Like an aging movie star, town hall is best viewed from afar.
At least that’s the assessment of Chris Burney, the town’s director of public works and facilities. When asked about the condition of the building at a meeting of the Police-Town Hall Campus Building Committee, he said, “it’s terrible.”
“The best thing about the building is the view from Route 7,” he added.
Its decrepit condition may be its salvation, however, as the committee begins to consider a major renovation project to expand the building, resulting in some town hall offices moving to Comstock Community Center and the police department moving into town hall. With the town hall annex likely to be razed, those offices could move in as well. The old police headquarters could be the new home of the Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps.
Nothing is set in stone, but that is one plan being looked at right now. Other options being examined are a renovation and addition for the existing police headquarters and a new police building in the same location.
Recent emergency repairs to town hall this spring revealed the dire condition of the building, committee co-chair Patti Temple told The Bulletin.
“We had known from the beginning of the study group that town hall needed work, but had no idea what very poor condition so much of the building is in. Understanding that now required us to consider additional solutions for the campus,” she said.
Speaking to The Bulletin at the end of the committee’s meeting on June 19 in the town hall annex, the committee’s other co-chair, David Waters, said they are looking at retaining the front exterior of town hall and taking off the back, digging out the ground underneath to build up the basement and then rebuilding two stories.
The building presently has about 10,000 square feet of space but only 50% is being used, Burney said. Brian Humes of Jacunski Humes Architects, who also attended the meeting, said there is the potential for 25,000 square feet of space in the same footprint.
Town hall problems
The problems with the town hall building are many. For one, it is difficult to keep offices with an exterior wall warm in winter.
“The walls are solid mason,” Burney said. In winter, “if you touch the walls they feel cold. It’s very hard to keep [the offices] warm.” As a result, many of the offices have individual electric heaters, which is a more expensive and less efficient way of heating them, he said.
One solution would be to build an insulated interior wall, which would make small offices even smaller and force wiring to be run up to the ceiling. “Not a great solution and not cheap,” Burney said.
The other option is to coat the exterior of the building with foam insulation and cover it with mortar. Neither he nor the committee thought that would be a popular solution.
The columns out front are being destroyed by carpenter ants and need to be replaced. Both the heating and air conditioning systems are inefficient. The electric system is as old as the building, which was built in the early 1930s, “and is at best strained,” Burney said.
The basement — which Temple, described as “part funhouse, part haunted house” is damp and not suitable for anything but storage.
The windows are original, but replacing them is expensive and ineffective since nothing around them is energy efficient.
There are five different roof levels and four are 100% saturated, Burney said. “When we took down the ceilings [to clean out a rodent infestation] there was 12 inches of insulation. Now there is none. We need to do something before the winter.”
The building is only partially ADA compliant, and since it technically is three floors it should have an elevator, which it does not.
On the positive side, the building is clean with no more rodents. The main vault is in good condition and the structure, including the foundation, is solid. Burney has not found anything that would indicate asbestos in the building but he has not tested for lead paint. It is likely lead paint has been painted over, he said.
One question the committee discussed was whether the building’s foundation needs to be built or reinforced to seismic code. This is a state statute requiring new buildings that qualify as essential facilities to be built to withstand earthquakes. Town hall is the nerve center for the town’s phone system that must be maintained during an emergency.
“It would make me happier to know it’s in a more robust building,” Burney said.
Several committee members asked if Comstock Community Center was built to seismic code since it is also designated an emergency shelter. They agreed to ask the architect of the renovation if that is the case.
Who moves where
It is all but certain that a number of town hall offices will move to Comstock on a permanent basis, Waters said, but which ones he could not say.
“We are still figuring that out,” he said. There is 3,000 square feet of unfinished space in the community center and Waters said it would depend on what offices would fit there. It is likely the town clerk’s office and the registrars of voters would stay at town hall because of needs specific to the work they do.
The town hall annex will likely be torn down. “It is not in good shape,” Waters said, “and the amount of money to glue it back together” would not be worth it.
Putting the police department in town hall would be attractive for a number of reasons, he said. For one, it would allow the police to stay where they are while new quarters are being built. Moving the police out to renovate their headquarters would be very expensive, in part because of the communications equipment, he said.
“The alternative is to renovate and add on in that location which has its issues as well,” he said, “although none that are insurmountable.”
If the police move out of their headquarters, that could become a new home for the ambulance corps, which says it needs 5,000 square feet. The police building has 10,00 square feet.
The committee plans to visit three newly built or renovated police stations in nearby towns:
- Bethel is finishing up construction of a free-standing building.
- Darien has renovated its building and built a state-of-the-art firing range.
- Monroe incorporated its police department onto the lower level of the town hall there.
The committee has been working on ascertaining the physical needs of each town department, both on the town hall campus and in Comstock. That will enable them to develop a Statement of Requirements (SOR) for the buildings in question.
Committee member Keith Fordsman, and Burney agreed, an engineering report on town hall would be helpful.
“We have to figure out the condition of all the buildings,” Waters said. “We have to figure out what the program needs are, then figure out who can move where and when.”
The committee’s goal is to present a recommendation with “firm figures” at next year’s Annual Town Meeting.
Information on the committee’s work may be found at WPDTownHallProject.org.