With Long Range Plan, Emotions, Too, Are Building

Faced with the possible renovations of some historic New Canaan buildings, residents make a passionate plea to do the right thing.

The show and tell portion of the Long Range Planning Committee's goal of improving several town buildings in New Canaan was the first order of business at its , held at Town Hall on Monday night. 

The LRPC's to supply the town with information regarding the possible renovation and relocation of 13 buildings, including , the and , , and , began the evening with a series of presentations. 

"This one was a pretty good one," said long-time New Canaan resident Dick Bergman. "It was very thorough. I think we're finally getting closer to what will be a final report." 

After an array of consultants made presentations on everything from how much square footage is needed for each building, resolutions to the parking problems, and relocation options, a few members of the large audience, made passionate arguments against some of the things they heard. 

"I think we're having the tail wag the dog," said Roy Abramowitz, a certified public accountant. "You can have beautiful plans and a scenario of how you want to develop something,  but if the money is not there,  you can't do it. I think they should figure out what the community wants and find out if the town has the dollars."

The consultants presented "conceptual alternatives" which included the relocation of Town Hall to the Park Street or Center School lots, showed the library moving to town center, and the fire department changing its address to the the Locust avenue lot. It looked like real estate symbols moving across a monopoly board and that hit home with a lot of people. 

"We want to keep Town Hall our Town hall," Town Council member Beth Jones said. "It is part of the fabric of the community. I can't imagine losing it. I'm glad our ancestors and those who came before us resisted change. Thanks to them we have this lovely New Canaan village."

The consultants pointed out that, in most cases, renovation of a building can cost more than constructing one from the ground up. It was apparent from the meeting that many in town are not ready to say 'out with the old and in with the new.'

"There is a lot of character here that you just cannot duplicate," Bergman said."We have to be careful not to lose it." 

Dan Radman, an architect from New Canaan, garnered cheers and laughs from the audience when he spoke,  especially when he questioned what he considered to be a luxury for the Board of Education.

"The Board of Ed needs a new cafeteria? Really?" Radman asked with a tinge of sarcasm.  Radman also wondered why, in this day and age of downsizing, the consultants were suggesting increased square footage for buildings across the board. 

"Everyone is mobile and they use less of their desk," said Radman. "They don't need an office that is 10' by 15'. They  don't need a cubicle that is 10' by 10'. They need to be smarter about how they work." 

Christine Wagner, Chair of the LRPC,  reiterated several times that this public forum was not for proposals, but rather ideas. No decisions would be made until the people were heard from and the consultants have a chance to re-assess their plans. 

"We're not going to do this intuitively or anecdotally," Wagner said. "We hired professionals to do a professional job. One of the things they have yet to do is look at operational efficiencies and look at how we're using the buildings. And that's what they're going to do between now and the fall."

(Editor's Note: This article has been changed from the original version. Town Council member Beth Jones was incorrectly identified as Ruth Jones. Patch regrets the error.)

Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 03:20 PM
For the record, while the use of the word "cafeteria" was a poor word choice, the presenter was saying that the BOE employees don't have a place to eat lunch -- they have a microwave in a hallway. The presenter didn't say they should build a cafeteria: he said they have no cafeteria, when he really meant they had no lunchroom. I think that the people who work in that building deserve some measure of respect and need a place to sit down and eat in the building in which they work if they so desire, and to have a place to store and heat food they bring from home.
C. Hutchins June 28, 2011 at 03:49 PM
The printed document they handed out says "cafeteria," so it is not just the presenter's momentary lapse in judgment. Fact is, the school administrators do NOT need 9,400 square feet of space. That number, as they said last night, comes from the padded wish list from 2001, complete with multiple offices, conference rooms, a room for mail and a separate room for copying.
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 04:08 PM
I didn't get a copy of the document, so I guess that is my error. I still think a lunchroom is acceptable! I don't see why conference rooms and these other features shouldn't be there. I'm sorry, but I think that the employees need to be treated with some respect. Don't you think they have meetings, make copies, send mail?? I stand by my comments about comparing my home renovation to this project: My point was that exploring alternatives is appropriate to consider the best use of our resources. And, the point about my underwear was that it took a kitchen designer to point out a new and better way of using the space I had. Everyone seems to have a consensus that maintaining the character and charm of our town is important. I agree with this, but then when people talk about this AND wanting to keep costs down, then we should make our decision based on facts. And the facts are likely to be that renovating will be MORE expensive than building new.
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 04:08 PM
So, I'd like to hear more: what if we moved town hall, built it new, but found a way to keep the old town hall's character for another purpose? I said last night, as others did, that we still need to hear what would be done with the buildings if we built new. No one wants to see these wonderful pieces of history destroyed, but I'm up for hearing alternative uses for them if it means more efficiency and perhaps even a better flow to our town! And, yes, I'm red in the face realizing that I literally hung my dirty laundry out in front of the whole town, but I'm always one to speak my mind!
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 04:15 PM
And, if we're talking about creating a more efficient government, then don't you think that having a place employees can eat their lunch will accomplish this? They won't have to go out for lunch, they'll feel better about their working environment, happier about controlling what they eat and saving money by bringing food from home, more collegial with their fellow workers: more inclined to be productive and hard working I'd say!
Ilovenewcanaan June 28, 2011 at 04:37 PM
Yet again, Dan Radman hit the nail on the head last night in his compelling comments. The Town Hall employees at Irwin Park are only in a temporary arrangement. Surely, the professionals preparing this plan looked at the deed restrictions for each property. Or did they just decide to relocate the Board of Ed employees because Jeb Walker and Tiger Mann said it was ok? It would seem that after basic research that idea would have not been proposed, yet it was alive and well last night. Or is it just an "idea or concept", so deed restrictions don't matter, we can just pretend that we can house employees there?
C. Hutchins June 28, 2011 at 04:44 PM
Please don't get me wrong. As a graduate of the NC public schools, and with a new NCHS graduate and one about to start there, you will not find me nit-picking the needs of teachers or administrators. The 9,400-square-foot number, however, is at least ten years old and doesn't take into account how office space and storage methods have evolved since then. And even at the time, the office size was padded beyond need. Of course they need a decent place to work and have lunch, and I understand the need for a few private, closed-door offices for personnel or parent conferences. But I've never worked in an office for 25 or so people that had the luxury of multiple large conference rooms and separate rooms for mail and separate rooms for copying. In 2001, some said they needed a special, dedicated room to hold BOE meetings, to which I'd say, our town does not need multiple buildings with multiple meeting rooms; there are plenty of available rooms already in our public buildings. Perhaps when LRPC gets to the actual usage of current space, this kind of info will enter the discussion.
Roy A. Abramowitz June 28, 2011 at 06:27 PM
Stating that a renovation is more expensive, and more cost-efficient in the long run, than starting from scratch, re-designing, surveying, excavating, new foundation, complete new building, new utility lines, etc, etc and is is s just not plausible and supportable. Consider the square footage being considered at $375 to $400 a square foot. I have never seen or heard of a building project without cost over-runs. We are all forgetting the huge cost over-run debacle at the high school and asbestos clean up. A close to $4,000,000 Lakeview Bridge. The cost over-runs at Irwin!. You cannot consider any project without first knowing your budget. It is a waste of resources. You cannot consider building what you cannot pay for. Whether it be a"kitchen" (as was ridiculously compared to a town re-structuring last night as a comparable) or a major building program.
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 07:18 PM
New or renovated -- both can have overruns. With a new building, you know what you're getting. Once you start opening up old walls.... who knows what you might find? I stand by my kitchen analogy. Of course I know that a home renovation is different than a municipal building project! But, the point is the same: before we make small decisions, let's see the big picture. Let's understand what our program and space requirements really are, how our buildings can and should be adapted to new technologies, etc. These are old buildings designed for old technologies and ways of living. We can patch things up, or we can develop a comprehensive plan that informs our spending decisions today and into the future. Even if the final decision is just to patch, at least we've gotten to know what the alternatives are, and, as a community, identified how we want to build our future.
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 07:22 PM
Frankly, I hope we'll see even more creative and out of the box thinking from our consultants! Maybe our town hall should be used as something completely different. I have no idea what -- but it could be a wonderful community space if it were done right. Keep the architectural integrity and invite more people in to use it on a regular basis. Maybe town hall functions themselves should be in more of a non-descript building..... OR -- how about considering the OTHER side of the New Canaan architectural heritage: modern buildings? What about retrofitting town hall for some as yet to be designated community use and put a new MODERN Town hall on the Center Street lot?? What a cool way to welcome people to our town!!
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 07:23 PM
I'm sure some clever architect could design a building which would be a visual nod to the Glass House, but yet be in keeping with the character of a New England village.....
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 07:27 PM
Maybe the library should go where Town Hall is! Put Town Hall where the Library is, close off that street that goes between Main and South, and extend it to Center School lot. This would give room to create a town green, and put Town Hall in a much more prominent spot. Keep the stone facade of the old library and reorient the building, so you could have the green facing Cherry Street.
Elmcrest June 28, 2011 at 07:34 PM
LRPC, let's not be so quick to dismiss "old buildings," especially landmark building that help define our town. Beyond "patching things up," renovation, restoration, re-use is a valid way to go. Should we tear down the churches on God's Acre because they're 200 years old? Should we tear down many of our downtown commercial buildings because they date back to the early 1900s? How come churches, colleges, commercial buildings, etc. can come up with all kinds of creative and adaptive updating for their old buildings, but our local government's first instinct generally seems to be "tear it down?" I just won't go along with the idea that it's necessary to destroy the town to save it.
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 07:37 PM
The problem is: the LRPC has not said it will tear these buildings down. We haven't heard anything yet about what the recommendations would be for these buildings if proposals were made to move them. I don't see why alternative locations AND historic preservation can't both be accomplished. I don't know if a alternative locations are better or not: but I do know, that the more we think and brainstorm, the better informed we all we be as to how to develop long-term plans and investment decisions.
Roy A. Abramowitz June 28, 2011 at 07:40 PM
And who will fund your dreams. The taxpayers of New Canaan . Totally impractical. It is evident that you never started a business from scratch or expanded or managed a business. The primary consideration is a "BUDGET" If you expand without a budget and financial plan Bankruptcy is a sure result. This is not a monopoly chess board here you just move houses and hotels from Boardwalk to Park Place. THE LRPC could have completed their ideas long ag with a cost analysis. Instead round and round we go with the infrastructure continuing to crumble. Not practical
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 07:47 PM
What I hope this process will end up showing us is this: With X dollars, we get Y outcome; with Z dollars, we get W outcome. It's not just a matter of square footage to me, it's a matter of what we end up with. Aesthetically, but also in terms of community use and opportunities. Maybe there are some opportunities that we don't know about, that would be worth investing in -- whether it's today or ten years down the road. That's not a decision that either one of us makes -- but one we decide as a community by having OPEN dialogue and a civil exchange of ideas.
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 07:59 PM
Elmcrest, your post about "why move the buildings around like checkers" isn't showing up here (it came through on my email), but here's the point I want to make. Everyone last night said how technology has changed the way we do business; well I contend that this should let us take a moment to consider how we want to use our buildings. How often do people really go into town hall? Some go in alot, but some rarely if ever. Why can't we think about putting administrative functions in a different building, and envision a new use for this wonderful historic structure that would really include the community more than it currently does? I'm saying perhaps we keep town hall as a historic COMMUNITY building, but rethink WHAT forms of community take place there?? I'm not saying that my ideas are the way to go -- but why not put alot of ideas on a chalkboard before we open up any walls or put our money down.
GNK June 28, 2011 at 08:09 PM
"There is no "Center Street" in New Canaan, nor -- as the consultants kept saying last night -- is there a "Central School." " Did they really refer to Center School as "Central School"??? That's awful and shows they know (nor care) anything about New Canaan's past, so now we are to entrust them with our town's future? And Ms. Himmel, "that street" between Main and South is called Maple Street, and if you're gonna close it off to traffic, then someone better fix the horrific light at South & Cherry before traffic gets backed up to Farm Rd.
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 08:20 PM
the idea of closing down Maple STreet was first suggested by someone else a while ago. I"m not a traffic consultant. Roy, no I have never started or run a business, but I do know that companies need both number crunchers and visionaries. Someone needs to generate ideas, and someone needs to tell them how much it will cost....
heavens sake June 28, 2011 at 09:12 PM
An old saying " demographics is destiny " should be applied to the entire exercise as well as " live within your means ". Greece, the US , many States, including CT and municipalities are or will be experiencing stress. NC is not immune from these trends with the commercial real estate vacancy problem a clear symptom. Of coarse it is not the responsibility of the LRPC consultants to consider these factors ,but is the responsibility of our elected officials. This is the reason emotions are running high and many knowledgeable citizens , like Roy, are expressing concern . Recent history is also not very encouraging regarding building of a small bridge , establishing sidewalk priorities , cost management or offering transparency . Perhaps a it would be prudent to first bring actual need and future financial capability into closer balance with some sense of responsibility. Too often elected officials and committees responsible for advocating many of these programs are temporal.
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 09:22 PM
I understand that, and I think that having the LRPC is intended to ensure that if we spend our money, we spend it wisely and if we make capital improvements, that they support not just our needs today, but those for the future. I remember now what I forgot to say about my kitchen renovation story which everyone is laughing at.... this experience had a profound influence on how I view the LRPC. My architect was a penny-pincher; sounds good on the face of it, right? But, when my builder started the project, he pointed out a number of options to consider that my architect had never presented that were easily implemented while we had the walls open. These suggestions added immeasurably to the aesthetics and to the usage of our space, and each of them were incremental in cost. Some of these options also made it MUCH less expensive in future years to make some additional improvements. The architect also saved money for us in ways that have come back to bite us -- with shoddy materials or insufficient detail on the drawings. That's why I'm so interested in spending a little more upfront to be sure we're making wise decisions with the BIG dollars to come.
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 09:30 PM
i also recognize that some of my ideas can be too far out in left field.... but I think that good solutions come from starting out with broad-minded thinking; creative thinking can open up new avenues for productive outcomes....
Jane Himmel June 28, 2011 at 10:58 PM
The "big" dollars was referring to the cost of renovations and capital improvements which need to be done regardless. I"m not wedded to anything. I'm just appreciative of the fact that we are having a dialogue about how public space is used and how capital spending is planned and prioritized. To me, that's what this is all about. It's not just about "what we can afford." It's also about how to evaluate and plan for the long-term. The town is mandated to have conservation and development plan anyway, and I believe our town planner when he says that alot of the work being done now will be applied to the POCD. Whether or not the population itself increases, communities evolve and grow, and some self-reflection is a healthy thing.
heavens sake June 29, 2011 at 12:52 PM
Latest news this morning is Moodys down grades Connecticut bonds to negative outlook because there is no prospect to repay over $14 Billion in obligations with projected State revenues. This while CT union problems persist with 7500 layoffs threatening {no doubt very few live in NC} . Timely example of what could be future financial New Canaan problem . In any case, there is certainly less chance for Town recieving grants and subsidies for building projects, as it did for bridge and sidewalk to a swimming pond . These factors must be considered before embarking on wild spending programs and hiring consultants for programs going nowhere under stressful economic times. Just because New Canaan has a famous glass house, doesn't mean our elected officials have to think that way.
Roy A. Abramowitz June 29, 2011 at 05:44 PM
Jane: In all do respect the visionaries need to work with the numbers people. Without that the process is bound to fail. What LRPC has done since inception is just that and their Universe is too large and not doable. That is a waste of Resources. To have the Town Planner Steve Kleppin spend his time on issues that will never be done because of budgetary restrictions is a waste of his time and town resources. For instance if the community does not want to replace the Library or Town Hall with a new building or new location from the get go why waste resources on a circular merry-g0-round. For years we have detoriating town facilities and all that is done is speak, meetings, consultants, reports, meetings, more consultants, more meetings and nothing is done and the infrastructure continues to erode and becomes increasingly unsafe. That is totally unacceptable. Stop the circular process and lets get something done. We could have concluded this cooperative what to do \cost analysis in a few months and been on with it already. The process is too drawn out and the universe is too large. No matter what your visions in our current economic climate what LRPC is addressing cannot be done. Look at today's WSJ "Wall Street Firms are laying off employees, looking to reduce costs as a trading slump batters profit and that will be a further hit to our community. By the way I must be a visionary I live in a Modern home and started my own firm 24 years ago.
Roy A. Abramowitz June 29, 2011 at 06:15 PM
As far as the bean counter response here goes: New Canaan currently has approximately 6800 households. AN ASSUMPTION: $100 million replacement of town hall, relocate Library (contribution of town land and Library keeps proceeds on sale of its current location inclusive of land) and other new facilities. Fund with a 30 year bond at 5% interest(assumed rate in the future based on rates up today as appetite for treasuries falls off since QE-2 ends, support dollar as world debt competes for investments).Tiered parking 450 spots at $25,000\spot (median between LRPC universe of $11,000 to $58,000 per spot) funded with 30 year bond at 5%. Year one cost: ------------------------ Amortize principal $100M \ 30 years $3,333,333 Interest @ 5% (simple) 5,000,000 ------------------ Total cost..........................................$8,333,333 ======== Cost per household year 1 (assume 6800 households).... $ 1,225 Add: ------ Tiered Parking (450 spots @ $25,000 per spot, cost $11,250,000) Amortization (year 1 $375,000\6,800) 55 Interest(year 1 $562,500\6,800) 83 Year 1 Total cost per household $ 1,363 Of course larger property owners will bear more of the burden. Smaller properties less.
SLJ June 29, 2011 at 06:53 PM
And CT just increased income tax rates, retroactive to Jan 1. New Canaan should start preparing for less state funding in all areas, residents with lower disposable incomes, and a continuation of a depressed real estate market. Stop the insanity!
heavens sake June 29, 2011 at 08:44 PM
State tax rates are up but also interesting monthly withholding tax receipts on national and state level are down. Our elected and appointed officials are living in a go-go dream world when there are clear signs it is time to be fiscally frugal. In addition interest rates will rise as bond credit ratings decline as happened today with Moodys downgrading CT bonds due to projected difficulty in repaying $14 Billion in obligations. Our Town officials need to be realistic before embarking on ambitious spending


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