RTM Cuts $900 from Budget for Design Work for Hamill Rink at Eugene Morlot Park

Last week during a presentation of options for layouts for a new 42,000 sq ft Hamill rink, parking lot and Strazza ball field at Eugene Morlot Park, the vendor, SLAM Collaborative, included a new 24 ft wide access road coming into the park via Western Jr Highway in all five options.

None of the options place a new rink at the existing rink location.

Al Monelli, the buildings construction and maintenance supervisor for the Town, said that main advice of a previous rink committee had been to include an access road, but Mike Bocchino, a lifelong resident, local coach, and rink committee member questioned its necessity.

“I’m not a fan of any of the options,” Bocchino said, adding that it was important to seek input from the Byram community.

The access road would add significant expense to the project, though no price tags for the five options were shared.

Further, the road would add to the project’s cost, take out trees, and significantly extend the timeline of the project.

During that rink committee meeting Lucia Jansen of the RTM Budget Overview Committee, asked whether cost of relocating utilities through the park had been considered and was told it had not. There were no price tags on any of the designs.

On Monday night (May 10) at the RTM meeting, a motion was made by the BOC to reduce the rink appropriation by $900,000 (from $950,000 to take the design phase to 70%). The vote was 120 to 80, with 10 abstentions, to cut the appropriation to $50,000.

Numerous people spoke in favor of the reduction. Mike Brescia said BET member Bill Drake, who is chair of the new rink committee, had a conflict of interest and should recuse himself from any votes on the BET in regarding the rink. Also, he said, “There’s plenty of neighborhood opposition, and the committee has met only once.”

On Tuesday, Rick Loh who is a member of the Parks & Rec board and member of both the previous and current rink committees, said, “Unfortunately, I believe the funds were cut because the work of the original planning committee was delayed by the impact of the virus. A few months were lost as the Town (and everyone else in the world) adapted to not meeting at all to meeting via Zoom. This slowed down the selection process of SLAM as the architects to help plan our next steps. We had our first full committee (as appointed by the First Selectman) meeting just one week ago. It was the first time we were meeting with SLAM to explore the options of the site.”

Mr. Loh added, “Meanwhile, the budget process did not slow down. The architect fees have been in the budget for at least several years. The funds for the first 30% of the architectural process were released last year. The money now being held back is the money to complete the architectural process.”

Loh explained that due to the delay, “we don’t yet have the answers to make people comfortable to release the balance of the money. Unfortunately, this same issue has impacted a couple other projects in Town as well. I am confident once we catch up and the answers are provided the money will be released as has been planned for several years.”

On Tuesday Bill Drake shared a link to SLAM’s 5 options. 2021-Greenwich-DHSR—Committee-Mtg-SLAM-Presentation-No1-5-5-21 (greenwichct.gov)

Referring to the Memorial Grove as “Morlot Park,” Mr. Drake said the architects were given express instructions to preserve it and had given a preliminary indication that access from Western Jr. Highway would be an improvement over the current access.

Mr. Drake said,” Over the coming months, the committee will study and make recommendations on many topics:  the rink location within the property, the users, the business plan, management and scheduling of the rink, contracts for ice use, public private partnerships, preserving an important ballfield, preserving the Morlot Park, parking, and other topics if needed.”

“If there’s any question about the Town’s ability to improve the infrastructure on its property, I suppose it will be answered by the Town attorneys and land use specialists.”

“The rink is a long-standing, much-enjoyed part of the opportunities we enjoy in Greenwich.  The RTM, the BET, and the public have all expressed interest in the project.  All community input is invited.  Our meetings are public – listed on the Parks & Rec section of the Town’s website.”

Don Sylvester and David Wold at the Byram Veterans Association building on Delavan Ave. The Byram Veterans are stewards of the memorial grove in Eugene Morlot Park where 13 mature trees are each anchored by a plaque with the name of a Byram resident who gave his life for his country. May 10, 2021 Photo: Leslie Yager

But, backing up a bit. On Monday, prior to the RTM meeting, two members of the Byram Veterans Association, Don Sylvester and David Wold, sat down inside the veterans hall on Delavan Ave to share their point of view.

They said for years they had been stewards of the portion of the park known as the memorial grove, but felt protective of the parkland and greenspace overall.

They noted that while the park is currently 13+ acres, the original Byram School property built in 1923 was comprised of about 18 acres. “That’s why there are stairs going up to the school from the Post Rd and to Byram Road,” Wold said.

They said they did did not want a new rink to be relocated from its existing spot in the park, especially if it encroached into the setbacks of the memorial grove. Nor did they want additional pavement within the park.

They said they had been promised a seat on the new rink committee but it did not materialize.

Just last week, Liz Eckert, vice chair of the Byram Neighborhood Association, was added to the group, but no veteran.

Wold and Sylvester said the 13+ acre park is the main open green space for the densely developed Byram neighborhood.

“It goes back to the agreement with the State and Town that this is an open space park, just like Tod’s Point,” said Mr. Sylvester, a Vietnam veteran.

Wold and Sylvester said they were confused why KG&D Architects, working with the previous committee, created a site plan that would involve demolishing the 1971 rink building and constructing a new rink in the same spot, three additions – one in front for an entry, a service addition at the back, and locker addition at the south, but now the 5 options all relocate the rink.

“The Eugene Morlot Park has for over 50 years been an oasis for the Byram population, providing open free space,” said Mr. Sylvester, commander of the BVA. “What right do they have to just take it over? Does that mean they have the authority to take over Tod’s Point and construct a Walmart size building there? Or in the Old Greenwich Civic Center parking lot?”

They shared documents retrieved from the Town as the result of an FOI request, which they say would preclude any of the 5 SLAM options. They shared a memo from a September 25, 1991 from then Assistant Town Planner Diane Fox to then Parks & Rec Director Frank Keegan.

In 1991 Ms Fox wrote that the commission voted to approve an MI to expand the parking lot in the park from 61 to 132 spaces, noting that a parking shortage for residents using Hamill Rink had resulted in cars parking on steep adjacent residential streets.

However, she noted Parks & Rec had agreed to no “future further encroachment onto grassed area of the dedicated park” and “no other additional black topping for expansion of lot for buses and cars will be allowed on this dedicated parkland nor parking on grass.”

“…the (P&Z) commission notes that the Parks& Rec director has agreed that there not be any future further encroachment onto the grassed area of the dedicated parkland…the Byram vets dedicated tree area will be left undisturbed, and therefore the expansion of the parking lot area does not significantly impact the parkland or its functional use for local residents…”

1991 memo from then Assistant Town Planner Diane Fox to then Parks & Rec director Frank Keegan with conditions on approval of parking lot expansion at Eugene Morlot Park

Further, the veterans said the minutes of a June 29, 2015 Selectmen meeting documented discussion of building a new New Lebanon School at the former Byram School. Then First Selectman Peter Tesei said the open space was parkland, and to build on it would require the town to replace the parkland elsewhere in the community.

Wold and Sylvester noted the park had numerous stakeholders beyond rink users. The Byram community uses the park for passive recreation. The Housing Authority operate elderly housing at McKinney Terrace at the former Byram School. Strazza ball field has numerous user groups.

And the Byram Veterans are stewards of the memorial grove where 13 mature trees are each anchored by a plaque with the name of a Byram resident who gave his life for his country. In fact, Wold and Sylvester see themselves as stewards of the park.

“It’s not just to reach the ice hockey building. It’s an exit for the whole park,” Mr. Sylvester said of an access road, adding that the parking lit is not just for the rink, but for field users, veterans and HATG’s McKinney Terrace.

The veterans wondered if perhaps, given recent pressure to add affordable housing and the possibility of expanding McKinney Terrace for that purpose, that might contribute to the push for a new access road.

“The BVA and the BNA – nobody in Byram knew about this,” Mr.Sylvester said. ‘We knew there was a renovation being planned, not a relocation.”

“They’ve said all along, ‘We will not allow a building in the Veterans Memorial Grove,'” Sylvester said. “Now they’re talking about the grove. They’re going to put a Walmart size building right in there.”

Wold and Sylvester noted that in FY 2019-2020, the amount requested for a new rink was $4.5 million.

“If they are so adamant to spend $17 million, we have no objection to that enhancement of the Byram neighborhood, but let’s see a concrete proposal at the current location,” Mr. Sylvester said, adding that the funding approved by RTM to date did not include designs that include an access road.

“It’s not Dorothy Hamill Park,” Sylvester said. “It’s the Eugene Morlot Park.”

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Sets of compressors and cooling equipment at Hamill Rink. Credit: Leslie Yager
Original Hamill Rink in a black and white photo on display in the rink today.
A photo of Hamill Rink after a roof was added to the original open air rink.
The original markings for the ice were painted onto the concrete slab at Hamill Rink back in the 1970s. Photo: Leslie Yager
In April 2017, with the ice removed for summer xxwhen rolls of turf are unfurled, Hamill Rink Manager Rich Ernye pointed out the original markings for the ice rink which were painted onto the concrete slab back in the 1970s. Aug 14, 2017. Photo: Leslie Yager

See also:

Adding Access Road to New Hamill Rink Could Bump Users for at Least a Year A During Construction

Veteran Chagrined Over Swing Set Installed on Sacred Ground in Byram