”

“It is clear that these folks were trying to make a go of a Teen Center for many, many years and were having trouble on basic maintenance that you and I would do on our homes—that we do at Town Hall and we do at Irwin Park—and it was not in the financial picture for them because they were strapped, and over the course of 15 years with a building built this way and its basic maintenance items were not diligently followed, this is the result. So we can focus on the builder but the fact is it is our building now, and we did not hire the builder to build it, we do not know the designs. I am very concerned about the immediate and pressing problems that came up and as you said it is depressing. No one likes to see this. This is upsetting.”

Some problems at Outback seem to point to failed maintenance as well as structural problems that worsened over time.

Beyond cosmetic problems and evidence of structural hazards such as twisted, cracked and warped beams, Oestmann said the ADA bars in bathrooms were bent, roof shingles are falling off, a post holding up the Outback’s porch could be substantially rotted and a fryer in the kitchen was not maintained.

“The grease trap was never cleaned and overflowed into the boiler room, creating a hazard,” Oestmann said.

Fagerstal said the media has unfairly portrayed A.P. Construction as doing a poor job “and it’s very saddening when we were trying to make something great for our kids who do need constructive things to do.”

“A lot of people feel very maligned and offended, including the people who built it originally,” she said. “And I don’t think it’s fair to say to A.P. Construction that they did a terrible job.”

Fagerstal said the Outback secured funding each year from New Canaan Community Foundation and other grant-making organizations, and that in order to secure that money, needed to do its “diligence.” She added that town officials such as the fire marshal consistently inspected the Outback (to which Williams responded that such inspections are fire safety-specific).

Fagerstal said she wanted to speak on behalf of those who volunteered to make the Outback work.

“I wanted to come here today to defend the volunteers who worked tirelessly and gave thousands and thousands and thousands of hours and dollars to support the Teen Center for the good of the kids,” she said.

“We had inspections, so I am shocked that the pictures are showing the poor condition of the building. It is obviously after my time, but I want it to go on the record that when the Outback was a teen center, we volunteers worked so hard to make it in best shape we could afford. And you just said it was underfunded. It’s not like we were not trying to maintain a very safe environment. And we did have some cooperation from the town, and I don’t understand how this building could be built by A.P. Construction, which did the high school renovation, and then deemed to be insufficient, it just does not compute for me. I clearly understand that the town wants to tear the building down, get additional parking spaces, they don’t want it to be used for a teen center—they don’t want to get into that business. But to then extrapolate it against the volunteers of the Teen Center I find it very saddening, and I just want to express that on behalf of everyone who worked so hard on behalf of the Outback.”

Selectman Beth Jones thanked Fagerstal and Appel for their work at Outback and called them “blameless” for the structural problems recently identified.

Jones said she was unwilling to study the Outback further, given the safety concerns it presents and the fact that New Canaan still has no idea what to do with the building. Part of what would make the restoration and reopening of Outback so expensive (upwards of $500,000 total, officials said) is an insect that is similar to a termite though less aggressive, called a ‘powder beetle’—appears to be working through much of the wood framing inside the building, Oestmann said. In addition, the elevator in the Outback now is not ADA-compliant for a public building, nor is the building’s entrance, meaning officials would need to reconfigure the stairs to bring it up to code.

Jones said: “I am so hesitant to say, ‘Let’s start pouring money into this,’ because it just looks so disastrous, and without a definitive use for it to begin with to put $17,500 into a design and then at least $50,000 into a stabilization and then I am guessing to save it and get it so that it is usable, I’m talking several hundred thousand dollars, if not more. So why even start pouring money into it if we know we are not going to want to spend $1 million to save it?”

Addressing Fagerstal, Jones said: “I would be interested to know, just because I know how much heart and soul went into it, with all these facts before you now about where we are, would you agree that it is not worth putting the money it’s going to take in to save it? Are you there yet?”

Despite the third-party report from Di Salvo, Fagerstal and Appeal appeared to question whether demolition was the correct course.

Responding to Jones’s direct question, Fagerstal said: “I don’t think these are hard dollars.”

“I think the more honest approach is that to say our town is not in the business of having a teen center, and we need parking, and the building is showing some serious problems and as a result we are making a financial decision that we don’t want to do it. But I think that people around town, parents around town and everything, there is not enough information out there showing this dramatic decline in the building. I was in there not long ago and I did not see this serious [problem], like you have put a ‘condemned’ sign on it.”

Appel said that the Outback’s leadership had been aware of “issues with insects” and had the building sprayed though she’s “not sure if it was beetles.”

Though Appel said she did not like that the building was turned over to the town in such poor condition—that’s “not the way we left it in 2015,” she said—she also asked whether “a really true investigative study” had been done to cost out a restoration.

Oestmann responded that the Di Salvo report was just that, a third-party study from a licensed professional in Connecticut.

Oestmann added: “The question was raised with the engineer if in the event of a high-wind storm can it collapse on itself and the answer is ‘Yes it could,’ so there is an immediate danger and we want to move quick on this and get it remedied.”

During the meeting, the selectmen asked Oestmann whether the town had had the right to inspect the building at any time (yes for the fire marshal and probably the building inspector, but not the superintendent of buildings until it became municipal property), whether New Canaan should avoid parking cars near Outback (probably during heavy weather events), whether an effort to restore Outback so it’s not at risk of falling down means it would be inhabitable (no) and how long it would take to get a design to secure the building (not clear).

Mallozzi said that the selectmen might schedule a special meeting to discuss further the prospect of razing the Outback, depending on how quickly Oestmann is able to get information about cost.




2 thoughts on “Outback Board Unknowingly Alerted in 2007-08 To What Became ‘Potentially Disastrous’ Structural Danger at Teen Center

  1. Town council, please don’t spend a dime to “fix” this building. Take it down. I have teens and will never allow them in this building no matter how much you assure us that you’ve made it safe. I imagine other parents will feel the same. Now I’m concerned about the structural integrity of the high school. You need to get an engineer in there because A.P. Construction either doesn’t know what they’re doing or they’re cutting corners for profit. This could be a much bigger problem. Because of this building’s problems, please give us confidence that the high school building is safe.

  2. I would not be concerned with AP Constructions building quality at this or any other project . They are NOT a firm that would ever cut a corner for profit. I can say that with confidence as a construction professional that has worked with AP Construction on the YMCA (twice) the High School Building Commitee and many none public projects–they follow the plans and specs. The High School that was renovated by AP/OG was built to the latest codes and included numerious outside inspections. Let the facts of the Outback come to lite—- before everyone jumps to judgement.

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