On Wednesday night Greenwich’s Town Hall meeting room was packed with residents who are passionate about the future of the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center.
Among them were three of the candidates for Greenwich First Selectman (Camillo, Mason and Oberlander), BET members and OGRCC board members.
And there were soccer moms, baseball dads, garden club members, visual arts fans, theater arts proponents, turf advocates, anti-turfers, dog park dreamers, and many urging the committee to anticipate the legacy of the building which was once the rec center for workers at Electrolux, the vacuum cleaner factory.
Back in 1966, after vigorous townwide discussion, the acquisition of the Civic Center, plus 20 acres of land from Electrolux was approved by the RTM. A subsequent referendum failed to reverse the action.
The sale price was $432,000.
At the time, some residents described the building as a white elephant and predicted no one would ever use it.
Wouldn’t they have been surprised by the turnout on Wednesday night. There was standing room only and about 35 residents signed up to speak, each allotted three minutes, with Greenwich Parks & Rec board member Gary Dell’Abate giving them a warning when 15 seconds remained.
Committee member Scott Johnson, said the town commissioned survey with the help of a professional consultant to determine what people want and don’t want in a new civic center building.
“We haven’t commissioned an architect yet,” said Mr. Johnson.
“The building is 31,000 sq ft,” he continued, adding that the consultants generally recommend increasing the building size “a little bit.”
“The original placeholder was $15 million,” Mr. Johnson said. “The consultant said that is reasonable. It’s a placeholder pushed out for at least 10 years. The project has failed for at least 20 years because we asked for too much money.”
Still, he said, “We’re excited because it’s in this budget cycle and has a lot of energy.”
“It’s a community civic center, not just a sports facility. We’re competing for money with a hockey rink,” Dell’Abate warned before the first speaker took the podium.
“The budget is $15 million, give or take. The fields next to there are not what we’re discussing tonight,” Dell’Abate added. “That is not in this budget. Fixing those fields might cost as much as the building itself.”
Nevertheless, resident after resident complained about the fields.
Alicia Collier, the travel & rec soccer administrator at OGRCC said, “It’ll be more economical and cost effective, and less disruptive, and it’ll be better for the environment. You said it’s not about the fields, but 70% surveyed said it is about the fields.”
“Let’s do it one time and do it right,” Collier said. “Address the building and the fields at the same time. Let’s keep them playing and keep the money in Greenwich. Addressing the building without addressing the fields will cost the town more money in the long run.”
Merritt McConnell, with four children between 9 and 15, said they are active users of the civic center, particularly for soccer. “Often they can’t use the fields. So they go to other facilities and use turf.”
Elizabeth Coelho whose kids, 8 and 5, participate in Sandpipers Camp and sports including the Thunder Soccer program, said she was grateful for the civic center. But, she said, “There is a huge issue with the fields.”
A lot of money is being spent to rent facilities outside of Greenwich including Chelsea Piers in Stamford, and Whitby School in back country Greenwich for indoor gym space and turf fields, and there were complaints that parents are driving all over.
Many lamented all the lost practices and games due to inclement weather.
Many residents who pressed the subcommittee to consider a field house or second gym.
And while subcommittee member Scott Johnson reminded attendees that the project would not include upgrades to the fields, he said, “At Parks & Rec, our biggest complaint is the condition of fields.”
Nancy Burke, on the RTM Budget Overview Committee, said, “With all these wonderful and innovative ideas I hope architects will be mindful of this Town’s budget. You’re talking about 35,000 sq ft. I hear advocates for turning this building into a sports complex but it should give opportunities for young and old and people interested in art and music.”
Burke said, “I’ve hard for 40 years we need more playing fields. The environmental worries must also be looked at.”
Another resident warned about potential costs of upgrading the fields at the civic center, saying the soil should be tested for PCBs or contaminants. “Because if it is contaminated, the $15 million goes out the window. Who knows what Electrolux has dumped there,” he said.
Hal Lovejoy said the issues with the field could be solved by installing True Turf fields under a bubble, which would allow winter field sports.
“They do it at Innis Arden. It’s very cost effective and you can take down in summer. That may solve your field problem. Focus on civic center being a community center with maybe a basketball court and then on field you have two regulation soccer fields with a massive bubble over it, how cool would that be?” he asked.
Civic Center as Town’s Largest Venue for Events
Former P&Z commissioner Nancy Ramer, like many who spoke, chronicled decades of her family’s use of the civic center.
“I have used it for child care, post baby exercise, attending the annual pancake breakfast, dancing class for my children, soccer and about everything it is possible to use it for,” she said adding that the present square footage, is 32,000 sq ft.
“We had an architect who said there was available 96,000 sq ft in FAR calculation. Presently there are 224 parking spaces. That’s beyond any other space in town. Keep that in mind. There are number of events that pack that parking lot.”
She said it is significant that the civic center is the only Town location where a large event can be held.
“Focus on what people think is needed,” she said, referring to the results of the committee’s survey which indicated 49% of respondents prioritized event rooms. Other “needs” that were top in the survey were for space for fitness and wellness, and adaptive sports and fitness.
“That’s the voice of people who bothered to fill out your survey,” she said. “The summary also talked about the ability of adding fitness as cost effective because it can generate income.”
As for the Civic Center being the only large Town venue for large events, Michelle Couture, director of operations for the Greenwich Historical Society said the annual Antiquarius antiques show is held there.
“We want one large open 20,000 sq ft space that is flexible, with upgraded electrical, a full kitchen facility, storage space for vendor equipment, supplies and inventory, a PA system, loading dock area, multiple access doors into the open space so vendor vehicles can unload, lockable office or breakout rooms, internet access, ample accessibility, and access for attendees and vendors.”
Peter Uhry, a 42-year resident of Old Greenwich described himself as an “active user of the deteriorating civic center since 1972” and said he recalled going to the circus in the parking lot.
“I’m delighted the renovation of this facility will happen, it’s long overdue,” he said, but he added, “You have been negligent about saying where you are in the deliberations.”
Mr. Uhry urged “a balance” between sports and other community activities and complained that space including stage and locker rooms are being used for equipment storage.
“It’s appalling the RMA has to have their hearts game out in the lobby,” he said, urging the Town to use PODS for storage.
“Balance the sports with other activities,” Uhry said. “I’d like to see a second floor built. People say that’s an added cost. But, you only get one shot.”
Darrell Demakes, the vice president of the Riverside Association said the Town survey indicated people would use the civic center if it had a stage.
“The comment we hear is it doesn’t get used,” Demakes said, urging inclusion of a stage for performing arts in the new building. “It is dilapidated and is in disrepair. It would get used if it weren’t. There’s a lot of groups who compete for space who would use it. The stage doesn’t get represented well.”
In addition to the Town survey, OGRCC did their own survey which revealed respondents were unaware that OGRCC rents space at the Civic Center from the Town.
Tom Casazzone, executive director of OGRCC said last year they registered people for over 6,000 events.
“We rely on tons of partnerships, and the most important is with the Town,” he said. “We’re on the phone talking to Parks and Rec talking about the fields and talking about rentals. The building is insufficient and we’re spending $100,000 on outside private facilities because this can’t accommodate the needs of the community.”
“We’d like a building to meet the needs of the greater Greenwich community,” Casazzone said. “Consider a larger building with indoor and outdoor space as well as multi-purpose rooms for dance, art, meetings and other community events.”
Kelly Forsberg, president of the Old Greenwich Garden Club said her group has been using the Civic Center for 80 years, for their annual plant sale and numerous workshops bringing hundreds of people to the facility.
She said her group wants to see a wide entrance with display space, places outside for event banners, community meeting space with loading space, walls to accommodate posters, a locked closet for coats and purses, good lighting and ventilation, audio-visual and a screen, secure networks, a kitchen, a workroom with water and “sinks with real water pressure,” small meeting rooms, medium rooms, and a green roof for pollinator plants. Forsberg said the building should be ADA compliant and energy efficient.
Ted Larrabee, who has lived for 40 years just one house away from the Civic Center, said the parking lot has flooded numerous times.
“You need a boat to get there,” Larrabee said. “The drainage on the south side of the property underneath the railroad tracks is inadequate and too small. If you improve the drainage it will solve part of the parking lot and a lot of the fields.”
“You can’t fix the building and not look at the fields,” Larrabee said. “Look at them both together and go to the private sector and get sponsorships.”
Public Private Partnerships
Ellen Shubert, wife of subcommittee member Kirk who is president of the board of directors of OGRCC urged the subcommittee to be bold.
“You have an opportunity to leave a legacy for Greenwich. You have a responsibility as volunteers to be bold. There is a desperate need in the community to deliver. Don’t limit yourself to the $15 million. Many people in the survey said please contact me to contribute privately.”
State Rep Fred Camillo who is a Republican hopeful for First selectman said he echoed Mrs. Shubert’s comments.
“As a former member and chair of Parks & Rec board and a 50 year user, look to the private money and private sector like the GAF and individuals,” Camillo said. “There are 168 other municipalities who would be envious of our position. We’ve done piecemeal with our facilities and it’s come back to bite us. Do it right, do it big and look to the private sector.”
“Please, no half measures,” Camillo said.
Patty Roberts urged the subcommittee to, “Think Scottish.”
“Think wisely where you spend the money. What’s popular today may not be popular later on,” she warned. “Don’t make it so bold that we get nothing because the budget is tight.”
Thirty year Riverside resident Susan Foster said she appreciated the enthusiasm in the room for a field house and artificial turf.
But, she said, “That’s not what the community asked for. There is only 31,000 sq ft. If all these sports requests were accommodated, we’d have no civic center. Indoor turf is nearby at Chelsea piers. You, Scott, said you wanted to hear from senior citizens. Well, I’m a senior citizen. There are a lot of lessons we can learn from the Bendheim Western Greenwich Civic Center. They can’t have a Zumba and yoga class at the same time. There needs to be a true quiet room.”
There were novel ideas, such as Margot McGee’s suggestion for a high end but reasonably priced café along the lines of Aux Delices. Mrs. McGee recalled how over the years the civic center has been used for everything from cake decorating classes to bridge, and from the Jr League festival of trees to roller skating.
“It was lively place. Now I bring grand children to the playground,” she said, adding, “If we want a successful Civic Center we need a café. Not just for chips and cookies but …a place with delicious real food at reasonable prices. It would provide a steady rent stream and contribute to its financial health.”
McGee said a café would draw people from the neighborhood and employees from nearby office buildings and be a pleasant place to linger over coffee or lunch.
Julie Fitzgerald said she grew up in Old Greenwich but had yet to use the civic center.
“We don’t have any facility in the Old Greenwich area for dogs,” she said. “My hope is for a dog run or a dog park as part of the makeup of this new space. In winter at Tod’s Point, it is overrun. There is no facility for residents to let their dogs run off leash and socialize and for their owners to socialize.”