Saying she didn’t believe that New Canaan Library’s building and systems are failing, a town resident and preservation architect on Tuesday called for the town to direct a municipal committee to gain access to records and study the reported problems.
A review and assessment by the Historical Review Committee “would provide the town with objective, professional information on the status of the existing facility,” Rose Scott Long-Rothbart told members of the Board of Selectmen at their regular meeting, held in Town Hall.
A member of the appointed five-member Committee herself, Long-Rothbart continued, “This information, in conjunction with a full accounting by the library of what has been spent in the last 10 to 15 years on maintaining its facility, will give the taxpayers a better picture of what they are being asked to support.”
She referred to the library’s request for $10 million in town funding for its $30 million rebuilding project, unveiled last week. Plans call for demolition of the current facility, including an original 1913-built fieldstone-exterior section overlooking Main and Cherry Street, to make way for a town green.
Long-Rothbart said she and others don’t believe the original structure cannot be incorporated into the library’s plans.
“I appreciate being invited by the library to view those plans, although at the eleventh hour,” she said. “Ten or 15 years ago, when the town was implementing a Long Range Plan, I sat at a round table discussion regarding the library. I was told by the then-treasurer of the library that a library could not function while an addition was being constructed. I mentioned that the firm I was working for was competing for numerous library projects around the state which were doing just that, successfully. I was told I did not know what I was talking about and the representative refused to listen further. So, I don’t buy into the statement that there was consideration of including any portion of the existing building into its plans for the future. What is odd is in the library’s presentation last week, three of the five examples of neighboring towns with great new libraries were additions to existing buildings.”
She continued, “Personally, I’m tired of the constant battle for preservation here in New Canaan. This is not my job. It’s written into the Plan of Conservation and Development that it is the job of our elected and appointed officials to support preservation in our community. The town wrote that document. If the town is not going to follow its own written directive, it should let us know and take that section out.”
Her comments came during a public comment period at the top of the selectmen’s meeting.
During the meeting, Library Director Lisa Oldham and Board of Trustees President Bob Butman presented the selectmen with the library’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget. (The library is seeking a 2.49% increase to the current town contribution of about $2.3 million, about $58,000 in additional spending.)
Selectman Nick Williams noted during the meeting that the town has earmarked four $2.5 million payments over the next four years in its Five-Year Capital Plan.
“I am supportive of the architectural plan that you have got,” Williams said.
He asked whether the library wanted to respond to Long-Rothbart’s concerns.
“Because my understanding is a couple of things,” Williams said. “That it may not be as historic as we think, number one. And number two, that building really has a lot of issues. Do you want to talk a little about that? And I think it’s also important that you folks did look at architectural plans that tried to incorporate the original building, and made a good faith effort to do so.”
Oldham said yes and that she’s now putting together a packet of information that includes the 15-year development of the project for those interested in seeing it.
“There were many many iterations,” she said.
“There was one well before I came here that had a plan for putting the library here behind Town Hall, as some of you may recall. There were plans for moving the library to Center School Lot. So there were those, and then there was a decision made to stay in situ. And there are many drawings where the 1913 building was trying to be incorporated. As I said the other night, once we acquired that final piece of property at 48 South, that enabled us to look at new ways of what was possible on the site. Furthermore, I understand that many libraries have incorporated their historic pieces. Defining success, I think, is very different, whether you are talking about operating a service versus you are coming at it from a different point of view. So I don’t think that we can take as fact that things are a success just because some people like it. There are lots of other factors to consider, and for me delivering a service is the number one. That said, of course we are interested in making sure that we have done all of our due diligence.”
Selectman Kit Devereaux said that although she supports the project for a new library, she also agrees with Long-Rothbart “about the old section.”
“I wish that could be maintained somehow, because I think there is too much change going on in New Canaan and we need to keep historic buildings if we can,” Devereaux said.
Moynihan did not address Rothbart’s comments directly—he stepped down from the dais while she addressed the selectmen and crossed the room to speak to the head of finance and town administrator on a different matter—though he did tell Oldham he was “fully supportive” of the library and complimented her on the library’s “operating performance and capital campaign.” During last week’s Board of Finance meeting, library officials said they’d raised $15 million in private funds for the rebuilding project.
Regarding the need for a new library building, Rothbart said that physical buildings and systems fall apart “when you don’t make repairs or replace equipment.”
“I’m saying this with a lack of first-hand knowledge, but I have asked directly and publicly to see these deficiencies which they cannot afford to fix,” she said. “Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t recall the library explaining how, if they cannot maintain the existing building, they are going to maintain the new one.”
She added, “Finally, the library is presenting its new design as an homage to New Canaan’s [Midcentury] moderns. This is puzzling since to create this ‘modern’ they are demolishing an actual modern design, along with the beautifully designed and well-built original building. I’ll mention that all phases of the library were designed by local and regionally accomplished architects. A member of the Board of Finance stated in so many words that this building as presented will be the savior of our town and new people will flock to New Canaan and solve our real estate doldrums. He further stated that all the retirees will stay now because they will have somewhere to go. I find this interesting on a number of levels, but primarily because so many of us soon-to-be-retired group because most stated that they came here because of the town’s character of which the library building is a pivotal part. Perhaps this character is not so important any more in our increasingly disposable world.”