Greenwich Center for the Arts Proposal

The following article is an edited version of a letter that appeared in the January 9, 2009 issue of the Greenwich Citizen, a newspaper published in Greenwich, CT.

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The Havemeyer Building on Greenwich Avenue, the Town's main street, is a former school that was converted to offices for the administrative staff of the the Board of Education (BOE) when it ceased to be used as a school.  It is a distinguished, historic structure that is an important Town landmark, and there is widespread support for its preservation.  Five years ago (in 2004), the BOE expressed a desire to relocate to more modern office space, and group of well-meaning local citizens proposed that the building be converted to an arts center.  The Greenwich Center for the Arts, Inc. (GCA), was formed to make the proposal a reality.

GCA sought a lease of the building before a location to which the BOE might move had been identified, and when (after five years) no progress was made in settling upon a new location or in negotiating the terms of a lease, GCA imposed a deadline of December 2008 by which it wanted to have a lease of the building.  When it became clear that no lease would be signed in that timeframe, it announced that it was discontinuing its efforts.  It and its supporters lashed out at the Town's failure to respond positively to its proposal, attaching particular blame on the BOE for having “dragged its feet”.  The reasons why the proposal failed are far more complex.

At the time when GCA was seeking a lease of the Havemeyer Building, the Town had two existing space needs -- for the BOE and the Senior Center -- and it was studying whether these needs might be met by use of space in the building.  Specifically, studies were underway of the BOE's space needs (it was not expected that it would require all of the space in a rehabilitated Havemeyer Building were it to remain there) and those of Greenwich's Senior Center, which occupied the old Town Hall immediately across Greenwich Avenue.  The Senior Center required additional space and wished to remain in the center of Greenwich; space in the Havemeyer Building might be used to meet some or all these additional space needs.  If the Havemeyer Building were leased to GCA, the needs of both agencies would have to be met elsewhere, possibly by construction of one or more new buildings, the cost of which would be incurred by the Town. 

The Havemeyer Building requires significant rehabilitation if it were to met these needs, and the cost of such rehabilitation must be compared with the cost of meeting the needs of the BOE and the Senior Center elsewhere.  The Town did not have the information it required to make that comparison, which was the reason a decision was not made sooner.  However, the BOE had prioritized its capital projects in a way with which few would quarrel -- that moving its administrative staff ranked behind completion of the new Hamilton Avenue School, rebuilding Glenville School and construction of a new auditorium at Greenwich High School.

Meanwhile, GCA did some foot dragging itself.  In the five years after it was formed, it never released (i) a business plan, (ii) the terms on which it wished to lease the Havemeyer Building or (iii) a fund-raising feasibility study, so that they could be vetted by the public.  I had the opportunity to review drafts of the first two. 

A business plan is intended to demonstrate that a proposal is economically viable, and the draft I reviewed, which was produced by GCA in February 2008, was based on a wholly unrealistic timeframe and failed to demonstrate that the market for what the arts center would offer could be expected to yield sufficient revenue.  The draft lease that I reviewed was prepared by GCA's counsel in 2007; it would have been both burdensome and costly to the Town and contained terms so unfavorable to the Town that I doubt that it would have been approved by the RTM;  in any event, the proposed arts center would not have been "created at no cost to Greenwich taxpayers", as GCA repeatedly stated.

GCA maintained that, by failing to embrace its proposal, the Town was turning down a $35 million gift.  But it did not have the money.  What it had was $15 million in "pledges" against an estimate that its cost would be $35 million.  To rehabilitate and convert the Havemeyer Building and then operate it as an arts center, it would have been largely dependent on fund-raising.  GCA was not and was unlikely ever to have been a creditworthy entity -- apart from what it was able to raise, its assets would have consisted largely of its leasehold estate in the Havemeyer Building.  It could have abandoned the lease at any time, and the Town would have had no effective recourse.

Especially given the current economic climate, GCA's dependence on fund-raising would have presented risks to the Town.  If GCA's fund-raising did not go well or unanticipated costs were encountered, it might have abandoned the lease prior to commencing the conversion of the building, after conversion had been commenced but before it was concluded (GCA intended to commence work before it had the funds needed to complete it) or after conversion if its operation as an arts center proved not to be viable, because earned usage income plus contributions were insufficient. 

Upon abandonment the building would have reverted to the Town, possibly rehabilitated but reconfigured as an arts center.  What would the Town do with it if it had met the space needs of the BOE and the Senior Center elsewhere?  Rather than abandon the lease if it encountered financial difficulties, GCA would more likely have sought a bailout from the Town.

As an RTM member answerable to Greenwich's taxpayers, I believe the arts center proposal as structured by GCA was a nonstarter.  But as an active participant in Greenwich's arts scene (I am a member of the Greenwich Choral Society), I am keenly aware of the shortcomings of Greenwich's performing arts facilities.  I was an early supporter of the proposal and remain of the view that, if the Town were to determine that it had no further need for the Havemeyer Building, its conversion to an arts center would be a desirable "adaptive reuse" of the building.