Long Hill, nature center eyed for community center locations

Those clamoring for direction from the town’s Senior/Community Center Building Committee received just that last week when four architecture firms were chosen from a list of 12 to come up with proposals for a pair of potential site locations for the project.

The first location is the Long Hill Administration Building, located at 6254 Main Street, that currently houses dozens of Trumbull Public School system employees, including Superintendent Dr. Gary Cialfi.

“What’s in there right now is not the optimum use for the building, and we think it could be renovated to meet the needs of the community better,” said Town Council member Joe Pifko, who’s been tasked with co-chairing the committee. “The big problem would be moving the educational services to another site, but right now, all we’re trying to find out from the architects is what they think of it as a legitimate site for a community center and what they think they can do with it.

“There might be a third site in the future,” he added. “Right now, these two are just samples of properties that we want them to see and consider — nothing is definite.”

The second property that the four firms will investigate is the Nature and Arts Center, formerly the Wagner Tree Farm, located at 7115 Main Street, right off Route 25.

“We liked this one because it’s on a main road, there’s no intrusion to neighbors, it has a low impact on the surrounding community, and there’s a traffic light that allows drivers to take a left-hand turn onto the property,” Pifko told The Times Wednesday, May 25, the night after the committee’s most recent meeting.

“The negative is that it’s on the edge of town and we’d prefer a more central location, but the reality is we don’t have that ideal flat, central location where we can put this thing,” he added.  

The four architecture firms will return in four weeks on Thursday, June 23, and will each give the committee a one-hour proposal of the two sites.

Pifko said the presenters — all from Connecticut companies — will make their pitch in a closed meeting, where they ask the same questions and they will be ranked by each member of the committee, similar to how they whittled the top four firms from the list of 12 last week.

“We’re asking the firms about the sites — what they can do there, but more importantly, if they think the location is great or if they don’t think it’s great,” he said.

“We will discuss all four presentations immediately after they’re done,” he added. “It will be an all-day meeting and we can’t have news of one proposal leaking before another company gets to present — it wouldn’t be fair.”

Far from over

For those worried about the committee spending $175,000 on an architect without a site in mind — or worse, chosen — Pifko reassured that the committee was using a “slow, cautious process” that would unlikely yield a referendum anytime this year.

Specifically, he pointed out that the community was surveyed between Aug. 19, 2015, and Jan. 15, 2016, resulting in 1,100-plus responses, and four public hearings were held throughout the last 15 months to gauge residents’ opinions on the project that ranged from an exercise room to a coffee area to a gym that houses basketball and volleyball courts.

The most important feature identified by residents in the survey was meeting and conference space with 79.38% of responders checking off that box.

“That was our initial step and we were presented with some original findings,” Pifko said. “It doesn’t mean that the time for public opinion is over; rather, when an architectural firm is chosen, they will be working with us and meeting with the public to design a facility that provides services to all members of the community.

“Nothing is going to be voted on or built without the public getting an opportunity to provide its input,” he added. “It’s far from over.”

Listening to the public

Vicki Tesoro, who ran for first selectman in November, voiced her concerns with the committee’s process in light of a petition written by fellow Democrat Eric Paulson that aims to halt any work until a community-wide survey is conducted and more public hearings are held.

“One of the flaws in this process can be seen in the confusion coming from the administration as to what is being built,” Tesoro told the Times May 24. “The First Selectman announced early in this process that a state-of-the-art senior center will be built and that it is now a ‘done deal.’ “Reading and listening to comments made by some in the administration reveals that this center has not been completely thought out,” she added. “Further, the residents clearly disagreed with Island Brook Park as a site. When residents attended a Town Council meeting to be heard, they were kept waiting for over an hour, only to find out from the Building Committee Chairman that it was never a suitable location.”

For his part, Pifko said that that meeting could have been handled differently, but wanted to stress that the committee has been listening to public feedback.

One example he cited was a property off of Middlebrooks Avenue.

“We heard some real good criticism on a real good piece of property and we ended up removing it from the pile of possible locations because of how the public responded,” the co-chairman said. “Plenty of change has happened already based on feedback — the public has had a significant impact on our decisions so far and they will have ample opportunity to comment in the future.”

Site, plan, cost

Perhaps the most maligned group in town over the first half of this year, the Senior/Community Center Building Committee has three responsibilities — pick a site, come up with a plan for the building, and determine how much it will cost.

“The Town Council and the people of Trumbull will get to decide if they want this or not,” Pifko said. “Nothing is being forced upon them that they don’t want.”

Nonetheless, criticism prevails.

“We are now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on renderings for a center that is undefined in purpose, with no site selected and seemingly opposed by the community,” Tesoro said. “It is time to take a breath, step back, and reset the entire process and to stop wasting taxpayers’ money.

“Let’s do this right the first time,” she added. “The process should begin with a thorough survey of the community done by experts in the development and delivery of these kinds of surveys.

“Focus groups and public hearings should also be part of this process. That way we can determine what, if any, kind of center the community would like to see and what programs and type of facilities the community wants. Then we can move forward.”

Time to stall

The Democratic leader said that a revamped survey process might show that the people do not want a new center at all, but would prefer to have an existing center or building be renovated — something that the chosen committee sites took into consideration last week.

“It may show that a standalone senior center is not what the seniors want or it may show that our residents are in favor of a Community Center,” Tesoro said. “We may find that the people prefer not to spend the money and bond for a multi-million dollar building...

“If we are going to build something new or renovate an existing structure, let’s build something the residents demand, not what the administration thinks they want,” she added. “That is sound, simple practice that is fiscally responsible and transparent.”

In response to Paulson’s petition and Tesoro’s stance, First Selectman Tim Herbst said that the Trumbull Democratic Town Committee needed to decide whether it was either going to support the project or be against it.

“They’re not consistent, they’re negative and they’re destructive,” he said, further emboldening his position against his opposing political party.

“When they see something they don’t like, they use the same old tactic to reconcile it: stall, hinder and delay,” he added. “It’s all they know how to do and I’m not surprised they’re playing this card again, but it’s not going to work this time because there will be plenty of time for more feedback and suggestions. And, if residents don’t want to wait for the next public hearing, they can call my office and tell me what they think should be done in the meantime.”