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Ridgefield Library, Theater Projects Get Green Light From P&Z

The unanimous approval clears the way for the library to sell the old theater building, which it owns, to Ridgefield resident Valerie Jensen, who reportedly plans to tear it down and construct a new three-screen cinema and arts center.

Plans for a new and Prospector Theater (currently ), which share the same campus in downtown, gained final approval from the Commission during its meeting at the Town Hall Annex Tuesday.

The unanimous approval clears the way for the to sell the old theater building, which it owns, to Ridgefield resident Valerie Jensen, who reportedly plans to tear it down and construct a new three-screen cinema and arts center.

The approval also means the library can begin demolition of its existing, 50-year-old, 25,000-square-foot facility in order to clear the way for an all-new, 40,000-square-foot, energy-efficient building, estimated to cost $20 million, with by the town . The remaining $15 million has reportedly been mostly raised through private donations and the sale of the theater building.

The library is reportedly planning to use the former Hay Day Market building on Governor Street as its temporary home until construction of the new facility is finished. Both projects are slated for completion by late 2013.

Historical elements of the existing facilities will be preserved. In the case of the library, the 1903 Morris building on Main Street will be incorporated into the new design — and the facade of the new Prospector will be a replica of the original Playhouse.

"You saw the architectural plans… I think these are two beautiful projects," said Robert Jewell, the attorney representing the library, during Tuesday's P&Z meeting. "We're maintaining the natural, scenic and historical qualities of this property… and we are maintaining the historic and architectural significance of both buildings."

Jewell added that the property will benefit from new landscaping as well as improved drainage as a result of the two, interconnected projects. Perhaps most important, both are in keeping with the Town Plan of Conservation and Development, he said.

One sticking point during the approvals process was a lack of parking on site to accommodate both facilities during simultaneous peak uses — such as when there is a sold-out show at the theater coinciding with a busy period at the library.

"There may be somewhat of a parking shortfall, under the calculations, during the peak uses," Jewell said. "But I think there is more than , it being the central business district."

Traffic studies introduced during the process show that there could also be some extra traffic generated on Prospect Street, Governor Street and Main Street during peak periods of use, "but I think the impact on traffic is greatly outweighed by the positives of this project," Jewell said.

During the meeting the commissioners discussed the possibility of including a condition in the approval prohibiting the library and the theater from scheduling events which coincide, so as to avoid parking and traffic problems.

"The tricky part for me is putting in conditions that ensure the two traffic peaks don't occur at the same time," said board member Michael Autuori. "I don't know how we are going to craft that. Because they're not the same company ... and if at any time they fail to get along for any reason, I don't know how we are going to codify how [the dispute would be resolved]."

Board member John Katz, however, said he didn't see a need for such a condition, as parking and traffic conflicts would be occasional at most.

"It seems to me that if there's going to be a confluence of exiting [from the site] at some point in time, it will be a confluence of people who have attended a pleasurable event that they elected to attend…" Katz said. "And the mood of those kind of attendees, it seems to me, tends to be softer and less aggressive than if they were, say, on their way home from work…"

Town Planner Betty Brosius said "in both cases the applicants indicated that they were willing to coordinate activities so as to avoid scenarios where events coincide resulting in traffic peaks…"

Autuori said although some minor traffic and parking problems are inevitable, "the intent of the applicants to coordinate whenever possible must be taken on good faith. I say it is a best effort scenario, rather than a condition."

Ultimately the commissioners agreed that the condition was not necessary.

Katz said while not everyone in town will be pleased with the aesthetics of the two designs "I think that is less relevant than the fact that there was serious due diligence done in presenting this, and in researching it, and in defining the limits of what was going to be done."

"It seems to me that each of those particulars was handled responsibly and that the application per se meets all of the requirements that would be mandated to receive our approval," Katz said, adding that the commission has been through "a great deal of complicated presentation" as the project made its way through the local approvals process during the past two years.

Autuori said the two facilities are "a linchpin of main street — very centrally located, very important — this is a high visibility and radically important functional nexus of our town."

"These structures are going to be here to serve the community for generations to come," Jewell said. "They're going to become a hub of the downtown — and it's going to be a definite positive for the town."

paul d. June 21, 2012 at 12:00 PM
Why do you have trouble parking at the library now? All I heard in the debate was how underused and irrelevant a library is in the days of the internet. My guess is that driving all the way to Danbury or Wilton will take most of our residents more time than finding a spot in town. BTW.... you may want to check with a merchant in town. The ones I have spoken to worry about empty parking spots (as in people not being in town) more than they worry about all the spots being filled.
Bob J June 21, 2012 at 09:34 PM
Not sure how you can compare the beautiful theater being proposed for Prospect Street to the nearby multiplex sticky-floor movie warehouses.
Mike Bonheim June 21, 2012 at 11:54 PM
I'm saddened to hear that the original playhouse will be demolished. I supported Valerie's push to buy the building from the library because I was under the impression this would save it from being razed.
localmom June 22, 2012 at 12:46 AM
I agree, I think most people, myself included were under the impression that the building would be refurbished, but not torn down per se. The NewsTimes article link says that the plan is to keep what they can from the original building (front facade and first 16') and incorporate it into new construction. I was ambivalent at first, but now I am looking forward to when its finished. Years ago when we lived in New Canaan, one of our favorite date nights was dinner, a movie and ice cream afterwards, all of which can be done on Elm St.
Eileen June 26, 2012 at 01:22 PM
Ah Ridgefield, going to heck in a hand basket....A multiplex. Yep, getting more urban everyday. (Might as well move.) Yet, the town will fight chain stores and chain restaurants. Funny, just recently there was a big to do about food vendors and the "unfair" competition they would bring against the local restaurants. I guess it's who gets paid by whom......

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