A Wall Divides a Connecticut Town


A Wall Divides a Connecticut Town

Stone walls are a source of pride in New Canaan, Conn. That’s why some town residents can’t stand a concrete one that is just pretending to be stone.

Residents of New Canaan have strong feelings about a concrete wall around a new development near the town’s downtown.CreditCreditJane Beiles for The New York Times

By Lisa Prevost

Since its appearance last fall, a gray mass on one of the primary routes to the compact downtown of New Canaan, Conn., has generated a flurry of angry online comments, emails to town officials, and even a petition on the site change.org.

A “tasteless eyesore,” one resident, James Buckner, complained in a letter to the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

“Hideous,” wrote another, Mimi Findlay.

“An abomination in the heart of our village,” wrote Todd Bruno in a letter to a local newspaper.

It’s only a wall, but this slab of concrete has captured far more attention than its builder ever anticipated, or wanted. Perhaps it has struck such a collective nerve because walls are a particularly sensitive subject these days, given the national conversation. Or perhaps it’s the wall’s association with “fakeness,” another sore point for our times. Or maybe, as its detractors argue, it’s just really that ugly.

Stretching for several hundred feet along Park Street, the wall (technically two walls — one along the sidewalk, with an identical one terraced above it) marks the beginning of construction on a 109-unit residential development on a three-acre site a short walk from the heart of downtown.

Called Merritt Village, the development will consist of four buildings with 59 rental apartments starting at about $3,500 a month and 50 condominiums starting at around $1.2 million, according to the builder, Arnold Karp, the president of Karp Associates, based in New Canaan, and a developing partner in the project.

Artist renderings promoting the development online appear to show a stacked stone wall along the Park Street perimeter. But the actual structure, which functions as a retaining wall, is concrete. Its face is textured to look like it is constructed of individual pieces, an effect created by a mold when the concrete was poured. It is this manufactured “faux-stone” look, as the planning commission chairman has called it, that especially irritates critics. In an affluent community that prides itself on appearances, a prominent faux-stone wall appears glaringly out of context to some residents.

“It’s an embarrassment to New Canaan, which has beautiful fieldstone walls all over town,” said Alan Goldberg, an architect who has lived there for decades. “There are patterns that repeat every eight feet or so. And it’s all uniform in color. It should never have happened.”

Constance MacDougall, in an email to the Planning and Zoning Commission, called it an “insult” to the town’s colonial tradition, “a mind-numbing monochromatic gray cartoon of a wall devoid of any visual element that would give it a measure of compatibility to the landscape on which it sits.”

Robert Thorson, a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut and coordinator of the Stone Wall Initiative, which raises awareness about New England’s historic stone walls, is very familiar with such walls in the area, having led tour groups around the grounds of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a national trust historic site in New Canaan, to explore the varied mix of stonework there.

“New Canaan has lovely walls,” he said. “It’s a wealthier place than many in New England but the basic backdrop is the same: people living on roads that used to be farms,” and lined with leftover fieldstone boundary walls or stone walls rebuilt in a more upscale fashion.

Those stone walls “are advertising what the land is made of,” helping to create a sense of place, Mr. Thorson said. “The key issue,” he said of the new structure, “is where’s the authenticity to our landscape?”

Fieldstone walls are a common sight around New Canaan, which is why many residents find the “faux-stone” wall distasteful. CreditJane Beiles for The New York Times

Mr. Karp pointed out that there is another faux-stone wall across from a coffee shop and a deli downtown that does not seem to bother people. He also argued that opponents have been too quick to judge, given that construction has only just begun, and that his most vocal critics were opposed to the high-density development from the start.

“I’ve driven by a lot of these peoples’ homes,” he said. “How do I say it? I don’t think they’re the arbiters of design in New Canaan.”

The resident who started the petition to stop the wall, Jack Trifero, has also objected to the scale of the residential project, and is among a handful of citizens who continue to question the approval process. He and a others also claim that the plan does not adequately protect an adjacent burial ground, an argument that at one point led to his arrest, along with another resident, for trespassing on the site. (The charges were later dropped.)

The Planning and Zoning Commission has also suggested that the wall is not what its members expected. In a letter to Mr. Karp last November, the commission’s chairman, John Goodwin, requested that a fieldstone veneer be put on the face of the wall, which he said is currently not in keeping “with the drawings that you originally presented as part of your application.”

Mr. Karp refused, noting that nothing in the 65 conditions of approval set by the commission mentioned stone for the retaining walls. Adding a veneer now would cost at least an additional $250,000, he said.

After additional discussions with commission members and the town planner, Mr. Karp has given some ground, however. In late February, he presented a “more robust” landscaping plan for the wall, to begin this spring, with plantings hanging over the top portion, ivies growing up the lower portion, and mature trees planted on the terraced portion between them.

While he still believes the controversy has been overblown, his aim now, he said, is to “put the matter behind us.”

“I don’t get to critique everybody else’s home in New Canaan,” Mr. Karp said. “I don’t understand why everybody gets to critique my project.”

Not everyone is. Dave Prutting, a custom homebuilder, lives directly across the street from the wall, but he’s not upset about it. He opposed the idea of adding a stone veneer, which he said wouldn’t necessarily improve the wall’s appearance, as veneers, too, are a matter of taste. And he is optimistic that expert landscaping might neutralize the presence of the concrete and “salvage the aesthetics.”

In the meantime, he’s made peace with his concrete neighbor.

“Do I love the wall? No,” Mr. Prutting said. “But I can accept the wall.”

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page RE14 of the New York edition with the headline: A Wall Divides a Connecticut Town. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


Published at Fri, 15 Mar 2019 13:30:04 +0000