Urban Renewal in Central Greenwich
In the months ahead, we can look forward to many heated discussions over the proposals for a town green in the commercial heart of Greenwich. Using the new police/fire complex as an anchor at one end, the Lash administration proposes a town center that would include the old town hall, now the Senior Center and home of the Greenwich Arts Council, and encompass the Havemeyer Building, Havemeyer Park and terminate with Town Hall. Lighted footpaths would wind through landscaped lawn areas between Greenwich Avenue and Town Hall.
Central to the issue is the brick, Romanesque-style building that was given to the town in 1892 by Henry O. Havemeyer for a public school. In recent years the Board of Education has been awkwardly and inappropriately housed there. It is now proposed as the ideal venue for a new, privately funded arts center.
“Not so fast,” say some, even though, to our knowledge, there has never been a fast-moving municipal project in the Town of Greenwich. The inescapable fact is, the building is a white elephant and a major public liability. Dilapidated, severely out of code and a safety hazard, it will require millions of dollars of tax money just to maintain it let alone renovate it for continued misuse as office space. The vision of a center for performing and visual arts in the heart of Greenwich’s commercial district is being ardently pursued by a group of well-established Greenwich residents led by Bea Crumbine and Marvin Berenblum. It is without doubt the best use of the Havemeyer Building. Its main theater and smaller black-box theatre and its large, high-ceilinged rooms are ideal for studios and rehearsals. Promoters of the arts center insist they can raise the $30 million for renovation. If so, leasing the property to the arts center for a dollar a year would be a boon to taxpayers, a bargain for the town and would create a major benefit for generations of Greenwich residents and our neighbors.
Not since 1996 during the Ragland administration has there been a serious discussion of renewing our central business area. At that time the vision was limited primarily to a restoration and beautification of Greenwich Avenue. Certainly the Avenue was in dire need, and some recommendations by the urban architectural firm of Vollmer Associates have since been adopted, due in part to Mary Hull, Green & Clean’s perennially proactive director, along with garden clubs and former Public Works Commissioner Marcus Madrid. With uniformly designed trash receptacles, the Avenue is less littered, pedestrian crossings are safer because of bump-outs, and the hideous mercury-vapor turnpike lights are being replaced by attractive period-design streetlights.
But much more is needed. Lash’s recommendation to install traffic lights to operate in the absence of the police during non-business hours addresses an important safety issue, and we were pleased to see the BET approve his recommendation for allocating $350,000 to develop a master plan for the central Greenwich area.
The big question is where to relocate the Board of Ed. The Lash proposal is to move it into the old town hall and construct a new building on the parking lot next to Town Hall for the senior center. This may be, as Lash claims, the best alternative financially, but it strikes us as the least desirable. The old town hall is due for some serious fixing-up, but even with that it would not appear to be a natural for modern office space. It is also logical to question why valuable frontage in the middle of Greenwich Avenue should be dedicated to administrative offices with little public traffic. The seniors want to stay on the Avenue where the action is, and the Board of Ed should have the kind of efficient office space that only a new building can provide.
One thing is certain: If any plan has a chance of going forward and finding its way through the town’s myriad administrative and legislative obstacles, it must develop broad public support. In recognition of this, RTM member Vince DiMarco has formed a steering committee and advisory network comprising representatives of neighborhoods, commercial property and business owners, town agencies and non-profit organizations. Its mission is to create a consensus among representative parties and organizations that will be useful in guiding the planning process in Town Hall. Our central business district and the concept of a town green must be an integral part of the next Plan of Conservation and Development due in 2008. Input from this kind of independent, interested-party committee can make an important contribution to creating a realistic plan, and one that may be more readily accepted.