For the Record

Downtown Renewal



By Bob Capazzo

In our April issue we wrote about plans for the renewal of our central business district and the initial work of the Downtown Census Group. The group is developing recommendations embracing the entire downtown area including the continued use of the old Town Hall for the Senior Center, and the creation of off-street parking and a town green. The article addressed the proposed move of the Board of Ed from its very inadequate quarters in the Havemeyer Building and the privately funded conversion of that building to an arts center. 

Members of the Downtown Census Group represent a cross section of individuals and organizations that are stakeholders in the future of this vital public and commercial area of our town. The group is led by JoAnn Messina and Vince DiMarco as facilitators and includes representatives of the RTM, Board of Ed, Arts and Senior centers, Chamber of Commerce, restaurants, housing, green space and preservation. Its recommendations are intended to provide a guide for Town Hall and Planning & Zoning as they seek public input for the development of the ten-year Plan of Conservation & Development due for completion by December 2008.

The last time a renewal of our central business district was seriously addressed was ten years ago during the Ragland administration when the urban planning firm of Vollmer Associates created a master plan for Greenwich Avenue. A few of the Vollmer recommendations have been implemented, but the condition of our central business area still leaves much to be desired. The issues of traffic and parking have yet to be seriously addressed in spite of a dozen studies and recommendations over the years.

Now we again have the opportunity to turn vision into reality. The new Fire/Police headquarters is taking shape on schedule. There is general recognition that the aged Havemeyer Building is no longer suitable for the Board of Ed, in fact, not suitable for habitation of any kind without a $20 to $25 million renovation.

A group of leading Greenwich residents is committed to raising as much as $32 million, including an endowment, to renovate and reconfigure the building into a center for the visual, musical and performing arts. If this were accomplished, we would have a very desirable community resource in the center of town while removing a white elephant and financial liability from the shoulders of taxpayers. With its 400-seat formal theater and 125-seat black box theater, large high-ceiling rooms and wide corridors, the building is ideal for an arts center.

So who can argue? Well, some can and do. In a worst case scenario, what if the arts center can’t support itself and the endowment isn’t large enough to cover operating costs? Then the town takes back a fully renovated and code-compliant building at no cost to taxpayers. It appears that the biggest obstacle to forging ahead is the Board of Ed itself, which says it would love to abandon the Havemeyer Building, but the staff likes to be on Greenwich Avenue. That’s why there has been talk of renovating the Senior Center/Art Center to accommodate the Board of Ed, which we believe was one of the few bad ideas emanating from the first selectman’s office and one that had many seniors up in arms. Why in the world would we want to put an administration building with limited public access right smack on the Avenue?

Meanwhile, until the Board of Ed decides where it’s willing to be moved, planning is at a standstill. It has resisted what appears to be a logical proposal for a new, modern wing on the southwest side of Town Hall. The board’s most recent preference is for a new building just south of the Havemeyer, a location that could also possibly be used for tiered parking because the steep slope would accommodate below-grade parking levels.

Public meetings are planned to begin in September, and the town has retained Planimetrics, an urban-planning firm developing Westport’s ten-year plan. Plans of conservation and development, along with many of the studies that support them, have a way of gathering dust. This time around we are presented with a wonderful opportunity to create a vibrant cultural center, public meeting place and town green that will be a central hub of Greenwich. We should seize the opportunity to turn this vision into a reality. 

 

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