Camillo Eager to Move School Administration to Privately Owned Office Space Rental; Issue RFP for Repurposing Historic Havemeyer Building

At the May 16 Board of Education meeting First Selectman Fred Camillo and former BET member Andy Duus talked about relocating the Greenwich Public Schools administration out of the historic Havemeyer building to a privately owned rental space on Railroad Ave by the train station.

The district’s administrative offices have been in the Havemeyer building for 76 years. The building was a gift in 1892 from Mr. and Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer to the town for educational purposes.

Undated photo courtesy Greenwich Historical Society

On Thursday Mr. Camillo and Mr. Duus said an RFP was in the works for future use of the historic building and site.

They said it was possible a company would pay to upgrade the building and repurpose it, ideally for retail use to bring back the most money to the town.

“The cleanest thing to do would be a retailer to take most of the building,” Camillo said. “We Works was also a preference by one of the developers who looked at it.”

“Has any work been done to see the true cost of repairs, bringing the building up to code and ADA compliant? It is a gem of a space. There’s so many ways we can use that space to share with members of the community.” – BOE member Karen Hirsh

Camillo said he was organizing a task force to work on the RFP.

In 2022 a Special Committee to Evaluate Options for Future Use of Historic Havemeyer Building was formed with Mr. Duus as its chair.

That committee included Mr. Duus as chair, Bill Drake, and then BOE chair Joe Kelly, BOE member Christina Downey and then BET member Miriam Kreuzer.

They wrapped up their work and issued a report in November 2023 .

During the time the committee existed, they received a report from Pustola & Associates, Engineers/Constructors based in Naugatuck whose overall assessment was that the building had no significant safety or structural deficiencies.

They noted the building lacks an elevator and needs work to become ADA compliant, but that most of the structure was more than adequate for current load-bearing needs and building code.

Also, their review of the exterior of the building found it to be in good repair, though they recommended cosmetic repairs such as repointing brick work and cornices. Also, the report noted that the flat roof at the back was nearing the end of its lifespan and some windows needed attention.

At Thursday’s BOE meeting Mr. Camillo said experts had estimated the building was worth between $74 to $100 million.

Let that sink in.

Camillo said there were two previous attempts to relocate the BOE administrative offices out of the town-owned building, most recently in 2002, but the administration had been reluctant to leave.

“This time the administration is willing to go. They’re eager to go,” he said. “It’s not healthy for them to stay in there where the condition, there is mold and other things going on there, and it’s going to cost taxpayers a lot of money to redo it.”

Besides, he said, it didn’t make sense to house a government entity on Greenwich Avenue, which he described as the heart of the town’s business, commercial and entertainment district.

He pointed out that other towns had signed long-term rental contracts for government offices in privately owned buildings and that there was a rental opportunity available in the area of Railroad Ave.

“We could look at other ones, but time is running out – we’re running out of runway on this (rental) right now,” he said. “Timing is perfect.”

“This is something that should be returned to the people of Greenwich,” Camillo said of the Havemeyer building, adding that the task force already had five members ready to draft an RFP.

“It’s exciting. It’s a game changer for us, but the first step was to find something for the administration that they would function in better,” Camillo added.

Off the bat, Board of Education members had questions.

Laura Kostin asked about the cost of the rental lease in the area of Railroad Ave.

Mr. Camillo said the annual rental fee by the train station was about $2.8 million, but that excluded utilities. He said the first six months of rent would be free, and there would be no rent increases for the first three years.

Ms Kostin said her preference would be for the BOE administration to be housed in a town-owned building.

Mr. Camillo said that was not necessary.

Kathleen Stowe said she had toured the space on Railroad Avenue.

“It’s gorgeous. It’s class A space. Frankly, I wouldn’t put my company in it because it’s a little too pricey,” Stowe said, adding that with what she described as back-of-the envelope math, it was about 24,000 sq ft at $108 per square, plus utilities.

“You’re looking at about $3 million a year,” Stowe said. “I think it’s fiscally irresponsible….as a taxpayer that freaks me out.”

Ms Stowe said with more people working hybrid it might be possible to for the schools  administration to share space in town hall.

“Why are we not having that conversation?” Ms Stowe asked. “There’s 130,000 sq ft at town hall and about 300 employees. The square footage you need per person is about 175 sq ft.”

As for the idea of updating Havemeyer for the school administration, Camillo said, “I do think it’s fiscally irresponsible to throw money into a building that is falling apart, that’s only going to get worse.”

He said he’d consulted an expert who estimated it would cost $50 million to renovate the Havemeyer building, not the$20 million the school district had estimated in their 15 year master plan completed about five years ago.

“It’s going to be on the taxpayer. Are we going to spend $50 million, or even $20 million, just to put a government entity back in the middle of Greenwich Avenue?” he asked.

As for the $2.8 million annual rent, he agreed the price was high, and there was less expensive office space available in other parts of town, but the Railroad Ave suggestion reflected an effort to keep the BOE administration centrally located.

Camillo said back in 2002 the school administration had balked at the idea of sharing space in town hall.

Sophie Koven said since 2002 remote work had become more common, and that records have been digitized. She suggested conducting a building utilization study.

As for 2002, she said, “…that was before email. We do a lot online now. I used to go to town hall to get my beach pass and now that’s online. Is there an opportunity to go through the building and think about the real estate being taken up by filing cabinets? It was a high school for 1,900 kids. There were a lot of people in there.”

“To spend upwards of $50 million for a 15-year lease for the BOE, as a taxpayer I don’t want to do that,” Koven said.

Ms Kostin said the cost of 15 years of rent on Railroad Ave was about the same as the cost of a Havemeyer renovation.

“We’re not going away on this one,” Camillo said.

Camillo said he was open to a space utilization study, but was not optimistic.

“I don’t know if we can get to where they could fit in town hall comfortably, but I’m happy to look at that.”

BOE chair Karen Kowalski said the $2.8 million annual office lease price would certainly increase over time, and wondered if there was a way for future use of Havemeyer to offset the lease costs.

Camillo said a commercial broker had suggested various scenarios, including one that might leave a portion of the Havemeyer building for public use.

“Revenue will come back to the town,” Camillo said. “I’m not talking about dragging this out for two to three years. Time is of the essence right now.”

BOE member Karen Hirsh said the task force should include a BOE member.

“There are so many ways to do the work on that building and have shared use going forward,” Hirsh said.

As for Havemeyer being repurposed for retail use, she said it was sad that the historic post office was turned over to RH for a retail store.

She agreed the Railroad Ave lease was expensive.

“It’s a lot to ask taxpayers to spend this kind of money every year to house us long after this board is no longer seated, and long after you are no longer seated,” Hirsh said to Camillo.

“Has any work been done to see the true cost of repairs, bringing the building up to code and ADA compliant?” Ms Hirsh asked. “It is a gem of a space. There’s so many ways we can use that space to share with members of the community.”

Hirsh said she was also concerned that if plans were delayed, the administration might be moved out of Havemeyer into rental space and the historic would sit empty, much like the retail stores on Railroad Ave  by the Greenwich train station.

(The owners of Hopscotch Salon, for example, vacated their space on Railroad Ave in 2019 and moved to space in the Hyatt in Old Greenwich. The former salon space has sat empty.)

“There is so much potential with that building. The more I think about it the more excited I get,” Camillo said. “But we are fighting the clock on the building as far as deterioration.”

Camillo agreed to explore both the possibility of sharing town hall and looking for a less expensive rental space for school administrators.

Cody Kittle noted it had been 23 years since the first attempt to redo the Havemeyer building.

“We don’t want to let great be the enemy of good, in a sense that if we lose the opportunity it could be another 20 years of this sub-optimal situation,” he said. 

But, he said, “I do think $108 per square foot is premium commercial real estate.”

Squatter’s Rights

Mr. Duus said the BOE administration had “squatter’s rights” in the Havemeyer building.

He noted that back in 1909 Henry O. Havemeyer’s son set aside money in a trust to maintain the building with the condition it be used for educational purposes.

“The fund is kind of low these days, so it’s really not much of an issue any more,” he said.

Duus warned that there was a concern that once walls were opened up there was a chance of finding asbestos and lead paint.

“You can’t have staff remain in that building and do repairs,” he said.

“I’m going to be very direct,” Ms Kostin said. “I hear $2.8 million for 10 years – and maybe then some – that’s (the cost of) a renovation of Havemeyer. That’s short-sighted.”

Further, she said, “This is kind of a Pandora’s box. I have a big problem privatizing a public asset. Right now it is a public asset for every parent and every kid who comes to have a meeting and conduct their school business. I don’t understand the notion of ‘returning it to the people.'”

“I know the Havemeyer family was very committed to keeping this building utilized the way it is now and not being a Restoration Hardware,” Ms Kostin added.

Duus said there were many unknowns and that responses to an RFP would yield more information.

“Right now we don’t know enough to make a decision. All we’re trying to do is get approval to get to the next step,” he said.

“I don’t believe we need approval from you to have an RFP,” Camillo said. “I will talk to the town attorney tomorrow.”

“Some of us have a clear difference of opinion on public buildings,” Camillo said. “Times change. Land becomes more valuable.”

Ms Stowe said Camillo do not need a BOE vote to issue an RFP.

“So have at it,” she said. 

“Town hall was also once a high school,” she added. “There is so much potential to use the current assets we have and re-deploying our employees. It would be wonderful for the taxpayer – it would be a win-win to find something for Havemeyer and bring our government employees to be in already town-owned assets.”

Camillo said the committee could explore sharing space at town hall.

As for a future re-use of the Havemeyer building, he said, “It’s going to be a lease, not a sale. Presumedly, there would be some return, rent, paid to the town.”

Dr. Jones said the administration’s requirements were for 20,000-25,000 sq ft of office space.

And, she said, “You also have to remember that the lower level (of Havemeyer) is the warehouse. There are large trucks that come in and out…It is the delivery for the entire district.”

She said she had researched available office space herself.

“We’re looking up and down Putnam, not too far from the center of town – the big reason for that is we are open 12 months a year,” Jones said. “We have a lot of families that come in to enroll their children and we need to be accessible by public transportation.” 

Dr. Jones said English language classes are held at Havemeyer in the evenings.

Ms Hirsh said the BOE needed to hire their own legal counsel, and while the board’s approval was not required for an RFP to be issued, she’d like the board to be involved in that process.

“I still think there is a lot of opportunity for mixed and shared usage, and as for space utilization for all town facilities, I’d love to get a true understanding of cost of renovation,” Hirsh said. “We need to be very careful about the words we use when we describe the building. It is not deteriorating. Yes it needs work, but it does not have mold.”

Ms Kostin asked if Mr. Duus and his committee had evaluated acquiring a property for school administration.

“If we’re handing over an asset estimated at $100 million?” she said.

“The short answer is no,” Mr. Duus said. “The mandate was to see what to do with the current asset and look at alternative space for rent, not to buy another property.”

“That might be another suggestion,” Ms Kostin said.

Originally, the building was a gift to the central Greenwich Meeting House School district in 1892 by Henry Osborne and Louisine Havemeyer. The building was completed in 1894. Henry O Havemeyer finished his formal education at the age of 8. He became an apprentice in the family’s sugar refinery in Brooklyn at the age of 15, and worked his way up the ladder to become the principal partner in the firm by 1876. Havemeyer, the “Sugar King,” became president of the American Sugar Refining Company in 1891. His wife, Louisine, in addition to being a patron of impressionist art, was one of the more prominent contributors to the suffrage movement in the US. The Havemeyers held a design contest and selected architects Loring & Phipps, who went on to build a remarkably similar building, Miner Hall at Tufts University in Massachusetts, in the same year.

South side of the Havemeyer building with current Town Hall in the distance. Though constructed as an elementary school, eventually high school classes were taught in the Havemeyer building.

Plaque at the entrance to the Havemeyer building noting the gift of Mr. and Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer to the town in 1892.

See also:

Special Committee to Evaluate Options for Future Use of Historic Havemeyer Building

BOE Votes 6-1 to Remove Flex Block at GHS, Starting Fall 2024