Seth Braunstein is a Representative Town Meeting member from District 6, and chair of the RTM Finance Committee.
After 2 visits to the Long Lots Elementary School property, his views on the future of the Westport Community Gardens have changed. He now supports the Long Lots School Building Committee’s recommendation to relocate the gardens.
Sometimes beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You might like one thing, yet I may favor another. Opportunities for interpretation or differing appreciation exist and can be celebrated. However, we can all agree that the Community Gardens and Preserve are beautiful and valuable town assets.
Feasibility generally isn’t something that is open to the same subjective interpretation.
Last Sunday morning I joined roughly 25 other concerned Westport citizens for a formal tour of the Long Lots School property hosted by a majority of the Long Lots School Building Committee.
The LLSBC began the tour by leading the assembled group from the south end of the property where the beautiful Community Gardens and Preserve are located to the north end of the property across various athletic fields (soccer and baseball) spread across 2 distinct property tiers, then to the west side of the property where wilderness (thankfully no poison ivy was encountered) and catch basins and a stream exist amidst a steeply declining grade as the property terminates back behind Harvest Commons.
Part of the Long Lots Elementary School campus. The Community Gardens (not shown) are south of the school. (Drone photo/Brandon Malin)
I am convinced that all parties involved in the hotly debated issues surrounding the question of build new vs. renovate come to this difficult decision with only the best of intentions. I am certain that the Board of Education, the LLSBC and first selectwoman are earnest in their desire to come up with the best solution possible for our community. None of these dedicated public servants have any “nefarious intent” and none of them want to have an outcome here that results in something that would fall short of the high standards our town demands. None of these people deserve the ad hominem attacks they have been subjected to.
I am also certain that supporters of the Community Gardens have sound arguments for why their 2 decades of investment in this property leave them hopeful that their interests and the reality of a new school can effectively coexist with the Garden remaining in its existing footprint. In fact, as a concerned member of the community (and an elected RTM member) I was convinced that this mutually beneficial outcome would be highly likely.
Having now had the benefit of a well detailed explanation for the reasoning behind the LLSBC support of the option they are recommending, along with a firsthand view of the property’s limitations, my view of what is feasible has changed. I had visited the Gardens a couple of months ago at the invitation of a member and at the time struggled to see why the two could not co-exist.
Now I understand why. This is a relatively small piece of property that is already crowded. The LLSBC has worked for months and hosted numerous meetings focused on what can be done to fit all of the existing puzzle pieces together so that all of the various constituencies represented on this property can walk away happy. This has been a huge task (did I mention they are all volunteers?).
The LLSBC has had to consider not just how to build a new school on this cramped property but also, most importantly, how to make sure the children in the existing school can continue to receive the best education possible while in the middle of a construction zone for the roughly two years the project will take to complete.
The committee has considered everything from how buses will enter the property, how parents who prefer to drop their students off will approach the building, where teachers and others working in the school will park, how all of the athletic and outdoor leisure time activities can continue and how to do all of this while minimizing the inevitable disruption that a project of this scale will pose to the neighborhood.
They have also been clear in their desire to consider Westport’s intent to increase sustainability which would require a series of geothermal wells to also occupy the site in the future to increase the energy efficiency of the new building.
Parking and bus loops are considerations in designing a new school.
Under the best of circumstances (and this property does not meet that standard due space limitations, as well as grade and drainage concerns) a project of this magnitude requires significant staging areas. Take a moment to think about things like building materials (steel, brick, windows, etc.), heavy equipment (tractors, backhoes, forklifts), workspaces (construction trailers, bathrooms), large quantities of soil and other materials (to help correct grades and support foundations), not to mention parking for the sizable construction crew. When considering the requisite staging areas, the difficult job of putting this complicated puzzle together becomes untenable.
No one wants to displace the Community Gardens. No one has made a decision to sacrifice this wonderful town resource, but when considering where the flexibility in planning this project falls it is obvious that the school (a $100 million+ investment that will further help burnish our well-regarded school district) must take the highest priority.
Some have chosen to frame this unfortunate circumstance as the Gardens vs. the school or the Gardens vs. town leadership or the BOE. That simply does not reflect the reality of the situation. This really becomes a question of what is actually feasible on this property.
I choose to look at this as an optimization opportunity. Rather than trying to overcome the inherent limits associated with this crowded property, a better solution exists. In fact, it is a solution that has already been brought forth by the LLSBC itself. The Community Gardens could be moved to a portion of the Baron’s South property. While this will undoubtedly upset the supporters of the Community Gardens (and they have earned the right to be upset given the two decades of work they have invested in the current location) it might actually offer a better outcome long term for the Gardens and for the Town.
I have been a long-term supporter of preserving the rare open space left in Westport (check the voting record – I was adamantly opposed to a deal to develop Baron’s South for housing or for active uses), but placing the Community Gardens on a portion of the property could accomplish a number of desirable outcomes.
First, it would provide an environmentally positive usage of the land that would be consistent with the passive usage spirit of the current zoning (while drawing many more people to this vastly underutilized town jewel).
Second, it would actually provide the Gardens with a bigger space than is currently being utilized. I’d also add that the supporters of the Gardens have cited the number of seniors that have enjoyed the Gardens and moving the location to a spot in Baron’s South that would place them just a few steps from the Senior Center seems like a beneficial outcome. It is difficult for me to see how this wouldn’t be a classic win/win scenario.
The proposed site of the Community Gardens, at the Senior Center. (Photo/Morley Boyd)
Ultimately, the RTM will be presented with an appropriation request for this building project and the full range of issues associated with this property will be debated. From where I stand, legitimate questions exist around the status of the baseball field. The mandate for the LLSBC was to retain all existing school features and a baseball field is one of those features so it should be included in the new plans. However, any discussion of turf or lights or a vast increase in the scale and scope of a new field should be scrutinized.
I’d also add in closing that as an RTM member and chair of the RTM’s Finance Committee I would vote to have the town provide funding for the transition of the Gardens’ location (there may be a chance to maintain the Preserve in its current location). The Gardens are unquestionably one of Westport’s jewels and moving them to a spot where they can continue to grow and blossom, rather than exist in some sort of limbo amidst at least two years of construction, seems like a smart way forward.