In 2012, the Town purchased 45 acres, located between Old Quarry Road and Sunset Lane, from Schlumberger for $7 million. Now, six years later, it seems timely to review what has happened on the site and consider what remains to be done.
In 2012 the buildings on the site were deteriorating rapidly. There were several failed attempts by the Town to sell some or all of the property to help recover the original $7 million cost. The Town eventually sold two parcels: five acres to a private developer for $1.3 million in 2013, and ten acres to Charter Group Partners for $4.3 million in 2015.
To find a direction for the remaining 30 acres, the Town created a Citizens Committee to recommend uses for the site. With the help of an experienced urban consulting firm, the Committee used a process that included input from thousands of residents. The Committee then recommended three uses in two phases: the first phase would include renovation, at tenants’ expense, of the Schlumberger Auditorium for a new theater group, and renovation of an office building designed by Philip Johnson to serve as headquarters for a modern design business. The second phase would be development of an outdoor stage/amphitheater. In addition to these uses, eighteen acres of the property were recommended to be held as open space.
From a financial perspective, the Town has spent about $8 million on the property, more than the original $7 million cost due to higher than planned demolition and site improvement costs. The proceeds of parcel sales to date are $5.6 million, or $2.4 million less than spent on the site. However, annual property tax revenues will approach $1 million per year once the sites are completed, and the Town now owns two buildings worth millions.
These developments also add valuable amenities to Ridgefield. The ACT theater group leasing the former Schlumberger Auditorium and the modern design firm leasing the Philip Johnson building will bring people to Ridgefield who are likely to spend money in businesses and restaurants. Also, 54 units in the Charter development have allowed some residents to down-size. There will be a memory care facility on part of the five acre site sold in 2013 for those who need care.
There is still a significant decision to make on Phase 2 of the site, the outdoor stage/amphitheater. This recommendation has recently generated conflict with existing arts groups and some residents of the new Charter development, as well as the Board of Selectmen.
I think there are four important considerations at this point.
First, the Board of Selectmen needs to return to a policy of transparency. There have been several irregularities in Board meetings recently. On April 4, they unanimously approved $25k to further explore an outdoor venue on this site. At the next meeting on April 18, due to pressure from several arts organizations concerned about impact of a new venue to their own fund-raising, it was announced by two Board members that the April 4 authorization was on hold, although the other three Board members were not allowed to discuss this and there was no vote. Furthermore, on June 20, the original $25k unanimous authorization was “slow-walked” by the Board so that the money would expire at the end of this fiscal year, again with no vote to rescind the April 4 unanimous vote.
At the same June 20 meeting, there were disingenuous statements by some members of the Board who said that they didn’t know an outdoor stage/amphitheater was being proposed, despite numerous discussions with them at multiple Board meetings on that exact topic since 2015. In fact, the final paragraph of the Citizen’s Committee final report (still posted on the Town’s website) states: “Proceed, as Phase 2, with the design and development of an outdoor stage/amphitheater, which is the centerpiece of the proposed Cultural Center.”
A second consideration: the premium renovation of two buildings on the site leaves the remaining several acres extremely valuable. Any additions to the site should reflect this premium value.
A third consideration: the existing arts organizations and Sunset Lane residents could expand their thinking beyond their own self-interests and recognize that all town residents own this property. They should respect what residents would like to do with the site instead of taking completely misleading “cheap shots” at the Citizens Committee report. It would benefit Ridgefield for the arts organizations to move beyond self-interest and think about how a new venue could benefit all. For the new residents in the Sunset Lane development, please remember that the recommendations for the development of this site were made before any units were occupied.
Finally, as Phase 2 discussions continue and if additional public input is needed, I hope that the Board of Selectmen adopts the successful outreach approach adopted by the Citizens Committee. That approach included electronic and social media to get input from a large, representative sample of residents instead of the historical Town approach of public input meetings, which generally attract a small number of self-interested residents.
As we look forward to the next step on the former Schlumberger site, I believe significant value has been created at the site, but in the final phase, let’s make any next step a premium, first class use that is responsive to the majority of Town residents’ wishes.