Saying a new New Canaan Library will benefit residents, businesses and the wider community, the Planning & Zoning Commission on Tuesday night voted 6-3 to approve the organization’s rebuilding plan.
The proposed new library also is consistent with many tenets of the major document that guides development in town, P&Z Chair John Goodwin said during the appointed body’s special meeting, held via videoconference.
The approval includes a condition that the library return to P&Z in four months with a proposal for appropriately commemorating the original 1913 building and a 1936 addition—a requirement that is a “risk” with respect to the structures but also an “opportunity” for the library to be creative, Goodwin said.
“It’s a creative team over there,” Goodwin said during the Commission’s 4.5-hour meeting.
“Now is it 120 days from now, we get options we don’t like? I’m worried about that. But I think the library team, it’s a good team. It’s a strong team. They are not trying to pull any fast ones on anyone.”
Goodwin and Commissioners Dick Ward, Claire Tiscornia, Krista Neilson, John Kriz and Arthur Casavant voted in favor of approval. Commissioners Dan Radman, Kent Turner and James Basch voted against. Commissioners Phil Williams and Chris Hering attended the meeting but were not seated for the library application.
Radman after the vote said that all P&Z commissioners including himself and others who favor preservation of the original building “want to see this project succeed.”
“All of us love what we see as far as the new library is concerned,” Radman said. “There is no doubt about that. There is no argument about that. Even the preservationists in town that have been very vocal about trying to keep the older part of the library, none of them ever contest the design integrity, the viability, the great addition to the town that new library will be. That is unrefuted.”
Though some of the commentary regarding the project and preservation of the 1913 building has turned ugly and “vile,” Radman said, “everyone in this town wants a successful and beautiful and new and modern library.”
“It’s just different people have different approaches to that preservation component. And I think that is where—and I’ve said this before—I think that’s where the library board, their team as a whole have a missed opportunity. There has been outspoken opinions on the preservation of this from the get go. And they had the opportunity to come to us with a fully vetted application that included preservation and we wouldn’t be struggling with this right now. But here we are and here we voted and we have to trust that that library will do something at this point that is going to be acceptable to all the people in town. At least the majority of people in town. You’ll never please everyone, right? And I hope it does turn out well.”
Goodwin said the library project achieves many goals of the Plan of Conservation and Development or “POCD”—such as livability, sustainability and resiliency and promoting community involvement and public health—and noted that the town is not required to preserve all old structures. The project also will help support local property values, Goodwin said.
“If I have a store across the street on Main Street, I am ecstatic that there is going to be a new library there,” he said.
P&Z’s decision followed eight hearings on the library’s application to build a new 42,641-square-foot facility closer to Maple Street and with a new entrance facing south—with a Children’s Room twice the size of the current one, a Business Center, flex spaces such as a teaching kitchen and large meeting room, 355-seat auditorium, outdoor terrace, small ‘café,’ ’living room’ on the mezzanine level promoting social interaction and ‘library green’ that encompasses the area where the library’s original 1913 building now stands.
Goodwin in March, as P&Z opened its hearings on the library’s application, called the project “a potential signature change for the town.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, Kriz said he was particularly moved by a video submitted by New Canaan High School students during the public hearing portion of the library application process.
“They were quite adamant that this is something that’s very important to their development,” Kriz said. “And I found that really quite moving and very important, and that is part of what the welfare of the town is, which is really what it boils down to. And I think in our Plan of Conservation and Development, it’s promoting the general welfare of the town of New Canaan, today and in the future. And I think this new library will be a keystone in that development, providing education and social opportunities for every member of the town that I think will be a major plus for us.”
The Commission’s vote is a milestone for a project several years in development that was made public 18 months ago.
Since that time, preservationists have pushed for the original structure to be spared, saying it is historic, adds to the character of New Canaan and is called for in documents that guide development.
P&Z members who voted against approving the library’s application cited parts of the POCD that call for preservation of historic buildings that lend themselves to the character of New Canaan.
Radman and Basch authored a draft approval that would have withheld issuance of a zoning permit until the library returned with a “viable solution” for preserving the original buildings in place or somewhere else on the site.
“Our charge as a Commission is to make sure that the applicants that come before us, whether it be the library or anyone else, have a complete, thorough and acceptable application,” Radman said. “And in cases like this, where there are significant holes in the application as to what is acceptable and what’s not, we as a Commission should hold the applicant accountable to come back to us with a viable solution before we give them full approval. That is how it’s done in every other project.”
A group called “Friends of Our 1913 Library,” led by the New Canaan Preservation Alliance, petitioned municipal officials to save the building, said the green space planned for that part of the block is poorly conceived and unnecessary, and bemoaned that they had been left out of early design decisions.
Yet library officials said that they tried for years to figure out a way to incorporate the 1913 building into a new one and found in the end that the best new facility called for demolition. Advocates for the library’s project have said the proposed “green” overlooking Cherry and Main Streets is an essential part of the overall campus.
Attempts to bring the two sides together to reach a compromise failed.
At first, library officials said they would memorialize the 1913 building and its 1936 addition with professional photos, a limited edition commemorative book and works of art featuring the original structure that would become part of a permanent collection on display in the new facility. Library officials also have said in the past that granite from the 1913 facade would be used in a retaining wall for the green overlooking Cherry and Main Streets.
Then last month, after the public hearing phase of the P&Z process had closed, library officials during a presentation to the Board of Finance said they would be willing to relocate the Main Street-facing portico and facade of the 1913 building to the western property line, shared by a Gulf station.
Members of P&Z have been and remained divided on just what should be required of the library vis-a-vis the original building.
At the Commission’s June 29 meeting, P&Z members conceded that they would not be able to reach consensus and decided to flesh out two options for a vote, with the major differences being what is required of the library with respect to the older buildings.
The new library is expected to take about two years to build, officials have said.
It will cost about $39.2 million, a figure that includes $1.7 million in contingencies, according to members of the organization’s Board of Trustees. The library already has raised $16.9 million toward the project from more than 220 individual donors, is seeking a $10 million contribution from the town and has a four-year plan to fundraise the balance, they have said.
The Town Council in April approved a draft Memorandum of Understanding that spells out the terms of the town’s contribution.
The chair of the library’s building committee said in March that plans for the new building have undergone two significant changes since the project was made public in January 2020—decreasing the footprint of the new building and moving away from a plan to create underground parking. Instead, the library will lease 76 spaces in the Center School Lot from the town.
The Commission cast three separate votes, on the library’s applications for site plan and Special Permit approval (6-3), creation of a new overlay zone in the New Canaan Zoning Regulations (unanimous) and a map change regarding the library property (unanimous).