Neighbors oppose GA’s plan to move preschool
GREENWICH — Greenwich Academy’s plan to move its day-care and preschool operations to an off-campus house is facing fierce opposition from neighbors and skepticism from the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
The all-girls private school presented its plan to the commission Tuesday night. Under the proposal, the program now operated on campus at the Cowan Center would be moved to nearby 96 and 100 Maple Ave., where a historic home now stands. The two parcels would be combined, and the home would be converted from a multifamily residence into a mixed-use building.
In addition to the preschool and day care center, the building would also include three residential units for academy staff.
“The current Cowan Center is outdated,” Greenwich Academy’s Head of School Molly King said. “It’s not an ideal space for this program.”
The Cowan Center serves 60 youngsters, mostly the children of Greenwich Academy and Brunswick teachers and parents, which would not change under the proposal.
But whether the proposal is legal under current town zoning codes was a point of debate. Greenwich Academy’s attorney Bruce Cohen said it would be allowed because the property is covered by a historic overlay, but commission members were not so sure.
Margarita Alban, the commission’s acting chair, said she was struggling with her view that the proposal is at odds with the original historic overlay for the property that allowed for residential use — not professional or institutional.
“You are proposing to change the character of the historic overlay that was approved 40 years ago and the intent,” Alban said. “It would be so simple” if the school were to keep the property as residential and instead make it into four units for faculty residences, she said.
Cohen, who went back and forth with Alban on the issue, said the use was proper under zoning codes that allow nonprofit educational uses in a residential zone. But Alban said schools must integrate well with residential neighborhoods.
Dozens of community members attended the meeting. Several spoke out against the proposal, citing concerns about increased traffic congestion, parking headaches and other disruptions.
“This application must be denied as a matter of law because the applicant seeks to do something that the regulations do not allow it to do,” said James Fallon, an attorney representing the newly formed Maple Avenue LLC, made up of neighbors opposed to the project. “The regulations do not allow changes to a nonresidential use.”
Ellen Brennan-Galvin said the plan is unfair to neighborhood homeowners, who are at a disadvantage in fighting the plan due to Greenwich Academy’s deep coffers.
“Long-term residents and newer residents who have bought or rebuilt expensive houses should not be forced to hire costly lawyers to preserve their quality of life,” Brennan-Galvin said. “This is truly a case of David versus Goliath. Greenwich Academy has net assets of somewhere in the vicinity of $200 million and is currently in the process of conducting a $75 million capital campaign. It is time to draw a red line and stop the encroachment of an extremely wealthy private school.”
But moving the day-care operations and preschool is a necessary part of the master plan for the campus, King said. It would free up space and allow the school to focus more on first through 12th grades, she said.
“Relocating the Cowan Center provides an opportunity to both better address the learning needs for early childhood development and it allows us to leverage current (floor area ratio) on our main campus,” King said.
The program helps to attract and retain teachers with young families, she said. Maureen Corbo, a sixth grade English teacher at Greenwich Academy, stressed that point as she talked about enrolling her two children, including a 2-month-old, at the center.
“It means just about everything to me,” Corbo said. “Twelve years ago when I started at GA, I quickly realized the Cowan Center was something extraordinary. I love to see the red buggy strollers around campus and would stop to say hello to friends’ smiling babies. GA faculty would talk about Cowan with awestruck voices. It is the stuff of legends.”
Now that she has two children there, Corbo said she more deeply appreciates the school’s commitment to providing quality child care and preschool education for its faculty.
But after Corbo spoke, two project opponents mockingly clapped for her and one said the remarks “brought a tear to my eye.”
The campus needs to be modernized, King said, noting that the lower school is an “aging building” built in the 1970s.
“Teaching and learning have evolved significantly since that time and is focused on more open, flexible spaces that support collaborative and small group learning options,” she said. “This has been reinforced in our studies of other schools, both public and private.”
Greenwich Academy’s application with the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission remains open. Cohen is expected to submit documents, including a legal brief on his position, for the commission’s review. Additionally, changes could be made to the plan to move the preschool and day care to the house.
Greenwich Academy planned to present its master plan to modernize its campus to the town’s Historic District Commission on Wednesday night. The zoning commission will examine those plans at a later date.