Voters will judge two Schlumberger leases Wednesday
Long-term, $1-a-year leases that would have tenants finance an estimated $1 million in renovations to two former Schlumberger buildings will come before voters for approval next week.
A Town Meeting Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 7:30 in town hall will consider the two leases, which were negotiated and are being proposed by the Board of Selectmen.
The Philip Johnson Building — named after the renowned modernist architect who designed it — would be rented to BassamFellows, a New Canaan-based design firm.
And the auditorium, or “Schlumberger theater,” would be rented to ACT of Connecticut, a non-profit theater group founded by Ridgefielders Katie and Bill Diamond, Daniel Levine, and Bryan Perri.
Both leases are for $1 a year initially, with the tenants responsible for restoration of the buildings, which have been empty and deteriorating for years, then paying rent in the later stages of each lease. Under both leases, there are common-area maintenance charges even during the $1-a-year period, and the tenants are also responsible for their own utility costs and liability insurance.
Back-to-back public hearings on the two leases Feb. 8 raised some concerns: Just $1 a year, and for how many years? Would parking, traffic, outdoor lighting trouble neighbors?
There was also considerable support.
The long-term leases would keep the bulk of the property in town ownership — addressing the overdevelopment concern motivating many townspeople who voted in 2012 to spend $7 million on the Schlumberger site. And the two buildings would get fixed up and put to use, with the town limited to improving some site amenities like parking, driveways and lighting.
Jan Rifkinson, a longtime spending critic, expressed a little of both sentiments.
“I’m for keeping these buildings,” he said. “What I’m having trouble getting my head wrapped around is how we arrived at the $1.”
At the hearing on leasing the Philip Johnson building to BassamFellows, four speakers voiced doubts or concerns about the proposal, and 10 spoke in favor of it — including several members of the Schlumberger Citizens Study Committee, which backs the leases.
The hearing on leasing the auditorium to ACT of Connecticut drew two speakers who had doubts, while six spoke in support.
Several of the speakers with questions and concerns about both leases were neighbors from the new development at 77 Sunset Lane — former Schlumberger land, right next door, that was sold by the town in 2015.
Several residents debated the financial aspects of leasing the Philip Johnson Building to BassamFellows.
The proposed lease is renewable out to 30 years. The initial 13 years, 2017-2030, is $1-a-year rent with a $600-per-month common area maintenance charge. After the first 13 years, BassamFellows would pay rents that rise from $8,495 per month in 2030 to $10,780 per month in 2046, and the common area fee continues.
“It seems to me this is a lost opportunity,” said one critic of the $1-a-year period.
Another spoke of “free rent for 13 years.”
Selectmen Bob Hebert and Steve Zemo, who both work in real estate and land development, formed the subcommittee that did most of the lease negotiating, defended the lease.
“It is very common for landlords to give a credit for tenant improvements,” Hebert said. “They’re putting $1 million in improvements into the property.”
“We’re not committing any capital,” said Zemo.
Chuck Hancock, a citizen who actively opposed a previous proposal to sell the central 30-acre portion of the property to an art collector, backed the deal.
“I think it’s a win-win,” he said. “Our best interest is we keep this. … We’ll have this property for the long-term use of the town.”
The tenant would pay to renovate a building owned by the town.
“We let BassamFellows do the investment up front,” Hancock said. “$1 million invested on the part of the tenant. And in 13 years it kicks to $8,500 a month for the next 13 years — that’s almost another $1 million.”
BassamFellows’ main business is “architectural and design services,” but it also designs and markets modern furniture and other high-end consumer goods, and it sees the Philip Johnson building as offices and a place to bring and show products to industry buyers. It would be used by eight to 10 employees initially, with possible expansion to about 20.
ACT of Connecticut plans to offer “a professional theatre offering self-produced, limited-engagement runs, using Broadway and professional talent.”
Its lease would be renewable every five years out to 20 years, ending in 2037. The initial rent is $1 a year, plus a $400-per-month common area maintenance charge. For the final five-year renewal period, from March 2032 to March 2037, the rent would increase to $2,000 per month.
“We’ll be self-producing four shows a year,” Katie Diamond told the room. “Four shows, three-week runs.”
Pamme Jones of the Ridgefield Theater Barn said ACT would enrich Ridgefield’s thriving arts scene.
“You don’t even find cities that have the arts we have,” she said.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi has defended the leases as the selectmen following the will of the townspeople.
In numerous hearings and surveys, the public concern centered on protecting the land from potential intense private development.
“The people of Ridgefield said they didn’t want us to sell the property,” Marconi told The Press. “Lease the buildings, and that’s what we’re doing.”