P&Z Balks at Rink Proposal: Cost is Not Our Purview, Greenspace Is

At Tuesday’s Planning & Zoning commission meeting there was extensive discussion of a new pre-application from the town for a new Hamill Rink. The proposal also includes a new Strazza ballfield with 90 foot bases.

A new rink is proposed to be located to the north of the existing one, backed up along Western Jr Hwy. Then the ball field relocated where the existing rink is once its demolished.

The commission had signaled their briefing the previous day that the proposal didn’t reflect feedback in 2021 when the town presented an almost identical proposal.

The difference is this iteration does not include a new access road via Western Jr Hwy, but now includes a walking path around the field and rink building.

On Tuesday, Ms Alban noted SLAM had done the work on all three iterations of rink proposals, starting with a flip in Dec 2021, followed by a proposal to build on the existing footprint in Feb 2022, and today a return to the flip.

She said she’d gone back and listened to meeting tapes, asked Mr. Romano to explain why the proposal is again for a flip layout.

Romano said the “rebuild-in-place” option had been discarded out of concern for disturbance of rock and extensive regrading needed to lower the building to meet ADA requirements.

He described the flip a cost effective, given if avoided the expense of a temporary rink.

Further, Mr. Romano said the proposal reflected community input from a community engagement survey early this year that had 2,980 responses.

One survey question asked about the siting of the new rink, with 84% of respondents supporting, “the flipped option.”

Further he said the rink user committee voted to approve pursuing a flip at their February meeting.

Mr. Romano said that since that meeting, DPW had been working with SLAM, coordinating with the office of the First Selectman, rink user committee and local community members who attend the committee meetings.

Ms Alban asked how many respondents of the 2,980 were skaters vs non-skaters.

“You were likelier to get engagement from the skaters,” she said. “Yet we’re looking for it to be a complete park – a park that addresses the needs of not just the skaters, but also the ball players and anyone else who wants to enjoy this green space.”

Mr. Romano said the survey had tracked additional ways the park is used.

“Walking and running was the number one other use of the park. That led to the inclusion of a walking and running loop,” Romano said.

“Parking lots and hockey rinks are not by nature soothing to the eye. Parkland is, and open space is at a premium.” – P&Z commissioner Peter Lowe

“Creating open space in our town is the great premium we’re looking for here,” said commissioner Peter Levy. “All I hear are compromises after compromises. It’s a bit deflating.”

Mr. Levy said P&Z was looking to plan for the future. “That is a significant element I don’t feel is addressed strongly enough in this application.”

“How close can you get to a beautiful park, rather than a beautiful athletic facility?” – P&Z commission chair Margarita Alban

Commissioner Arn Welles lamented that the town hadn’t taken advantage of open space available to purchase to expand open space, parks or recreational fields.

“Meanwhile the country clubs and the private schools keep expanding,” Welles said. “So, pretty much, open space will end up in private hands.”

Welles suggested tucking the parking lot under the rink to preserve as much open space as possible.

Public Comment

During public comment, Ric Loh, a longtime Parks & Rec board member who has served on various rink committees for almost 20 years, said, “We would love to build a spectacular facility. Unfortunately there is another town body that we need to get through – it’s called the BET. They are not nearly as generous as people would like.”

“The original rink has been there 50 years, in the meantime the town has evolved,” Loh said. “There’s a lot less options as to where you can put a rink today.”

Mr. Loh said the proposed plan would result in roughly the same amount of green space as  today, but would would avoid the expense of a temporary rink.

Loh said the committee had considered and rejected multiple locations for a temporary rink including at Roger Sherman Baldwin Park, the area behind town hall, and both the Island Beach and Horseneck municipal parking lots.

“It seems like we’ve come full circle, but we’ve come full circle for a reason,” he said. “And that reason is common sense. If anyone has better ideas, or a tractor trailer load of money, please let us know.”

Lucy von Brachel from the Byram Neighborhood Association said the premise for “flipping” has been all about cost and avoiding lost ice time, which she was was not the concern of P&Z.

“We’re redesigning an entire park – bifurcating it with a big building –  putting a big building closer to more housing, and all the mechanicals that will be running all the time. I think this is a big problem.”

She said other community groups had made due during renovations.

“North Mianus School wasn’t canceled when a ceiling fell down. Cos Cob School wasn’t canceled when it was flooded. Boys & Girls Club hasn’t been canceled even though they’ve dealt with some major displacement. The Eastern Greenwich Civic Center has been closed and OGRCC has handled it.”

Ms von Brachel said that while cost of the project was not the purview of P&Z, the costs were nevertheless “guestimates.”

She said to adhere to the goals of the Plan of Conservation and Development required keeping the building on its current footprint.

She also questioned the community survey, and question #17 in particular. “It says, ‘to eliminate the need to construct a temporary skating rink.’ We have not established the need to construct a temporary skating rink. That questions was loaded.”

Further she said the survey failed to take into consideration that the rink was in a dense residential neighborhood considered an ‘economic justice zone.’

Also, she noted that the adjacent Western Middle School was about to have all its fields replaced with artificial turf, which cannot be used for passive recreation.

“So we’re eliminating a large area for passive recreation, moving things around in a park, and crunching a skating rink up near housing,” she added. “It’s a lot.”

Roz Nicastro said the roughly 700 residents who of Greenwich Place where she lives would be the most impacted.

“We have a view of the park in the winter and you’d never even know we have a skating park across the street,” Nicastro said.

View across Western Jr Hwy from Greenwich Place of the area proposed to locate a new Hamill Rink. Nov 27, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

“The impact to us is the back of a 460,000 sq ft building that was nicknamed by one person, ‘The Costco Warehouse,'” Nicastro said.

“And you can’t forget we have an affordable housing complex across the street,” she said, a reference to the addition to McKinney Terrace and the plans for Vinci Gardens, a 52-unit building.

“I think it will destroy our quality of life to have this huge monstrous building,” she said.

Nicastro said the proposal “shreds the 2019 POCD,” which she noted has goals including the sense of character for neighborhoods, protection of natural beauty, high quality views, and improved livability.

Further she said there had been no community outreach, and rink committee meetings had been canceled over the summer.

Meanwhile Nicastro noted that in Old Greenwich there had been multiple community forums in planning the new Eastern Greenwich Civic Center.

Memorial Grove of trees at Eugene Morlot Park. Photo: Leslie Yager

Alex Popp said there had been no mention of the Eugene Morlot memorial tree grove. “I would think the memorial park would be one of the main focus of the whole park,” he said adding that he’d like an exact count of trees proposed to be removed.

Peter Quigley said the site and timing was of the proposal were both “terrible.” He warned about contamination and questioned the reputability of the testing company used back in 2019.

He urged the town to renovate-in-place and noted the timing was poor given there are multiple pricey school infrastructure projects for the town to fund as well as the GHS remediation.

Ms Alban said as a follow up, she would like to see the results of the existing soil testing.

Clare Kilgallen said, much like the Byram pool, there was no easy solution.

“We’ve inherited something that was done 50 years ago – we had this Quonset hut that became this rink,” she said and urged Parks & Rec to reach out to the residents of Greenwich Place.

BNA chair Joe Kantorski said intentions had been misread, and that when the BNA emailed out a list of “benefits” provided by Mr. Romano, that hadn’t meant the BNA supported the proposal. He said in a recent BNA survey, 88% of respondents said the building should not be relocated.

Parks & Rec director Joe Siciliano said he and Mr. Romano had met on site with Mr. Kantorski and Liz Eckert, also from the BNA, and believed they had taken their feedback into consideration.

Siciliano made that the town survey had almost 3,000 respondents whereas the BNA survey only had about 700 respondents.

“I don’t want it to take another 22 years like the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center. Twenty-two years ago we laid out the initiatives for the building and 22 years later we built the building with 80% of the original initiatives,” Siciliano said. “We don’t want to do that again.”

As for the applicant’s priority of not losing ice time and avoiding the expense of a temporary rink, the commission was not moved.

“We do not get into cost issues. That is not our purview,” commissioner Peter Levy said.

Mr. Rick Bouchard, an architect from SLAM Collaborative, was asked for his company’s experience renovating rinks as opposed to building new ones.

Mr. Bouchard referred to a project in East Haven as merely a refurbishment.

According to the SLAM website, the East Haven renovations included the replacement of the existing cold floor slam and associated piping, new dasher boards, CO and NO2 sensors, rink rubber flooring, a complete replacement of the dehumidification system, and the discontinued R404A refrigerant system.

Ms Alban said the BET would want to know whether the proposal was the most cost-effective one, and noted that more than one member of the BET was present on the Zoom call.

Ms Alban summarized feedback, including a request for the exact number of trees proposed to be removed, plans to protect the memorial grove of trees, and any alternatives to maximize green space. She noted the Greenwich Communities (formerly known as the Housing Authority) was about to add a 52-unit building, Vinci Gardens, next to McKinney Terrace, and that the park offered valued green space for all those residents as well.

She asked why ramping for ADA access would be necessary, and whether ADA spaces could be provided without lowering the entire building and removing rock.

Alban asked for renderings or some idea of the view that residential neighbors at Greenwich Place would have of the building.

Further she wanted details on environmental testing, especially given that chemicals are used to treat ice.

Mr. Levy suggested installing a system for renewable energy on the rink roof.

Alban said, “We remain to be convinced about this layout. We are trying to be supportive and open. We want the town to have great recreation facilities, but our first commitment is to the green space, open space and community character.”

She referred to the importance of “environmental justice,” especially given the housing authority residents were adjacent neighbors.

“And then, as people have been saying, is this a project that is for the next 50 years, is a great legacy?” she asked. “If we have to make some sacrifices in the next year and a half, in exchange for a great park, that’s what we do. A park that meets the neighbor’s needs.”

Alban said the applicant was welcome to come back to continue the discussion or with a new application.

See also:

Meeting Preview: Will P&Z “Flip” for New Hamill Rink Application?
Nov 27, 2023