Community center architect to answer council, public concerns
Size, location, cost — the bases are loaded for the newly-approved architect tasked with researching, and possibly one day building, the Trumbull Community Center.
Before he gets the opportunity to hit a grand slam, Tom Arcari, the principal partner at Farmington-based Quisenberry Arcari Architects, will have to determine whether this project is something Trumbull residents want.
Quisenberry Arcari was approved to research and develop a design for the community center thanks to a 12-0 vote, with one abstention, at the Trumbull Town Council meeting Thursday, July 7. What comes next is a series of focus groups, similar to the ones conducted at the library this summer, and additional community conversations to gather feedback.
“The architect impressed both sides of the aisle, and what was most impressive, as those of us in the committee had seen during the two interviews with him, was his commitment to community involvement,” said Joe Pifko, co-chairman of the Trumbull Community Center Study and Building Committee. “Quisenberry Arcari is eager to listen this community’s input and implement a design based on what they hear.”
While the bases appear to be loaded with questions, the first meeting between the architect and Trumbull residents has yet to be scheduled.
Pifko said that the town’s purchasing department has entered into contract negotiations with the firm and once terms are agreed upon, then the builders will develop a calendar of different dates, locations and times to get started on the research portion of the project.
Despite the $175,000 set aside as a placeholder in the town’s 2016-17 budget to pay an architectural design fee, Pifko said he was confident that Quisenberry, a firm that has built close to 20 community centers around the state, would be working for less.
“Not necessarily all of that money will be used,” he told The Times Friday. “Some will be paid for design costs; some for the research process.”
Councilwoman Mary Beth Thornton took issue with hiring Quisenberry Arcari to define the scope of a project that they’re leading.
“I think that it is a conflict of interest,” she told The Times.
What does the public think?
A lightning rod issue in town dating back to the beginning of last summer, the Trumbull Community Center certainly doesn’t lack a group of challengers who believe the process being followed is flawed.
Cindy Katske, a member of the Democratic Town Committee who ran for Town Clerk last November, asked last Thursday about design cost, specifically a $500,000 placeholder for the design of a new community center in the town’s proposed five-year capital plan.
“Is the $500,000 in calendar year 2017 in addition to the $175,000 that was just approved?” she asked the council. “If so, what is the rationale for the increase in design fees to $675,000? If there is no rationale, please vote to reduce the amount by $175,000.”
When asked about the money being spent up front, Pifko said that the town hasn’t “spent a penny from the capital plan.”
“By law, we need to have that placeholder in our five-year plan so we can apply for state and federal grants,” he explained to The Times. “The Town Council would need to vote and approve on each design and construction item as it comes in, which none of have yet.”
In addition, $7.5 million was set in place for construction of the building, which Katske noted in her comments to the council.
She also expressed dissatisfaction that the capital plan referred to the building as a senior center. She recommended a change be made to refer to the project as a community center.
“I still believe that this project is moving way too fast, without adequate transparency and communication with residents,” Katske told the council. “You are approving an architect without having obtained sufficient input from residents. A new community center could be a wonderful asset to the town, but not if it’s not what the residents want…
“Please take the time going forward to make sure that this project is what the residents want,” she added.
For her part, Katske told The Times Friday that she thought Arcari’s 30-minute presentation was “excellent” and she believed “he would do a good job.”
“But the fact remains that many residents wanted a comprehensive survey to be done by the town to determine whether the residents want a new community center and, consequently, whether we need to pay money to an architect in the first place,” she stressed.
“The architect has a vested interest in building a new facility and I would prefer to have had an independent consultant conduct a town-wide survey to get the public’s input,” she added. The Town Council formed a study and building committee for a reason, and I still believe the committee should have done more to make sure that more residents’ voices were heard before it got to the point of choosing an architect.”
Katske wasn’t the only Democrat left pondering whether or not anything new needs to be built, whether it be for seniors or the entire Trumbull community.
Councilman Bill Mecca, who said the presentation was very well done, questioned the process, equated the proposed facility to going to a resort and being asked to look into their timeshare program.
He told The Times that the presentation was overshadowed by the public's constant concerns about the project.
“They do not feel that the community has been adequately surveyed, and that the process is moving forward too quickly,” he said, echoing Katske’s sentiments. “Respecting the public's desire to be heard and valuing their feedback appear to be constant sources of disconnect for those determined to move forward.”
He added that it wasn’t just the public that felt uneasy about the process.
“It also is the greatest source of disagreement between members of the Town Council, even though this is an enormous and unprecedented project for this town,” Mecca said. “In all of Trumbull's history, when have we built a new municipal building that wasn't a public school? School construction/renovation projects qualify for significant federal/state reimbursement.
“With our tax bills and sewer assessments bills fresh in people's minds, and our economy struggling to gain momentum, who wouldn't respect the taxpayers constant push for asking more questions and conducting more research by a neutral third party?" he asked.
Concerned resident Mary Isaac, who listened at Thursday’s meeting but didn’t speak, urged residents to email elected officials, like Mecca and Thornton, if they feel that the process is being pushed through.
After listening to the council’s discussion, Isaac told The Times that she wasn’t sold that the facility would move Trumbull forward.
“There were council members that said that the letters they received were ‘templates’ and seemed to discount them due to their repetitive nature,” she said. “There was a council member that discounted, and mocked, the 600-plus people that signed a petition asking for this process to stop until they know what the taxpayers want, if anything.
“Perhaps the ‘templates’ of emails were actual concerns that taxpayers had upon reading on social media that this was not a true community center, had little support from any, especially the seniors, and had no chosen site,” Isaac added. “How can an elected official say that 600+ citizens voicing opinions doesn't matter? How can our elected officials not question a survey that the commission themselves said was flawed and yet use that data to move forward?
For Isaac, the same questions she had entering the meeting remained following Arcari’s presentation.
“Do we want a community center, a senior center, a combo, a renovated senior center, or anything at all? How does a facility that is open eight hours a day for the seniors and four hours a day for non-seniors serve the full community and move us forward? How does a center with a half-gym, tiny cafe, no pool, and no gym move us forward?”