From the Founders II

A Vision for Downtown Greenwich



Bob Capazzo

Urban planners tell us we have an enormously important asset in Greenwich Avenue, a part of town many of us take for granted, so much so that we have ignored the condition of the sidewalks, inferior landscaping and, in spite of attractive new period lamp posts, inadequate lighting. The avenue is greatly in need of a cleanup and a facelift. Any number of ideas for improvement have been put forth over the years, yet in spite of the importance of Greenwich Avenue and the Central Business District to the economic health and cultural vitality of the town, there is no comprehensive plan for improvements. An attempt was made in 1998 in Tom Ragland’s administration, and a federal grant of $400,000 was even available for an urban planning study. Inconceivable as it may be, the RTM refused the grant, and nothing further was done. The few initiatives that have been taken have been piecemeal as a result of fragmented government jurisdictions. Meanwhile, the town has continued to be plagued by excessive traffic and lack of parking, and there has been no significant action taken or plan developed to address these problems.

At the heart of any discussion of our Central Business District is the ultimate use and disposition of the Havemeyer Building and the old town hall. The Havemeyer Building, originally designed as a school over 100 years ago and now occupied by the Board of Ed, is in such disrepair that at least $20 million will be required to renovate and bring it up to code. Even then, it is totally inappropriate for use as modern office space, and the Board of Ed is anxious to abandon it for a smaller, more efficient building. Meanwhile, a group of influential citizens has proposed taking this white elephant off the town’s hands with a token lease, renovating it entirely with private funds and transforming it into a community center for the arts for a total cost of $30 million-plus. With its small theatre and large rooms with high ceilings, the Havemeyer Building is an ideal design for this purpose. From the town’s point of view, this would remove a major financial liability.

The old town hall, currently our Senior Center as well as home for the Greenwich Arts Council, is also badly in need of renovation. Should the Havemeyer Building become an arts center, it would be logical for the Arts Council to move over there. But before committing the entire old town hall to our senior citizens and undertaking a major renovation, a survey of the future needs of our seniors is being conducted, with the results due in a month or two. Whatever decisions are finally made, the effect on traffic and parking is an overarching concern that must factored into any plan.

With Planning & Zoning busily at work on the ten-year Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) due in December, Don Heller, P&Z’s chairman, has made a concerted effort to encourage public input. Over 700 residents from all areas of the town have attended the series of meetings sponsored by the P&Z. It became obvious that a comprehensive plan for the Central Business District should be developed to help guide the P&Z in its deliberations. (In fact, the RTM had recently refused further funding for downtown projects until a comprehensive long-term plan was adopted.)

Anticipating the critical need, two well-known town leaders, Vince DeMarco and Joann Massina, stepped forward to form the Downtown Consensus Group (DCG), a study committee composed of a cross section of stakeholders in the Central Business District. Their mission was to: Review plans for, and conditions in, the Central Business District in order to provide input and guidance to town officials on short- and long-term planning issues affecting the vitality of (the) District.

The list of stakeholders embraced everyone from Youth Services to the Commission on Aging. Represented were restaurant and property owners, the Chamber of Commerce, the proposed Arts Center, the Arts Council, the Board of Ed, the Housing Authority, the Historic District Commission and neighborhood associations from the 1st, 2nd and 8th RTM districts.

Beginning last May and running through October, the DCG’s weekly meetings called eighteen speakers to present their vision for downtown, its present problems and what improvements were needed. The speakers were drawn from the ranks of town department heads, including parking and traffic, Parks and Rec, and architectural review, plus directors of civic and cultural organizations. A consensus was thrashed out, and in a public meeting on November 13, the committee’s report labeled “Input for the 2008 Plan of Conservation and Development” was presented to Planning and Zoning.

Besides the objectives shown at left, it was suggested that a downtown management structure be created — a Business Improvement or a Special Services District similar to the very successful one in Stamford — that would oversee and promote healthy development in the commercial area.

The report was well received by members of the P&Z, and First Selectman Peter Tesei has indicated his support for an ongoing committee that would implement and monitor the development of our downtown area.

Meanwhile, specific plans for the future of the Central Business District are on hold until the future homes of the Board of Ed and the Senior Center have been decided. It has been suggested by the Board of Selectmen that offices for the Board of Ed could be built on the town parking lot just west of town hall, or onto the southwest corner of town hall where a wing was removed when the building was converted from the high school. Displaying its accustomed attitude of independence from the town administration, however, the Board of Ed apparently did not find those options appealing. The seniors want to stay on the Avenue where the action is, but besides other necessary renovations and improvements, elevators will have to be installed if the seniors take over the second floor from the Arts Council.

In addition, we are hearing rumbles of a proposal for a major development in our down- town area yet to be announced. All of which should make 2008 an exciting and critical year for the future of Greenwich.

SUMMARY OF ESSENTIAL OBJECTIVES

• The boundaries of the Central Business District should be clearly mapped and codified.
• A healthy environment should be created with appropriate trees and landscaping, parks and parking surfaces.
• Arts and cultural facilities should be a central component.
• Encourage architectural integrity by adopting sustainable design guidelines, and preserve the historic qualities throughout the District.
• Create mobility and easy access for residents, users and visitors, and provide safe, pleasant public spaces and recreation facilities.
• Expansion and maintenance of housing options and preservation of the residential character of surrounding neighborhoods.
• Encouragement of mixed use in the District through zoning regulations.
• Enhanced and properly maintained infrastructure and improved maintenance of public and private space through enforcement of defined standards.

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