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Norwalk Council looks to table Columbus controversy as Ely school is delayed

Jim Hoagland of JCJ Architecture explains a “terraced” design for a new school at the Nathaniel Ely site during an early 2018 meeting in City Hall.

Updated, 3 p.m.: PDF added.

NORWALK, Conn. – It will be almost certainly be a year before construction can begin on a new South Norwalk school, Norwalk Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said Wednesday.

That means a corresponding delay on the current Columbus Magnet School building, erasing the urgency in deciding whether it should be renovated or replaced, Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) said.

Even with the change in plans, Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton asked the Council to continue on its path toward approving the Board of Education’s request to rejigger $13.5 million in capital spending, covering shortfalls in school construction.

“There’s nothing changed that would indicate to us that we think that these numbers are going to go down in any way,” Hamilton said.

Cap Budg schools 19-0506 Fogel

The delaying factor for South Norwalk is the plan to use park land for the Ely Avenue school. City officials need the approval from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and from the National Parks Service on their request to replace the open space with land in another part of town. Lo put in the request in November, right after other Ely property had been obtained through the eminent domain process, Hamilton said. DEEP has yet to issue a decision and there is a June 30 deadline on submitted a grant application to the Connecticut Department of Administrative Services (DAS), to fund the school construction.

DAS will not consider the Columbus school application until Norwalk has the approval for the Ely school land swap, Livingston said.

“I heard some people say they were pulling the plug on the project. I don’t think that would be an accurate characterization. They are must simply saying that one of the elements that has to be fully in place before they will move a project forward,” Hamilton said. “… this land swap has to be out of the state DEEP and also has to be approved by the National Park Service before they will consider the city to have site control sufficient to move the project forward.”

The plan to use the Springwood Park land for new school construction was developed by NPS and the Board of Education. It was the reason cited by then-Council members Travis Simms and Faye Bowman in opposing the new school, a planned K-8 magnet school with a Banks Street model.

The Concord Street school plan has inspired similar controversy, as the Board of Education recently dropped its plan to renovate the school into a new-like condition, asking the City for an additional $1.5 million to instead build a new school. The Planning Commission on May 21 voted 4-3 on that request, meaning it was turned down because a 5-2 majority was needed. Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis instantly condemned those who voted against it, promising to hold them accountable down the road as costs mounted due to possible remediation costs.

A Planning Commission denial could be overturned by a super majority Council vote, but Livingston’s Committee also voted against the request, citing historical concerns and the high cost of NPS school construction projects. As the Columbus/Ely controversy swirls, construction is underway to turn Ponus Ridge Middle School into a K-8 magnet school, and planned work on Cranbury Elementary has been put aside to cover cost overruns.

There will be no Council vote on the Concord Street school next week because a DAS official toured the school Tuesday and told Norwalk not to apply for the grant, Livingston said.

“It was interesting. He very straight shooter, I think,” Livingston said.

There were more details on the delayed land swap approval: the DEEP official who has been handling it retired about two weeks ago, Norwalk just found out and is unsure of who is replacing him, Lo said. Although there’s a request in to State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) to expedite the application, no one is optimistic because even if DEEP did approve it, the Parks Service has yet to weigh in.

DEEP does not do many land swap requests, he said.

Because the Columbus student body is expected to move into the new Ely school, the Columbus building cannot be addressed before the new school is built. Even so, the state requires that construction begin within two years of a grant being awarded, so it’s not a good idea to apply for the grant now, Livingston said.

Another factor has changed: Lo said the urgency stemmed from a belief that the state was poised to change its reimbursement rates for school construction, but the legislature is not moving ahead with that. So waiting on the application is no problem.

Nevertheless, Hamilton asked Council members to approve the authorization to submit the application to the state. It would signal “to the state that this is still a project that is very much, you know, active and moving forward. And once this one final hurdle is crossed, we expect to be submitting an application. So I think is it it’s important for that reason,” Hamilton said.
Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) suggested that the Council approve it, knowing that it won’t be submitted, so that after the election the approval would be in place. That did not inspire support.

“One of the concerns I had at the last meeting … was that we don’t have all the information we would have liked to have had for that decision,” Livingston said. “We made the decision. I don’t regret the decision. But we made it based upon the limited information. We now have a year to get make sure we have all the information and why not take advantage of it?”

9 comments

Mike Mushak June 6, 2019 at 7:53 am

It is still astounding to many of us here in Norwalk that the BoE never consulted with the Planning and Zoning department or commissions, before deciding that a completely inappropriate suburban-style school with dangerous wide sidewalk crossings on busy urban sidewalks (hundreds walk back and forth to the train station on this route) and deep setbacks filled with asphalt bus turnarounds should be plopped down in the middle of an urban historic district.

It is the equivalent planning mistake of demolishing part of historic Washington Street to put in a strip mall, or what the city allowed in the late 60’s by demolishing a historic neighborhood full of beautiful buildings to put in the hideous 50 Washington St that we are still regretting decades later.

It is just wrong to demolish a beautiful solid historic building that can be renovated as new, with smart site design that can solve the issues for circulation and security that the potentially biased consultant has argued can’t be solved, as part of what I see as a deliberate misinformation campaign being waged to build a new school on this site. I’ve listened carefully to the debate, and it has been obvious that this decision was made to push a new school no matter how flimsy or emotional the arguments. In other words, little facts and lots of baloney.

It is now time for another opinion from an outside consultant familiar with adaptive reuse of historic buildings, the biggest trend in urban design happening now all over the world.

As one BoE member was quoted recently, a new building will be “clean, mean, green,” as if decades of research doesn’t even exist from the Research and Policy Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, that proves it is more efficient to renovate historic buildings than to build new.

In fact, Norwalk as such a strong reputation for historic preservation, that our city hosted a full-day national conference on March 1 at the Wall Street Theater that I attended, along with many other professionals and land use experts from the region, on how it makes economic and environmental sense to adapt and renovate historic buildings instead of demolishing them and starting new.

Evidence was presented at that conference that it can take up to 80 years to recoup the energy costs lost when demolishing historic buildings to build new. None of this evidence was presented by the BoE consultant, or even mentioned in any of the dubious “pros and cons” lists circulated to the public, leading me to conclude that the consultant is either incompetent or deliberately trying to manipulate the debate. Either way, it is disappointing to see the BoE decision-making process being led with such bad information. I don’t doubt the good intentions of the BoE, but when I am threatened publicly by a BoE member for voting against spending more taxpayer money to knock down a perfectly solid building to build an inappropriate new one on the same site, we all have to wonder what the true motivations are in this debate. Monuments to egos, perhaps? That’s not a stretch.

As far as the fear being pushed by the BoE of hidden costs in renovating as new, the site is full of ledge and will clearly be expensive to build entirely as new, and environmental remediation of historic buildings is not some mysterious science as they are portraying.

In fact, historic restoration happens every day in Norwalk, including right next to the school on Chestnut Street which has other recent projects of renovated historic buildings for adaptive reuse, including the Smilow Center and the Beinfield headquarters, both in beautiful historic brick buildings, and in the case of the Smilow Center, came in under budget and ahead of schedule. I also know from an architect on the staff at the Beinfield headquarters, that smart energy-efficient design and large south facing windows and thick brick walls of the historic building kept heating costs this past winter to a minimum, almost nothing in fact. This idea that renovated historic buildings waste energy is not based on fact, but on the misguided notion by some uneducated folks who tritely believe “new means better”. And that uneducated notion is what ironically seems to be driving the decision-making process at the BoE.

In other words, the BoE is pushing mostly nonsense and irrational fear-based arguments in this debate, something we should all be concerned about.

It would be a huge planning mistake for the BoE to add to the destruction of the historic fabric of SoNo, a civic asset that we can never get back once it’s destroyed. Few remember now that a second tower as big and ugly as 50 Washington St was proposed and approved for what is now our cherished Washington St, and that a small group of concerned citizens from South Norwalk and surrounding areas protested and demanded the city save the historic buildings in this neighborhood. They had to fight hard, including Bobby Burgess who is remarkably still at it, and we all appreciate that effort now.

We have the same appreciation for the folks who fought hard to save the beautiful Lockwood-Mathews Mansion from demolition, and even our own City Hall, that is a great example of successful adaptive reuse including preserving one of the best concert halls in the northeast with acoustics similar to Carnegie Hall.

If the sophomoric “mean and clean” advocates like the folks on the BoE had won that debate, we would have had a City Hall with all the character and style of the Health Department, with all due respect to the Health Department, but they are in one ugly building across the parking lot from City Hall.

The City Hall revocation in the late 1980’s incorporated the 1939 Norwalk High School, built at the same time in the richly-detailed neo-colonial style that Columbus School shares. Imagine losing that amazing cupola and concert hall community room and brick facades and big multi-pane windows, and City Hall looking like the Health Department on steroids. Columbus School is s beautiful building with details and character we can never replace, and that has the potential to inspire and enrich the lives of future generations as historic buildings do when saved and renovated.

New isn’t always better, a lesson the BoE seems to have skipped out on in their own educations. It’s embarrassing but also tragic, that we are even debating this issue in 2019, in Norwalk that prides itself on historic preservation.

In fact, the vision of the new Citywide Master Plan (POCD) includes preserving our historic character, especially in our historic urban areas like SoNo and Wall Street. This is why the Norwalk Historic Commission, composed of highly-qualified citizens who know their subject in depth, voted unanimously to save the beautiful neo-colonial Columbus School. And this is why the Planning Commission did not endorse the allocation of extra taxpayer money to demolish the historic school and build as new.

To summarize, dropping a suburban-style school into the very heart of historic SoNo, less than a block from our historic train station and surrounding historic districts, violates everything Norwalk has been promoting for decades, including becoming a national leader in historic preservation. It is time for city leaders to take action, and stop this stupid idea the BoE has to violate the vision of the Citywide Master Plan and knock down a solid brick landmark, that if preserved and adapted through smart design solutions could be a model school for our new IB program. In fact, it would add prestige to the new school and respect from the community and from taxpayers across the city, to see a beautiful and efficient renovation we can all be proud of.

Time to get another opinion, and to get out the pencils and paper and really look at how a renovated historic school can still have better bus and car circulation and security without destroying a neighborhood in the process. I’ll help!

Bryan Meek June 6, 2019 at 8:33 am

This is exhibit A for why Norwalk hasn’t built a brand new school building in over 50 years.

20 layers of approvals from myriad boards, commissions, panels, state, feds, activists, and the Pope.

This is what state law has brought us.

We are asking for about $40 million in state reimbursement….well not asking for it…..that’s state law. It’s why the state’s infrastructure is crumbling into the ground. Even the state capitol is near condemnation status, but this group knows what’s best for us.

To put this $40 million in perspective. It’s about $1.5 million a year over the useful life of the projects. Or another way to look at it, about the same amount that Norwalk taxpayers pay in state taxes every single day 365 days a year.

The state can’t afford to pay our retired teachers, but it is in the business of micromanaging school facilities projects.

Then we have governing bodies, who after 3 years of planning need more information. There have been scores of meetings. 1000s of pages of documents culminating from 1000s of hours of work from dozens of people working together, negotiating, and producing the best possible plan for our children’s educational environment. Kiss that goodbye.

And to top this all off, we have a local state delegation who have no problem getting $600 million busways approved for 8000 riders in New Britain, but when it comes to getting $40 million for 11,000 children in their own district, they are powerless.

$5 million appeared out of thin air for the Tyvek Temple, thanks to Bob Duff. There were no public meetings, planning, neighborhood outreach, council review, etc….. It just appeared out of thin air overnight and then vanished. But when it comes to building schools, it’s like catching wind with a net.

Bryan Meek June 6, 2019 at 10:19 am

I stopped reading Mushake’s screed after the first paragraph. He’s concerned about the historic nature of the neighborhood? So, the containership looking mall is ok, but when it comes to “preserving” history, our children are the one’s who have to foot that bill. Gotcha.

Scott June 6, 2019 at 11:24 am

“Lo put in the request in November, right after other Ely property had been obtained through the eminent domain process, Hamilton said. DEEP has yet to issue a decision…”

Seriously? If that timing is right, that’s 6-7 months ago. Did anyone from Norwalk bother following up with DEEP to ensure the request is being routed properly or making them aware there is an impact to the overall project timeline with the failure to make a decision?

Are we only going to find out after DEEP provides their feedback or approval that we are still waiting on the National Parks Service to provide their assessment?

OMG, the red tape!!!!

Mike Lyons June 6, 2019 at 2:56 pm

Scott, we’ve been following up with DEEP almost weekly. The Hartford bureaucracy is glacially slow.

Mike Mushak June 6, 2019 at 4:05 pm

@Mike Lyons, there are no detailed plans for the new building, no test pits, and no engineering study. There have been no alternative site plans that can show various alternative configurations to solve circulation and drop off issues.

The pros and cons list is therefore simply guesswork at this point, hardly the basis for making a decision to demolish a solid and beautiful historic structure in a historic neighborhood and replace it with a new suburban building with what we assume will be a big asphalt parking lot out front for turning buses around just like any suburban school has, a solution that is highly inappropriate for this urban location.

And there is no mention at all in the pros and cons list of the energy costs of demolishing the old building, as detailed in the research by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Research and Policy Lab that any first year architecture student should know about. That should have been a warning to the BoE that they weren’t getting all the facts here.

Therefore, the pros and cons list you and other members of the BoE have relied upon is both incomplete and misleading. You should do your due diligence and seek another feasibility study from a consultant familiar with historic preservation, and without a vested interest in building a new building that will generate additional fees
and potentially millions in additional costs to taxpayers, at the same time destroying the character of this historic district that so many have worked so hard to protect over the decades and continue to do so even within a block of Columbus School.

Mike Mushak June 7, 2019 at 10:27 am

@Lisa Brinton, what is your position on the Columbus School issue? I’m not running for mayor, you are.

And since you asked, I have a passion to see POKO completed, in contrast to your passionate support to obstruct it’s completion, just so you can have something to run on since Mayor Rilling has succeeded in increasing services and funding school improvements while reducing taxes.

As far as saving the Garden Cinema, the owner wants to sell because it needs millions in renovations to bring it up to ADA code and modern standards, in an era when Netflix is killing the movie theater industry. What is your plan?

So please, tell us if you support demolition of the historic Columbus School, and how you would save Garden Cinema. Again, you’re running for mayor, not me.

And in this National Gay Pride Month, also tell us how you justify seeking the endorsement of the official party of hate, since the official Republican platform includes a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality across the nation, and their leader Trump with the full support of the morally corrupt Republican Party is terrorizing LGBTQ communities across the nation with his anti-gay policies.

Lisa, in the name of “full transparency” which you demand of others, please share your positions on all of the above, since you’re seeking to run for mayor on this same official platform.

Thank you.

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