Weeks after voicing concerns about it, the Town Council during its regular meeting Wednesday night voted 8-4 to remove a clause from the municipality’s draft agreement with New Canaan Library regarding the organization’s rebuilding project that would have allowed for a decision on whether to demolish the original 1913 library building to be put off for at least two years during construction.
Saying the fate of the 1913 building has not been and will not be decided by the inclusion or removal the clause, Councilman Steve Karl noted that the legislative body has “covered this at length during all of our meetings.”
“We’ve had legal counsel from both sides weigh in on this document,” Karl said during the meeting, held via videoconference.
“It’s a document that we were given by both sides. We’ve talked about it long enough. And as we’ve said in our last meeting, we were elected to lead and we need to move this. That’s the way I feel about it. I will say again: This is not the end of the 1913 building. It is not. And I want to make that perfectly clear. So, there are many ways that we can figure this out. And I will be part of the solution and work as much as I have already on trying to figure this out. But this language is way too open-ended, as we’ve discussed. And it hampers the library in so many different ways that we just can’t do that. Especially at this time in the project.”
Councilmen voting in favor of removing the clause from the draft Memorandum of Understanding were Chair John Engel, Vice Chair and Secretary Rich Townsend, Karl, Mark Grzymski, Robin Bates-Mason, Tom Butterworth, Liz Donovan and Mike Mauro. Those opposed were Penny Young, Vice Chair Sven Englund, Maria Naughton and Cristina A. Ross.
The clause that’s been removed from the MOU reads: “The Library and the Town acknowledge that the Library’s plans for the new Library building provide for demolition of the original Library building (the “1913 Building”) and that a group of concerned citizens has expressed interest in preserving the 1913 Building. Subject to prior action by the Commission or the Town Council resolving the future of the 1913 Building, until completion of the new Library building, the Library will not take action that will preclude preservation of the 1913 Building. If, by the time of completion of the new Library building, a viable and funded plan for preservation of the 1913 Building has been presented to the Commission for approval, then the Library will incorporate the preservation of the 1913 Building into the Building Project.”
The Town Council further modified the draft MOU during the meeting and unanimously approved it (the library’s sign-off is still to come).
The library’s applications related to the rebuilding project are now before the Planning & Zoning Commission.
The Town Council more than one year ago voted down a motion that would have effectively halted the library’s project for one year so that preservationists could figure out a use for the 1913 building and fundraise for its restoration and maintenance.
Unveiled publicly in January 2020, the “new” library is to feature a glass-and-stone exterior, 300-seat auditorium, rooftop terrace, café, public concourse, fireplace, two large conference rooms and a green at the corner of Main and Cherry Streets, including where the original 1913 building now stands.
The building is expected to cost $36 million to $38 million, including contingencies. It will take about two years to build. The library has raised more than $16 million toward the project and has asked the town for a $10 million contribution (the MOU is tied to those funds). A local group, Friends of Our 1913 Library, is trying to ensure the structure’s preservation on-site.
P&Z hearings opened last month with the library’s presentation.
During an April 15 special meeting of P&Z, the 1913 group in a presentation led by Pat Sullivan, a land use attorney with Cohen and Wolf, made a case that preservation of the structure (and a 1930’s addition to the north) is aligned with the Zoning Regulations as well as documents that guide development in New Canaan and the downtown in particular. The preservationists presented on the history of the 1913 building and its architectural significance, challenged the idea that it’s in poor condition, criticized a parking plan, argued against changing the Zoning Regulations to accommodate the library project, said it will cost about $828,000 to restore it and asked P&Z to condition any approval of a new library on preserving the original.
“The two buildings are not incompatible,” Sullivan said.
New Canaan-based preservation architect Carl Rothbart said, “There is no justification for the destruction or moving of this beloved historic structure. To approve such an action would be the tipping point beyond which respect and appreciation of our town’s history and architectural heritage will never recover.”
Also as part of the 1913 group, local landscape architect Keith Simpson of Simpson Associates made a separate presentation that was highly critical of the proposed library green, saying the corner of Main and Cherry Streets doesn’t lend itself to the purpose of a green and that the site itself is impractical for setting up for large gatherings and will have drainage problems and limited use as a result. Simpson presented his own plan for a portico and two terraces to be located on the west of the 1913 building, with a green space there, saying it would be a usable and attractive area that better accomplishes what library officials envision for their own larger green.
The library’s attorney, Brian Smith of Robinson+Cole, said in a letter last week to P&Z that the preservationists have “downplayed/misstated” the impact of keeping the 1913 building and, with respect to Simpson’s plan, vowed to “address the remaining issues and inaccuracies as part of our rebuttal at the public hearing session” on April 27.
During the Town Council meeting Wednedsay, Ross told Karl that striking clause 1.08 from the MOU “sets a flag out that we don’t care about the 1913 building.”
“You haven’t presented a proposal on how to save the 1913 building and you’re conflicted if you are saying one thing and then another,” Ross said.
Mauro said changing the language of the MOU will not alter the preservationists’ path if a decision is made to raze the 1913 building.
“Whether that’s next year, five years, 10 years, I’m pretty sure there’s going to be litigation,” he said. “There will be injunctions filed, so I don’t think tinkering with the language now will make one bit of difference whether there will be litigation. I think the proponents who have been very very skillful and impassioned in presenting their case, they are extremely articulate, extremely smart and they’re well-resourced and they’re tough. And there’s no doubt in my mind that they would pursue a litigation option if that’s the ultimate decision.”
Townsend said the question of the 1913 building has been an issue in the public sphere since early 2020 “and it should not slow the library down.”
“This 1.08 will slow the library down and the whole town wants the library,” Townsend said. “And slowing it down is not going to solve the 1913 building, because it’s just going to remain an issue. Not having this statement in there is not going to save the 1913 building and it’s not going to cost it, either. I’m with Steve [Karl] on that. We can still solve this without that sentence being in there. But this sentence is a huge impediment to the library as a whole, which is not a gift to the town as a whole. And that’s why I would vote against it, and I don’t believe it belongs in there.”
Englund, who voted against Karl’s motion to remove the clause from the MOU, said that though it “may not be exactly what I would like to hear,” still the Town Council members “have to move forward on this.”
“We’ve got to pledge the money, basically tonight from our point of view, and give the surety out there that we are going to put the $10 million money in the kitty,” Englund said. “Because there’s just so many good reasons to do this. We need a place to put the books and the hard materials. We’ve got to have more community meeting rooms and such like. And if there’s nothing else that we’ve learned from COVID, we know that we need to provide subsidized or free after-school daycare. So that is what this is going to do. Let’s do it.”