It’s been imagined as a future home for the Board of Education and a conference center, among other uses, Kenin told fellow Town Council members at their regular meeting Wednesday night.
There’s been “no shortage of good ideas,” she said, yet right now Waveny House is in a “holding pattern.”
“And unfortunately, it is low-revenue-generating, and so for that reason I am not motivated to throw any money at it right now,” Kenin said as the legislative body discussed a capital funding request from the Department of Public Works for $1 million to install an elevator at Waveny House and accessible routes and bathrooms on the second floor in order to make it ADA-compliant at long last.
“I don’t think it’s ‘Do this or shut it down,’ ” Kenin continued at the meeting, held in Town Hall. “I am more in favor of let’s take people off of the second floor, save $1 million, because that will kind of push us to actually make some decisions and this is long overdue for the ADA. But there could be a temporary solution, because it just doesn’t feel like we know what this building is going to be. And I hear, ‘Throw $1 million at it for three to five years to figure it out.’ That keeps us in a low-revenue-generating pattern that I would like to see us get out of.”
The question of whether to approve $1 million in capital for next fiscal year for the work at Waveny House dominated a discussion of the Department of Public Works’ request for funds for town buildings (see page 61 here). Other items include $500,000 for a renovation of the New Canaan Police Department, $107,000 for the Powerhouse Theater, $87,000 for Lapham Community Center and $75 for the Carriage Barn.
Public Works Director Tiger Mann noted that his mandate from the town has been to make every public building in New Canaan ADA-compliant. Now that Town Hall has been renovated, Waveny House is a high-priority item, and though the building is home to the Recreation Department on its second floor and is rented out for special events such as weddings, “We have no way for anyone who is disabled to actually use the facility so we are woefully behind the times in that regard.”
First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, in attendance at the meeting, urged the Council to approve the $1 million line item, saying that the funding body could make a firm decision on the expenditure when it came time to vote on a bond issuance for it.
The total work needed at Waveny House, down to plumbing and electrical systems—estimated to cost upwards of $16 million— is to be done in phases, Moynihan said, and to forego making Waveny House ADA-compliant opens New Canaan to legal liability.
“There are several projects that have to be done over at Waveny over several years,” he said. “This is one bite. Probably the most legally sensitive bite that we need to take, because we have been operating that building for years, not with ADA compliance … The alternative is to tear the building down.”
Several members of the Town Council took exception to that last assertion, and ultimately the legislative body decided to put off a decision on the $1 million request for Waveny House until more information is in-hand.
That information—to be gathered, in part, by the Council’s Infrastructure and Utilities/Public Works Committee—will include public input as well as a rendering of the proposed “birdcage”-style, ca. 1900 elevator and alternatives to reaching ADA compliance such as relocating the Recreation Department or creating accessible bathrooms on the first floor.
“I think the point is that the public has not really had a chance for a public hearing, has not seen the elevator,” Town Council Chairman John Engel said.
“Anybody who has paid any attention to how much time we spent over at the Waveny gardens, and that was paid for, and this is a particularly sensitive line and everything else on your [DPW] budget is not controversial but this line—$1 million on Waveny House to make a change to Waveny House—you have to respect the fact that people want to talk about this. I don’t know that we have enough time to talk about it tonight. So we have the option of approving your budget the way it stands with your notion that you said we have a ‘crack at it’ later on to talk about the project. There are several people here who still walk to talk about it further, will get a chance to do so and basically talk about that project. So we can approve it and get a crack at it, we could make a motion to strike that line and approve the budget minus $1 million and try to approve that as a special appropriation after the budget that is a second option.”
Engel estimated that at least half of the 12-member Council had reservations about green-lighting the expenditure as a capital budget item.
One of those in favor was Vice Chairman Sven Englund, who called it “a good project.”
“Being so far behind in taking care of our ADA compliance for one of our premier buildings in town it certainly puts us in some legal jeopardy,” he said.
Yet others, including Cristina A. Ross, pushed for a clear picture of alternatives. For example, Ross said, installing a restroom on the first floor and removing public agencies from the second floor “would save us $1 million there.”
Mann responded: “You could do that, you could take Recreation out. You could certainly do that, but that is not our goal. That is not my decision. My mandate was to make every building ADA accessible and the only way to do that in the current configuration is to put an elevator in the middle and then put ADA bathrooms on the second floor. That is the least intrusive method.”
Rich Townsend, the Counci’s other vice chairman, noted that New Canaan has been out of ADA compliance at Waveny House for years.
“So what happens if we just run it this way for anther year or two?” he asked.
Mann responded that “nothing happens until the Justice Department comes in and then they do an entire analysis of the entire town and then they give us six months to fix everything.”
“So we will spend the money regardless,” Mann said, though continually deferring the work is “much more problematic and a little bit dangerous.”
To Moynihan’s assertion that New Canaan is “committed to gradually improving that building,” Councilman Steve Karl drew a comparison to home improvement projects.
“We all have homes and we have done work on our homes and the question is, if you were going to do something inside your home, would you start with the very inside of the house and just rip apart a little silo that goes inside, knowing that you have got to go through the whole rest of the house to do the work?” Karl said. “And I think that is what we are struggling with.”
The Town Council is scheduled to meet next Tuesday and Thursday nights, and to cast a final vote on the proposed budget for next year on April 5.