Wednesday's Public Hearing gave a voice to Bethel residents who had opinions about whether or not to demolish Old Town Hall, but the meeting did nothing to resolve the issue. At the Sycamore Drive-In on Thursday morning, residents were abuzz with conversation about who said what and which side came out stronger. A.J. Bernard, who is in real estate, said, “If the building gets torn down, it will look like the back side of a mall.”
Billy Michael of the Bethel Action Committee said that the approximately 120 people were almost evenly split between keeping and demolishing Old Town Hall. First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker believed the number was closer to 60. “Nineteen spoke in favor of getting rid of it, and 13 spoke about keeping it,” Knickerbocker said. “There were 32 speakers, and about half spoke, so about 60 people were there.”
According to Michael, many believe that keeping the building for additional tax revenue makes sense. Martin said that Bethel has only about $18,000 in new revenue coming into the town this year, and he believes that the $11,000 from the building taxes could benefit the town in a number of ways.
According to Anne Lewis, of the Library Board of Directors, the library has 11,000 patrons a month and people are parking in other lots. Bethel's First Selectman believes the library's parking shortage would be alleviated by removing the Old Town Hall. At least one resident disagreed and offered her own research.
Fran O'Neill, who spoke at the meeting, had gone online with Google Map and counted 1,949 parking spots in the downtown rectangle from Chestnut Street to Dolan Plaza and from School Street, Greenwood Ave and to Agway on South Street. “Most of those spaces are within 2000 feet of the library, on flat ground; and all of them are within 4000 feet and on flat ground.”
But whether or not Old Town Hall comes down is only half the problem. Knickerbocker said regardless if the Old Town Hall stays or goes, the town must add additional parking.
Several residents have wondered why the parking lots across from the Municipal Center have not been considered instead of demolishing Old Town Hall. The lots belong to a bank and a doctor's office. Knickerbocker explained that such plans have been considered.
In 2011, a parking plan developed by Milone and MacBroom Engineers provided layouts that could potentially incorporate some of the existing spaces on School Street, but without the approval and consent of the owners, that plan might not be feasible.
According to the design plan, even if the other parking spaces were able to be utilized, they would still not accommodate the amount of spaces needed unless the Old Town Hall were removed.
On Thursday morning, Knickerbocker gave a tour of what would have to happen if the Old Town Hall remained standing. Walking behind the Municipal Center, Knickerbocker pointed to an oversized generator.
“This generator ran for six straight days during last year's storms. It kept the shelter running. This building was like an oasis.” Knickerbocker talked as he walked towards the open space alongside Library Place. “If we kept the Old Town Hall, we still need parking for the library. In the original plan from 2001, it stated they would reluctantly allow parking for the library right here next to the Town Clerk, but it would have to be labeled for library parking only. It could not be used for the Municipal Center.”
Knickerbocker also said that because of the curved curb, the entrance to the parking would have to loop behind the Town Clerk's office, and enter by the generator. “These (large old) trees would have to go, and this green area would be a parking lot.” He added that because of the mechanics of the generator, it was not clear whether or not the entrance plan was still possible.
“Think of the expense we would have to go through in order to get $10,000 to $12,000 revenue out of that building,” Knickerbocker said, and noted that he did not think it would not be wise to sell the building. “It's town property. Let's say in 50-100 years, what if the library burns down, or if we want to do something else with it. There is no advantage to selling off town property, when someday we may have to buy it back.”
Knickerbocker said that he understood that people were unhappy with the idea of the parking lot at the Old Town Hall, but believes that it would also be possible to landscape it, or put in a small park, softening the lot's appearance.
When asked if he could imagine any possible way that keeping Old Town Hall made sense, the First Selectman said the parameters were almost miraculous to imagine.
“Lets say we found a developer to pay a million dollars to repair it, and let's say Planning and Zoning waived the 40 parking requirements; and there is almost no chance that any of those things would happen. But let's say someone convinced Planning and Zoning they didn't need parking for the Old Town Hall. We would have to put the parking lot on the other side of Town Clerk office.”
There is no decision at this time about what will become of the building, and Knickerbocker said that it may come down to a petition.