Clock ticking (fast) on depot plans
NORTH CANAAN — Plans for the final phase of the Canaan Union Station rebuilding are just about complete. More importantly, the project, which addresses interior and exterior finishing work, is poised for approval by the state. It remains on track to be completed before the year is out.
The state Department of Transportation (DOT) gets its say because it is holding $1.3 million in federal funding earmarked for the project since 2005.
The historic landmark was partially destroyed by fire in 2001. Its revival will include a retail center and restaurant, and there will also be a railroad museum in the former ticket office and signal tower.
It has not lost its designation as a continuously operating train station, since 1872. Housatonic Railroad Co. is working on a plan to expand its freight service to include passenger train service into New York City, and the project now seems more crucial than ever to the vitality of the town.
The pressure is on, as both the DOT and depot owner Connecticut Railroad Historical Association (CRHA), which bought the depot in 2003, each get prescribed comment periods as the project heads toward bidding in about three months.
Concerns from three groups
But there are other entities that want their say as well. Earlier this month, Geoffrey Drury submitted six pages of comments on the plans, written on behalf of the Canaan Fire District, North Canaan Streetscape Committee and the North Canaan Beautification Committee. Drury is a semi-retired local attorney, but wrote to CRHA through his close association with each.
All three entities represented have long given broad oversight to the town center: envisioning what it could be, securing grant funds and completing a fair amount of work in the way of tree plantings, sidewalk pavers, period lighting, benches and a new playground, as well as plans to move unsightly utility lines. Among the things they learned along the way is that even the smallest details count.
Among the points on Drury’s list was curbing, removal of the bus stop shelter, trees planned for removal, the width of sidewalks (which are plowed by the fire district), light pole and fencing colors, the warmth of the tone of lighting on the site and what he termed a “missed opportunity” in a project aimed at a historic restoration.
Drury also wondered why the draft site plan, dated July 8, 2011, was not made available for public review for more than seven months. He claims the CRHA board has deliberately denied the public an adequate chance for input.
“It’s difficult,” said Selectman Charlie Perotti, who serves as liaison between the town and CRHA, “because there is no face-to-face discussion with the state. We pass the plans back and forth and respond to each other’s comments. The plans were in the state’s hands since last July.”
CRHA has worked for years to secure grants, seek donations and hold fundraisers, with work delayed at times by a lack of funding, or a lack of a contractor willing to do the work. With the federal funds covering more than half of the estimated total cost, they are at the mercy of state approvals, and are running out of time.
‘It has to keep moving’
Holding up the project is in no way in the CRHA’s interest, Perotti said.
“The association is paying thousands and thousands in interest. Some of the board members have made donations to make mortgage payments. They just can’t afford for it to be held up any longer than it has to be.
“In a perfect world, we would have $2 million of our own and we could spend lots of time asking people what they want. But we can’t stop at this point and lose momentum. The project has to keep moving through the state process.”
On Feb. 8, CRHA board members held a meeting and addressed Drury’s comments. Perotti said the issues were taken seriously, and some changes were made. But it boiled down to making no changes that would cost more money or necessitate redrawing plans, anything that would cause a delay.
The comments, Drury wrote, “are offered for one purpose: to make a project whose success is of enormous importance to the entire town of North Canaan, and that would impact the look and feel of the town center for generations to come, as good as it can possibly be.”
The proposed lighting, for instance, would be a much cooler, brighter tone that would not blend in with the rest of the downtown lighting. Considerable effort went into designing lighting. Drury wants to see it blend in.
However, First Selectman Douglas Humes, a member of the CRHA board, told The Lakeville Journal that being the town “centerpiece,” perhaps the depot should be more noticeably lit.
No ‘exclusive control’
Drury expressed concern, as well, for the decision-making process. The nonprofit CRHA, he said, ended up owning the depot because its private owner was not eligible for government grants and bank bridge financing. That doesn’t give the association “exclusive control of the project.”
“This is very much a public, not a private, project, and the planning for it should seek to integrate it with, not isolate it from, the larger town context.”
Drury told The Journal he is in no way disparaging the members of the CRHA board, or their good intentions on this project. But he felt it was worrisome that at an informational meeting held at Town Hall in early January by the state and CRHA, it was evident that much of the planning had been delegated to engineers and architects, who, in Drury words, “appear to have little knowledge of the community and only limited interest in how their decisions about the depot plaza will impact the rest of the town center.”
Issues raised at that meeting included trees planned for removal that were planted as part of beautification projects; the problematic blocking off of the road behind Collins Diner; and the removal of valuable parking in front of the diner for banks of shrubbery.
Trees remain in debate. CRHA has since reversed the engineer’s plans to block the access road, and install new shrubs. At the informational meeting, landscape architect Stephanie Fuss was asked why she would trade parking for plantings, when the diner is already nicely landscaped. Fuss admitted she had not been on the site, but used information provided by the designers at A1 Engineers, Inc., which did not specify anything adjoining the area be developed.
While Drury’s comments offer many solid suggestions, Humes said, he reiterated that little can be changed at this point without risking project delay and overstepping what is allowed under the terms of a subsidized project. The suggestions were faxed to the architect for review.
For instance, Drury’s fear that the plaza is likely to look “white and cold” compared to the streets around it was answered by a plan to change the bulbs later on if that turns out to be the case.
Changed at Drury’s urging was the width of sidewalks, widened by 6 inches, to accommodate plows.
Light poles and a fence between the parking lot and the depot were planned to be black. Drury suggested they be the same dark green as poles installed for lights and traffic signals as part of the Streetscape work. The board voted to make the color change for the poles. No mention was made of the fence.
While the light fixtures will be distinctly different from the ones in the center of town, Drury likes the more industrial style that fits with the depot. A similar design was originally planned for the Streetscape work. But plaza lighting out by the street should be the same as the rest of the town center, he asserted.
Five streetlights in the depot plaza and a Greenway signboard kiosk on the ellipse will be removed and stored for future use elsewhere in town.
Issues that were not changed or addressed by the board were the subject of a quick reply from Drury, working from an official response to his comments from Perotti.
The “ellipse,” the grassy area on the Main Street (Route 44) edge of the plaza, also serves as a stop for buses that run between Vermont and New York City. It is currently an easy swing into the plaza from either direction. Drury is concerned that will no longer be the case when the entrances are reconfigured — narrowed down to two lanes requiring sharp turns — and he fears the stop may be eliminated.
He cited a lack of concern for bus service, as expressed by the project engineer at the informational meeting, and suggested it was another way for the CRHA board to treat the project as if it were “divorced from everything around it.”
A bus stop shelter is planned for removal as part of A1’s attempt to clear the ellipse of everything but the new clock tower. The idea is to open up the view of the depot. Drury argued that the alternative of allowing bus passengers to wait in the depot lobby is not a good option, and that the shelter disrupts the view from only “a very few square feet of Route 44.”
The view is one of the reasons most of the trees around the plaza were originally slated to go, it was explained at the informational meeting. The added cost of moving or trying to preserve trees is why the board decided the best approach is to replant after construction.
Drury continues to take issue with replacing mature trees, and remains unconvinced by the designers’ approach. Although it’s tagged as a historic restoration, trees would not have been included way back when because they would have been in the way at a busy rail station.
“This is a short-sighted and silly approach in a town that has been making strenuous efforts over the last three or four decades to restore its once magnificent street trees, and that is well on its way to accomplishing that goal. It will be both aesthetically and commercially unfortunate if the depot plaza ends up looking exposed, hot and uninviting in the middle of an otherwise green and welcoming town.”
‘A bright and sizeable eyesore’
Drury asked that a historical article required for the project be done by local people with knowledge of the period, or at least reviewed by the town historian.
Subtle nighttime exterior lighting of the signal tower and cupola, as well as the lighting in the museum, were concerns. The board’s answer is that museum and decorative lighting are still in the planning stages.
Perotti said the entire museum, right down to display fixtures, will be included in the federal funding.
Along the Route 44 frontage, striped “islands” will be painted to temporarily define the boundaries and two driveways. This is part of DOT Project 99-115, better known as the plan to install lights and gates at the Main Street railroad crossing. Difficulties in devising a plan to economically and effectively drain the crossing of chronic standing water, to prevent equipment malfunction, have kept the project on the drawing board for 20 years.
The painted stripes will be replaced by grass-covered islands after excavation for drainage is complete. Drury called them “a bright and sizeable eyesore.”
“Does the CRHA have any Plan B in mind for these areas if the DOT dithers for another 10 years?”
The answer is that CRHA has no control over the DOT project, or the “islands,” which are on state property.
Perotti said recent testing, with dye injected to determine the functionality of numerous existing drain lines, had a very positive outcome.
What does that mean for a project timeline? A call placed to the DOT Rail Division last week resulted in an unreturned message to the new project manager. The last successful communication with that office was last June, after a train was derailed by a rail failure at that crossing.
Randy Eick, who was project engineer at the time but has since retired, had said that the funding plan allows for only one crossing upgrade to be completed per year. Priorities are set, with the North Canaan project at the top of the list because of the absence of controls there.
But the plan includes draining into the Blackberry River, which means extensive, time-consuming state environmental permitting. Priority has switched to two projects that were ready to roll when funding became available, putting this project at least two years out.
CRHA has been attempting to secure a license agreement with Collins Diner owner Ameen-Storm Abo-Hamzy to allow use of the road behind the diner, which is part of that property, as an alternative access to the south side of the depot. The board decided on Feb. 8 to no longer pursue that request.
Abo-Hamzy told The Journal he was still trying to figure out, with his attorney, the best approach in a complicated situation of easements, including rail and utilities, on properties there, and felt rushed by the pace of the project.
Beyond that, he said he and his family are nothing but supportive of the project, and look forward to being among the businesses that will benefit.
What Drury calls a “missed opportunity” is a simple but intriguing plan to commemorate one of Canaan Union Station’s standout features. The north/south rail line once intersected with an east/west line there. Hence the L-shape (not quite a 90-degree angle) of the building.
He is advocating reinstalling the east/west rail for the length of that wing, creating a walkway flush to the rails. It would require moving a row of parking back, which would serve to give the building’s true facade the reverence he feels it is due. With passenger service gone and the depot used as retail space, the back, which faces Route 44 and the parking lot, has come to be perceived as the front.
Drury said that doing no more than creating a parking lot there would be “a clear mistake for a project that claims to be about historic preservation,” and an approach that would make the south face nothing more than a “backyard.”
“From a railroading point of view, however, the south face is very much the front of the building. It is no accident that many of the most striking images of the station show the depot from the southwest, not the northeast. This was the face on which the sign hung that welcomed passengers to Canaan for more than a hundred years.”
The answer from CRHA is that they asked the engineer to incorporate just such a design aspect into the project as something they can do at a later date.
“We have old rail saved and it’s something we want to do,” Humes said. “But it’s not allowed in this project. We are hoping to raise money and do it later on.”
As a completion date becomes real, CRHA is getting solid interest in the restaurant and retail spaces. Except for the museum and CRHA office space, interiors will be finished as “white box” rental spaces. Tenants will specify and pay for final work, such as partition walls and permanent fixtures, to meet their needs.