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From the Founders II

The Puzzle of Downtown Greenwich

Photograph by: Bob Capazzo

For more than four years, debate has been swirling over the future use of the historic Havemeyer Building, named for the sugar tycoon who gave it to the town in 1892 for educational purposes and occupied by the Board of Education (BOE) since 1950. It is part of the process of deciding on future homes for the BOE, the Senior Center and the Arts Council. These issues promise to dominate discussion in town hall, the BET and the RTM in the months ahead.

The board of the BOE has said on several occasions that it wants to move out, and who can blame them! The building is not only totally unsuited for office use, it is in critical need of repair and renovation. Based on an architectural analysis by Peter Grisolfi Associates, it would cost from $13 to $15 million just to bring it up to code and, according to Henry Ashforth Realty, as much as another $43 million to create efficient office space.

Part of the problem lies in the building’s inflexibility. There are significant load-bearing walls that cannot be moved, and the large, high-ceiling rooms designed for classrooms are inappropriate for offices. However, they are ideal for art, music and dance studios, and, as an added attraction, the building contains a long abandoned 400-seat theater hidden by a dropped false ceiling that was constructed to create office space below. Enter the Greenwich Center for the Arts, a group of influential and dedicated Greenwich citizens led by cochairmen Peter Malkin and Bea Crumbine. They have proposed leasing the building from the town for one dollar a year, and in return the Center for the Arts will repair, renovate and restore the Havemeyer to its original glory entirely with private funds. They claim they already have pledges for nearly half of the total estimated cost of $35 million, including a $5 million endowment.

Now, if the town (that’s us taxpayers) has to pay $15 million just to bring the Havemeyer up to code for whatever use it may then be put to, accepting the offer of the Arts Center board would appear to be a financial no-brainer. There is, of course, more to it than that. New quarters would need to be built or rented for the BOE. But even a new office building would cost less and be less disruptive than renovating and retrofitting the 45,000-square-foot Havemeyer Building for its offices.

Our central business district has become a mecca for retail chains and restaurants, but it has little to offer culturally. Meanwhile, there are numerous music, dance, theatrical and visual arts groups from our general area that are eager to find a good place to work, practice and perform. The recently released draft of the Plan of Conservation and Development states that there is general agreement that the Board of Education needs a new site, and that a study is underway on the re-use of the Havemeyer Building. Referring to the proposed Greenwich Center for the Arts, it states: “Certainly the Center fits the concept of a cultural and entertainment center for Downtown, especially with educational programs for children.” And, “…. is within the scope of total activities within Downtown.”

So, what’s the rub?

The rub is that the BOE won’t commit itself to a future home. Meanwhile, the Senior Center, now in the old town hall along with the Greenwich Arts Society, is eyeing the Havemeyer. Citing a recent survey of seniors it conducted to support its ambitious plans for expansion, and because it claims there is not enough space in the entire old town hall to accommodate its future needs, the Senior Center received approval from the RTM of $30,000 for a feasibility study of moving into the Havemeyer. Even if the seniors take over all of old town hall, that building would also have to be brought up to code and a new elevator installed. For its part, the Arts Society’s board is quite willing to join the Greenwich Center for the Arts in the Havemeyer Building in space that is ideal for their programs.

The seniors want to be downtown where the action is, and they should be. The BOE administrative staff wants to be downtown, but needn’t be. We understand it was proposed that a new office building be built for the BOE next to Town Hall where it could share central services with town government, and that the BOE nixed the idea, perhaps in fear of losing some of its autonomy. Another suggestion is the building formerly occupied by Abilis (formerly ARC) in Glenville with ample space for the BOE.
Too far from downtown, they say.

Midst this tangle of conflicting interests and constituencies, one thing is certain: The BOE has been a roadblock to further progress. Nothing is going to happen until it makes its intentions clear about moving out of the Havemeyer Building. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the offer of private funding by the backers of the Greenwich Center for the Arts. Peter Malkin has stated that if the BOE has not made up its mind by the end of the year, they will not be able to hold their donors to their pledges, much less solicit new commitments.

There has been a misconception that the Havemeyer Building is owned by the BOE. In fact, Havemeyer deeded it to
a school district that no longer exists, and no evidence can be found that the title had been transferred to the present district. While recent tax records list the town as owner of the building, it is nevertheless unlikely that Peter Tesei could, or would, follow the example of Mayor Bloomberg who, with a stroke of his pen, moved the Board of Ed of New York out of its ancient quarters and into a building right next to City Hall where, he said, he could look out the window and see who’s working.

— Jack Moffly