New Canaan Library on Tuesday unveiled plans for a rebuilt facility that makes dramatically different use of the organization’s gateway block to the downtown and features a glass-and-stone exterior, 300-seat auditorium, rooftop terrace, café, public concourse, fireplace, two large conference rooms and “town green” at the corner of Main and Cherry Streets.
Appearing before the Board of Finance ahead of making a formal request for a $10 million town contribution toward the overall $30 million project, library officials described the planned new building as a state-of-the-art facility that opens possibilities in events, programming and gathering for the library and the wider community.
Library Director Lisa Oldham noted that the real estate and business communities already have voiced support for the project, and that the rebuilt facility is expected to be an asset for New Canaan that draws homebuyers and encourages residents to stay here. She shared projections from a draft economic impact study that the library commissioned the Connecticut Economic Research Council showing “that the library will drive significant new dollars to the local economy, up to $6 million a year in new consumer spending.”
“The town’s critical capital allocation for the library should be viewed as an investment with a clear and quantifiable return in the form of real economic gains that will stimulate our local economy,” Oldham said during the Board’s regular meeting at Town Hall, attended by a standing room-only crowd.
The library itself has already raised about $15 million toward the project and plans call for a spring 2021 groundbreaking followed by 18 to 24 months of construction. The current building would operate while the new one is built.
The new 48,000-square-foot building would replace an aging facility with a failing, costly physical plant that hasn’t had a significant renovation in four decades, Oldham said.
During their presentation to the Board, Oldham and the library’s director of development and marketing, Ellen Crovatto, played a short film that featured 3D renderings of the planned new library’s interior and exterior (see above—it drew loud applause from the room), reviewed the need for a new facility and efforts to solicit input from locals, spotlighted the library’s high community engagement and broke down to-date fundraising successes for the project (including 55-plus gifts of $100,000 or more).
Board members complimented Oldham and Crovatto on their presentation and plans, which Michael Chen called “mind-blowing.”
“I really think this is a game-changer for the town of New Canaan,” Chen said. “Given where real estate is, we are competing for families moving into town. We are competing against other local towns. I think New Canaan Library will make families choose New Canaan over some of the other towns, and also for people that retire. Retiring to golf in Florida may be nice but how about retiring and staying in this community, where you can get a cultural center? Retirement is much more than just playing golf in warm weather. This will make it harder for people to move down south. My last comment is that I love the way you say this is an investment. Because I view it it the same way. I do not view as $10 million expense. I view this as an investment in our town and it is one of the best ways we could spend $10 million in the town of New Canaan.”
Board members asked Oldham and Crovatto whether the economic impact study will be made available to the Board (yes when it’s done), whether the new facility will have an emergency generator or alternative power source (that level of design hasn’t yet been designed), if more than $5 million is raised privately by the library, would the organization require less money from the town (the library is eager to build its endowment as soon as possible), how non-staff-related operating expenses would change in the bigger facility (the new building would be just 11,000 square feet larger than the current one and will be LEED Silver-certified, making it far more efficient), what is a typical ratio of a public-private partnership for these types of projects (there’s a wide range though New Canaan Library is in line with peer libraries such as Westport and Darien), whether the library has a contract that guarantees the $30 million construction price (it’s too soon), when the library needs the town funding (the first tranche at the start next fiscal year), whether the library has already applied for state grants (no and probably won’t due to restrictions), what is the deferred maintenance total on the current building (it’s dire, that figure will be identified), whether construction in 20 months is feasible (yes because no phasing is required) and how long the building will last (100 years, and the interior space is highly flexible to meet evolving library functions).
Board of Finance Vice Chairman Bob Spangler asked whether, though the new library will be a larger facility that gets more usage and presumably more traffic, the organization had planned to have less parking.
Oldham said no, that currently designs call for underground parking “and the parking is more than what we have on grade today.”
“Obviously, we still have engineering to go through, we have traffic studies and we have P&Z to go through,” she said.
Designed by Connecticut-based Centerbrook Architects & Planners, the new building draws from New Canaan’s Mid-century Modern architecture, incorporating new technology and sustainable design. It includes an art gallery, children’s room three times the size of the current one, Maker Lab, STEAM learning center, new business center and Teen Library, as well as quiet work spaces and 10 new meeting rooms for public use.
The library’s request for a contribution from the town is not a surprise. First Selectman Kevin Moynihan talked about it one year ago and has voiced support for the project, calling it “transformational” for the downtown. The town has already supported the project in at least one important way. Three years ago, the town approved a $475,000 appropriation to help the library acquire a key South Avenue property, allowing the organization to use the entire block—with the exception of the Gulf Station at Cherry and South.
It’s unclear whether town officials will take up the request for funding as a capital expenditure during the budget season now underway, as a special appropriation, as part of a multi-year investment earmarked in New Canaan’s Five-Year Capital Plan or in some other way (Crovatto during the presentation referred to a $10 million investment made over three years). Regardless, public input will be solicited at multiple hearings to come, though Tuesday’s presentation to the Board was strictly informational and did not include a public comment section.
In letters to local news outlets and town funding bodies, members of a local preservation group have called for the library to incorporate the original fieldstone building perched above the corner of Main and Cherry into the new facility’s design.
Spangler asked whether the library had given thought to incorporating the “historic facade of original the site.”
Oldham noted that rebuilding plans had been discussed even before she came to the library seven years ago, “and there were plans for much of this time that tried to incorporate that.”
“It is not ‘historic’ as in registered, so be careful with accepting at face value some fo the language the has been put out,” she said. “Of course we tried to do that. It comes at a significant cost to the design and really, we are in the business of delivering library service and we have to produce a facility that will deliver the best quality library service for this town for the next 100 years, and that has been my focus.”