Friday, August 19, 2011

A New Senior Center in Darien?

Curious about the proposed new senior center for my town, I attended a presentation by the team of architects at the current Senior Center this week (8/16/11). The plans I saw are very nice, definitely worthy of a town that is one of the most affluent in Connecticut. The building committee and the architects obviously did a lot of homework -- field trips, studies of demographics and focus groups (See the plan on the town website: http://www.darienct.gov/filestorage/68/Darien_Presentation_081711.pdf ).

Yet, I still came away with concerns, pondering questions raised by the audience and some of my own, and with visions of mounting dollars signs dancing in my head:
  1.  Is the proposed Mather Community Center a "community center" for all residents, or is it a senior center?
  2. How accurate are reports in the Darien Patch that the entire project, which involves moving the Board of Education out of Town Hall to the former library site (35 Leroy) and reconfiguring the Board of Ed  space into the Mather Center, will cost $7 million?
  3. What other costs are there that haven't been included yet?
  4. Could anything be done to improve ease of movement between the two stories?  (The plans show one staircase and one elevator on opposite sides of the building.)
  5. Why was this plan, known as "The Shuffle," the only one considered by the Republican-dominated Selectmen?
  6. Why can't the Senior Center be rebuilt on its current site for less money and without disturbing the Board of Education?
  7. Why do so many public officials say that 35 Leroy (the former home of the Darien Library) is not good for a senior center but is good for the Board of Ed.? (I've never heard a good, straight answer. Yet, most seniors I speak with would love to have that building as the senior center.)
Even though the current Senior Center is old, decrepit and inadequate for many senior needs, the users (and I) love its abundance of natural light. The desire for natural light seemed to be a driving force in the plans for the new center. But to have natural light in the Town Hall Annex where the ground floor has brick walls and few windows (It's been used for storage and maintenance workshops for the town), adding natural light means putting in windows and skylights with shafts from the roof of the second floor. It's easy to guess that this has added a lot to the cost.


The architects did say that the $7 million figure quoted in the Patch was being worked on, and already they've shaved a couple of million off by using an older HVAC system, relocating the kitchen, cutting out treatments to the outside of the building and the site, among other changes.

Seniors in our town and in other towns like ours say that they love the fact that the senior center is their special place. Will a community center that is in a lower level annex to Town Hall have that same feeling for its users?

And who will be the users? The 2,400 residents over 65? The architects said it would be for active adults, but the printed presentation called the potential users part of the 4,900 "elderly" residents who are 55+ (55+ in my mind is not "elderly". I think of elderly as 85+). But this is important. Because facilities and programming for people in their 50s and 60s would be quite different from programming for people in their 70s, 80s or 90s. But that is probably why this is a being called a Community Center -- not Senior Center.

It's a pity that our town didn't rebuild the senior center in its current site a decade ago. But each new set of politicians on the Board of Selectmen have changed the plans. That is why many people who really care about getting a new Senior Center want to push through the plan we have now. That is certainly a point to consider.

Still, I think it's important for taxpayers in our town and the senior population (however it's defined) to study the plans, think about them and ask questions. I'm concerned that the operating costs will be sky high. And I wonder about the unintended consequences of The Shuffle on the operations of the Board of Education and the Senior/Community Center. Are we over building? Are we building something that is redundant? Are we planning a white elephant that will be underutilized? What will be the impact on other organizations which serve the same population (The Darien Community Association, the library and the YMCA)?

Can we please look at 35 Leroy (the former library building) as a better alternative for a new senior center? Old surveys (which got buried) say the neighbors would like that. The building has loads of natural light already and is architecturally pleasing. When I first asked why 35 Leroy couldn't be used as a senior center, I was told, "Oh, it doesn't have a kitchen." Well, the revised plans for the Town Hall call for adding an addition which will house the commercial kitchen. I was also told it didn't have a gym. But the gym at Town Hall doesn't seem to be playing a large role in the new plans, which have exercise and fitness rooms planned.

Even though we seem to be riding on a runaway train, we still have time to ask questions. Please get involved.

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