Saying they understood it was a risk in some ways and imposing several conditions to help mitigate them, members of the Planning & Zoning Commission on Tuesday night voted 7-1 to approve the Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s application to set up for its 2019 season in a pocket park downtown.
Summer Theatre, or ‘STONC,’ will set up its 60-by-90-foot amphitheater-style tent on a .19-acre parcel known as “Christine’s Garden” on the corner of South Avenue and Maple Street, owned by New Canaan Library.
P&Z Chairman John Goodwin said he recognized that STONC’s plan, which includes locating the 200-person tent as well as trailers, port-o-potties, and a covered box office on and around the library property, with parking to be located in the Center School lot, was “aggressive.”
“And I would also argue that we allow certain other activities in certain other places in town where we are giving them a fair amount of latitude,” Goodwin said during the public hearing, held at Town Hall. “This is not the first time. But I also feel that this is potentially a big positive to the town by moving it downtown. If it logistically works, I think it’s way better than it is out in Waveny. So I think it’s worth us as a Commission taking a bit of a risk on approval, because of what this can do for the town. And as we know, we put together a tourism and development committee, and I think this fits in very well with some of the objectives there. So I certainly heard that a lot of commissioners are not completely comfortable, but I also like the risk-reward on this.”
Goodwin and Commissioners Phil Williams, Krista Neilson, Claire Tiscornia, Bill Redman, Dan Radman and Laszlo Papp voted in favor of the application, which P&Z opened last month (and continued, asking STONC to secure approval from emergency services providers). Secretary Jean Grzelecki voted against it. Commissioners John Kriz, Kent Turner and Jack Flinn were absent.
The application was approved on several conditions, including that STONC will provide traffic control and that New Canaan Police will provide support if the department determines that it’s needed, that a more detailed site map will be supplied, that a detailed plan for what will be printed on canvas banner to be draped over a portable fence planned to enclose the block during its late-May to mid-August season will be submitted, that a swatch of the material for that banner will be submitted for review and approval, that Saturday afternoon performances will be shifted later so there’s no conflict with the Farmer’s Market in the Center School lot, that the tent will see no use beyond the STONC performances themselves, that the organization will abide by the standing noise ordinance that kicks in at 10 p.m., that port-o-potties will get regular cleaning and servicing and no food will be provided without obtaining required permits first.
Some commissioners voiced concerns about a lack of specificity in the submitted plans—for example, in providing information about dimensions.
Grzelecki said, “This is not a site plan we would take from any other applicant and everyone should be treated the same way.”
“I don’t think we should be looking at this as a vacant lot,” Grzelecki said. “It’s not a vacant lot. It is used often on a regular basis, people go in there and eat lunch, they read books, they sit on the ground and have picnics with their kids. This is the kind of thing I would like to see when I drive into New Canaan on one of the main entrances into New Canaan. I am very concerned about what I am going be looking at with a fence—and we have no materials or size or anything on the fence, so we have no idea of what we are looking at there—and it’s all port-o-potties for the summer. It just seems like a very tight space.”
STONC Executive Producer Ed Libonati said in his application that the location no longer works, in part because of new, larger and busier sports fields.
In addressing Grzelecki’s concerns, Libonati said, “We are a professional theater company and part of what makes us successful is that it’s a positive experience for those who attend.”
He continued: “That whey they come they are not stressed out. It’s not distracting. People come in and they enjoy. They are catered to, with the performance. It’s in our our best interests to make sure everything is attractive. I’m a resident of New Canaan, also, just like yourselves, and I want to make sure that this a positive thing for downtown, not a distraction, not a negative.”
Town resident Bernard Simpkin spoke in favor of the application, calling STONC’s performances a “real asset to the town” that helps promote tourism and helps the local economy. He said it’s a good conspicuous location that could attract visitors to the Farmer’s Market who may stay around for a show and dinner.
New Canaan resident Brock Saxe also spoke in favor of the application, saying the STONC series could help boost commerce in the downtown during the summer months when activity tends to slow down.
Commissioners asked Libonati whether the library will receive compensation from STONC (no, though the organization will restore Christine’s Garden to its original condition), who will oversee that restoration (the library’s landscapers), what will happen to a tree near Maple Street that’s on the parcel (it will be trimmed back some), where the box office will be (near the corner of Maple Street and South Avenue), whether STONC had looked into setting up in a different section of Waveny (there’s nowhere in the park that works) and how concerned he is about noise on South Avenue (not at all, maybe a motorcycle will roar by at some point).
Tiscornia said that members of the Commission favor STONC’s project, adding that “we need to know exactly what it will look like and we need to see it.”
She noted, for example, that Libonati described enclosing the theater area in a portable chain link fence that would itself be covered with a banner, but that no one on P&Z had seen what the banner would look like.
“I would really like to see a site map with the dimensions,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable with people saying, ‘It’s gonna fit.’ I want to see the actual measurements. I also want to see examples of the banner, and when they say it might change, I want to see a placeholder for every single thing that might go on there. Because I don’t want to say, ‘There are three sponsors,’ and then there’s 20 sponsors. I would like to see an example of the material for banners.”
Others on P&Z agreed with her in calling for specificity. Redman at one point said that he was “not looking to deny” the application, “but right now it’s a ‘take it on faith’ and I am not going to go there.”
Ultimately, P&Z addressed the concerns by conditioning its approval.
As the Commission took up its vote, Grzelecki said, “I hope you all are right.”