Norwalk Council members updated on new school plans

Jim Hoagland of JCJ Architecture explains a “terraced” design for a new school at the Nathaniel Ely site during Wednesday’s joint meeting of the Norwalk Facilities Construction Commission and the Common Council Land Use and Building Management Committee.

Mike Berger of Perkins Eastman explains the preferred design for an addition to Ponus Ridge Middle School.


Corrections, 2 p.m.: The word “tennis” was used instead of “softball” in reference to one proposed location for Nathaniel Ely School; the existing Ponus is two stories.  

NORWALK, Conn. – Tentative designs for two new Norwalk schools were reviewed Wednesday by Common Council members.

JCJ Architecture has two designs for the Nathaniel Ely site, while Perkins Eastman has worked its way to a proposing a addition for the back of Ponus Ridge Middle School.

One Ely design would build the new school on the existing softball court, while the other design features a terraced effect, with the school built into a hill on the edge of the property. Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo told members of the Norwalk Facilities Construction Commission and the Council Land Use and Building Management Committee at the end of their joint meeting that he didn’t think the terraced design would go through, due to issues with state reimbursement regulations.

The hours of work with school leaders and parents to brainstorm the Ely site has set a tone for the design, Jim Hoagland of JCJ Architecture told the Committee and Commission.

“I think we’re at a good point where we’re going to have make decisions very quickly and in the near future before we step off into really the next phase of design,” he said.

The Ely site is set to become the home of Columbus Magnet School, which features a Banks Street learning model. Hoagland mentioned the need for a makers space, a learning commons (called a library in the old days) and specialized science areas.

Jim Hoagland of JCJ Architecture illustrates the possible placement of playing fields on the Nathaniel Ely site.

Key to the eventual layout of the school’s playing fields is the acquisition of two properties along Ely’s back edge, Hoagland said, explaining that both properties are needed to build a regulation-size soccer field for the school.

Mention was made in both scenarios of the open space land swap issue that comes with building on the site. It’s estimated that the city will take 4.5 acres of land that is deeded as open space, and would need to replace it with an equal amount of open space elsewhere in the city.

A decision has to be made about where the school will go before an application can be made to the state, because the square footage has to be calculated, Lo said.

The first option builds in the middle of the property on the flat land now occupied by a softball field. If the properties are both acquired – Lo said one of the properties is difficult to obtain – then the field would be off Tito Court with 20-24 parking spaces on a dead end.

The school would have an open two-story lobby at its main entrance, with a “nice, glassy well lit learning commons” on the second floor, at the top of a big stairway, Hoagland said.

A pedestrian bridge would likely cross the site’s wetlands to connect the new school and the Nathaniel Ely preschool to the playing fields, creating a rural, parklike feel as students traveled to the outdoor learning area, he said.

“Option 4” is very different, placing the building as far east as possible along the hill, and “taking advantage of the existing topography,” Hoagland said.

The first option wastes open space, while the second preferred design leaves the softball field intact and makes better use of the property, he said. The three-story building, set into the hill with the middle floor as the main entrance, would create a “nice vertical separation” of students, with the sixth to eighth graders on the second floor, the youngest children on the first floor and grades three to five downstairs. The use of the property would allow 12 buses to line up separately from where parents drop off children and the gym, cafeteria and stage would be stacked together in one big space.

The goal at Ponus Ridge is to transform the existing middle school into a K-8 Science, Technology, Math and Engineering (STEM) magnet school, taking it from 690 students on the site to 1,050.

“It’s a beautiful site but it also is at the top of a hill, it drops off quickly,” architect Mike Berger of Perkins Eastman said, explaining two complications: a recent renovation and the fact that the building will be occupied during construction.

Berger showed five designs that were discarded, and explained that a design with one addition was selected instead of a design with two additions because of construction sequencing.

The state will only reimburse for so many square feet, and the existing building is too large, he said, explaining that a two-story addition would use 2,000 square feet just on staircases and hallways.

The proposed layout for an addition to Ponus Ridge Middle School.

The preferred “G” option would add onto the south side of the school, with a more secure entrance, an expanded cafeteria and an addition piece built into a slope, with middle school students on two levels of the existing building. Two new courtyards would be created.

Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) objected to the large courtyard, speculating that construction costs would be higher and fifth graders would have a long distance to go to reach the cafeteria.

Berger said the halls along the courtyard provide much needed natural light, and younger children need the enclosed outdoor space.

“The original Silver Petrucelli plan had us basically renovating as new the existing building, completely gutting a lot of it, spending $450 a square foot,” Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis said. “As we had to overhaul and lower our expectations, that was cut in half to $225. So that’s really going to limit what we can do and that building is oversized under state regs. We can only build so many square feet in order to get reimbursed, so because the existing building is so big as it is that puts some constraints on the addition.”

“This is a very efficient layout,” Berger said.

None of the designs are finalized, with research underway on the Ely options.

Lo said he thought the two-story Ely design, built on the edge of the property into a hill, would be too expensive as double the hallway space adds onto the square footage and “the state requirement is so limited.”

“As much as you take advantage of the grade change… you have to really define where the ledge is,” Lo said. “We have to figure out where the limitations are.”

There’s ledge removal and the need to build retaining walls, and, “It gets a little tricky,” he said.

Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) suggested that a smaller building footprint could save the city money on the land swap issue. Hempstead agreed.

“We are looking at that,” Lo said. “That is why we are at two buildings.”


Mike Barbis January 4, 2018 at 8:06 am

A few corrections are needed here that I have submitted to Nancy. There is no proposal to build the new Columbus School on the site of the tennis courts. The courts will be untouched and will actually be expanded. The bridge proposed over the wetlands at Ely would connect the proposed new multipurpose playing field (for use by the public during non-school hours) to the new school.

Susan Wallerstein January 4, 2018 at 9:36 am

Only indirect reference to educational specifications. Is there an approved doc? Are the educational needs driving facility design aligned with the curriculum and District standards e.g., SF, types of spaces, AC, etc. Will these schools define the new standard for future school renovation or construction projects e.g., equity?

Mike Barbis January 4, 2018 at 10:31 am

Susan, This is a State sanctioned project. As such, we filed an EDO49 last June for both schools. This State filing incorporated the direct Education Specifications as developed by an Ed Specs Committee for each project. Obviously, this is a public document and available for all to review. I will post the link shortly.

These projects will not incorporate every goal of Norwalk Public Schools and our Strategic Operating Plan due to financial realities … the State will be funding 23% (Columbus) and 32% (Ponus) and they have imposed some strict financial parameters (including limiting square footage). We wanted to incorporate community space at Columbus (e.g., for Grassroots Tennis) but State regs and finances prevented that … we wanted to do a more comprehensive renovation of the original Ponus but the City’s financial realities cut our spending from $450 to $225/sq ft.

#bereal #thefacts

Mike Mushak January 4, 2018 at 3:18 pm

Keep up the good work. We have confidence the BoE will make the right decisions for the City and its children.

Susan Wallerstein January 5, 2018 at 9:05 am

Thanks for info Mike Barbis. Very familiar with state reimbursement, ED049, etc. Keep up the good work BOE. #livelovenorwalkct.

Anonymous January 5, 2018 at 1:13 pm

Where is the concern that the BOE is moving Columbus to an even worse neighborhood? Parents and families should be concerned.

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