The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday called for a cost breakdown of the estimated $1.5 million that New Canaan Library officials have said they need now in order to move and secure the original 1913 library within their downtown campus next spring.
In a similar presentation to one they’d made to the Board of Finance last month, library officials told the selectmen that fundraising and construction for a new approximately $40 million facility are going very well. It’s on track to open to the public Feb. 1, 2023, according to library Board of Trustees member Ian Hobbs and Executive Director Lisa Oldham.
Yet a separate preservation project approved by the Planning & Zoning Commission in December, to relocate the 1,200-square-foot, “legacy” building about 80 feet to the western property line—making space for a planned green—will cost about $2.5 million all-in, Hobbs and Oldham said.
Library officials say they need $1.5 million of that total now in order to move and seal the building next April, and that they’ll be able to raise $1 million after they’ve finished fundraising for the main project.
“One of the reasons that we have done pretty well so far on the schedule and budgeting is everything was planned out ahead of time,” Hobbs told the selectmen during their regular meeting, held at Town Hall and via videoconference.
“And so this is the time where we really need to understand what we’re doing. And it looks like it’s a simple ‘You cut a building and just move it,’ but there’s grading, there’s utilities, there’s structural issues that are not tied into—this is going to be an old building that we’re going to leave standing that’s not even partially there. So all of that needs to be worked out right now, and if we don’t do it then we’d be winging it on the fly down the road, and that’s going to add delays and added costs. And, at least what I am seeing in construction this week, the sooner you can put work in place the better just with costs escalating. There was a substantial cost to waiting through the P&Z process initially, so we’ve already learned this lesson. The goal is to go right from one project to the next.”
Oldham added that “if we do not do as Ian says, then when we get to next February, all of the work planned, as Ian said that we planned a year ago, we’ve still got substantial work to be done on the site.”
“All of those people are locked in and budgeted in the GMP [guaranteed maximum price]. If we don’t do all of this and there’s a delay, not only does the cost of the legacy project increase, as Ian just said, but all the rest of the project will have to be rebid at a later date, as well. And clearly that’s going to lead to potential for more increased costs in that unknown environment, a year or more away.”
Unveiled in January 2020 with a formal application that followed in March 2021, the library’s rebuilding project received P&Z approval last July, following eight hearings. As part of that approval, P&Z set several conditions, including these two:
- Within a hundred and twenty days (120) after the effective date of approval the New Canaan Library shall work with the Town Planner and if desired by the Commission or Town Planner, an external adviser, hired by the Town and paid for by the Library to present options to preserve appropriate portions of the existing library building older than 1937. Appropriate items recommended, by the Commission, for preservation could include, the façade, pillars and roof line of the pre-1937 buildings.
- The final preservation option plan shall be reviewed by the Town Planner and shall be brought back to the Commission, for approval prior to the implementation of the plan.
In December, P&Z by a 7-2 vote approved an option for preservation that includes moving the legacy building 80 feet away from the new one, with a grove of trees separating them, placing it on a new foundation so that the front stairs could be preserved and closing off its walls. (The other option was to preserve just the facade and portico from the legacy building.)
Yet it isn’t clear, now, whether the library reads the P&Z approval on preservation as binding. One library board member, New Canaan’s David Rucci, a local land use attorney, told the selectmen that P&Z’s July approval of the project anticipated demolition of the library building, since it wasn’t on any site plan that the applicant had developed. The condition about returning to P&Z several months later only required the library to present options for preservation, which it did, but it’s unclear whether the original approval legally binds the library to carry out such a recommendation for preservation.
When First Selectman Kevin Moynihan during Tuesday’s meeting said that the library agreed to conditions “that you now can’t perform,” Rucci said, “That’s not necessarily true. I mean, we can still perform that. We just need the money to start moving forward.”
When Moynihan said that a shortfall in funding for the preservation project “was sort of foreseeable in December,” Rucci said, “You can’t expect us to be raising $1.5 million on a project we weren’t even preparing to do.”
Rucci signaled that there’s precedent for P&Z to grant modifications for Special Permits to New Canaan institutions when those applicants find them unmanageable.
“I would also say that from a P&Z perspective, if we can’t do this project for one reason or another, if we can’t get there, we would go back to P&Z and try to modify our Special Permit just like Grace Farms has done in the past, just like St. Luke’s has done in the past, when conditions have been put on them that they are unable or unwilling at some point in the future to actually comply with,” he said.
Rucci continued: “And I also think that this project—I mean, I don’t think, I know—this project was approved without the legacy building initially. We were asked to come back and give them something more meaningful. But it was approved without the legacy building being moved. It was approved with the understanding that it was probably going to be demolished, by P&Z. And they said,’But we want you to come back and give us something more meaningful about this particular building.’ And that’s what we did. We came back. We could have come back with anything, initially we had actually put up some sort of—we were looking at a ‘folly,’ just the front of it to be put somewhere on the property or inside maybe inside the building or wherever it happened to be. We could have come back with—although I don’t think they would have liked it—but we could have come back with taking all the stones and making a walkway, or put some sort of naming on some part of the original bundling but the legacy building we proposed today, they had no idea that we were going to do something like that, P&Z. So, the project was approved.”
Selectman Kathleen Corbet noted that the P&Z approval came with conditions. But Rucci noted that the conditions were “that we come back and show them something more.”
“But, for sure the understanding was that the demolition of the building was going to happen,” he said. “I mean, with that first approval. That was absolute. All they said is, ‘We want to see something more with this building.’ They knew it wasn’t going to be left in place because they didn’t even approve it left in place. They couldn’t. We presented a plan with it not on the plan. So that approval came with them understanding that this building was going to be demolished in one way, shape or form.”
When Corbet pressed again that P&Z imposed conditions, Rucci reiterated, “With the condition that we come back and show them something more meaningful, as to how we were going to preserve parts of the building.”
“Parts of the building,” he said. “Not the whole building.”
In New Canaan, if a property owner files an application to demolish a structure and someone objects in writing to the demolition, the matter may be referred to a standing committee that, in turn, can impose a demolition delay of up to six months.
Moynihan said during the meeting that the selectmen could return to the matter of the library in the next two weeks.
Corbet by way of asking for more details from the library said she was seeking a formal proposal, “just as anybody would in terms of requesting for funds from the community.”
“So right now we are just looking at this for first time,” Corbet said. “So I would like to see—as anybody would, I would think—what the specific request is. Proposals, timeline, et cetera. Costs. Just as any project would—Vine Cottage, we have bids, we understand what the actual costs are going to be. And as of right now, I have not seen those.”
Selectman Nick Williams said the library appeared to have such details already. Referring to the library’s presentation, he said, “What you put on the screen, we need that in detail plus the dollar amounts associated.”
Oldham asked when the Board wanted a summary cost sheet and Corbet responded, “When you are ready.”
Oldham said, “We’ll I’ve got it in my bag, but it’s paper, so I’ll put it together.”
Board of Finance Chair Todd Lavieri said during the appointed body’s regular meeting last month that a request for funding would need to come to the BOF from the selectmen “and it probably needs to happen by our May meeting.”
The BOF’s regular meeting is scheduled for May 10. The next regular meeting of the selectmen is scheduled for May 17.
The library’s presentation was followed by a presentation from the New Canaan Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit organization that is seeking to keep the 1913 building in place. The NCPA sued the town over its approval for the project last summer. Preservationists then tried (and failed) to force a referendum vote on the town’s $10 million contribution toward the library, and the NCPA sued again in January after the Commission approved the recommended preservation plan.