Penfield Building Committee narrows options for future of Penfield Pavilion

Penfield Pavilion stands closed and fenced off.

Penfield Pavilion stands closed and fenced off while the Penfield Building Committee works to restore the structure by next summer. (Miriam Kelliher photo)

Fairfield beachgoers are roughing it again this summer, as storm-damaged Penfield Pavilion remains barricaded and off limits, a mute and hulking reminder of Superstorm Sandy’s destructive power. Working toward its goal of an operational pavilion by the beginning of next summer, the Penfield Building Committee in its recent meetings winnowed a list of renovation options from nine to two, according to committee chairman Jim Bradley.

Two bookends

“There are two bookends to the discussion” from the perspectives of cost and logistics, Bradley said. “You can flood-proof the foundation or move the whole thing.” Bradley said the lowest-cost option — priced at $2.4 million, according to the meeting minutes — envisions repairing the building and its foundations where they stand, and supplementing the foundations with concrete. But he said the engineers working with the committee “feel the soil under the building is not structurally sound enough and not stable enough” for this plan to prevent similar damage in the future. The plan also runs afoul of FEMA’s 50% rule requiring the elevation of any building with improvements totaling half of its value. In spite of its failings, the committee has voted to keep this option “on the table as a benchmark,” said Bradley.

The other bookend, the proposal involving the most time, effort and expense, would move the entire 27,567-square-foot structure off its foundations and into the parking lot, as a first step. While the structure sat in the lot, Bradley said, pilings made of treated timber would be driven under the foundations to secure them against future floods, and finally, the building would be moved back. The meeting minutes put the price of this alternative at $7.1 million.

Bradley said the kind of pile-supported construction contemplated by the more expensive option is “typical coastal structure,” but that to many people, including him, moving such a “long, rambling building … seems like an ambitious effort.” The cost of this option has eliminated it as one of the committee’s final two contenders.
When the Sandy floodwaters receded from the neighborhood surrounding Penfield Beach, they cut a path under the pavilion and through the bulkhead erected after Hurricane Irene, said Bradley, turning to “soup” the sand that had been the building’s terra firma. First on their surge past the beach and then again on their escape route back to Long Island Sound, the waters damaged the foundation and floors of the pavilion, particularly in the new west wing housing the concession area and event space.

When the committee initially toured the building after convening in December, Bradley said, they saw footings under the west wing “hanging in the air. You could have rolled a basketball under them.” The town quickly shored up the footings “to avoid putting pressure on the building.”

What to do with the lockers

One factor complicating the renovation decision is the FEMA requirement that the town elevate the building 3.5 feet.

“Once you do that,” Bradley said, “you get into the question, should you raise the whole thing? Should you raise the lockers, should you modify the lockers?”

The older, locker wing of the pavilion, which did not sustain significant damage, Bradley said, is simple “single-story, wood-framed construction.” Professional building movers have advised the committee that demolishing and rebuilding the locker wing is more cost effective than moving it off, and then back, onto its foundation, which the committee estimates would cost $700,000 to $900,000, not including the price of repairs.

According to Bradley, the committee had considered leaving the locker wing in place without raising it to FEMA standards, but recently learned that FEMA regulations treat the entire structure as one building requiring elevation.

Bradley said the committee is now leaning toward a third, “middle-ground” option. Coming in at $4.9 million, according to the minutes, this proposal would move only the west wing into the parking lot for pile-driven foundation reinforcement, and would demolish and rebuild the locker portion to make it “smaller and better,” with “more effective use of space.” Bradley noted the large storage lockers in the east wing are not typical of modern beach pavilions, which now are more often built with smaller day lockers and changing rooms.
“It’s a huge trade-off between cost, program, sound engineering to prevent damage in the future, and FEMA compliance. These are the balls that have to be juggled,” Bradley said.

Footing the bill

According to First Selectman Mike Tetreau, there are three sources of funding for the project other than town money. The first, an insurance claim the town filed for damage to the pavilion, Tetreau expects to settle within a week, he says, and should amount to more than $1.5 million.

The second source of funding is a $500,000 grant the town received from the state targeted for repair to public facilities damaged by Sandy, and the third, and most difficult to quantify at this point, is funding from FEMA, which “theoretically could cover 75%” of the cost of bringing the pavilion up to current FEMA standards, Tetreau said. The town is applying for the FEMA mitigation funding, and won’t know for “six months to a year” how much, if any, is approved, he said.

The balance of the cost of the pavilion project would be borne by the town, Tetreau said, most likely through a bond issuance.

Beachgoers weigh in

Down at Penfield Beach, opinions vary on what should be done with the pavilion. On a recent evening at low tide, Sarah Payne was sitting in a beach chair yards from the boarded-up structure, watching her 10-year-old daughter hunt for hermit crabs.

“A couple of summers ago when they were building,” Payne said, “the project manager was here and my mom said, ‘You know that’s not going to work.’”

Payne explained that her mother, a Fairfield beach-area resident since the 1950s, thought the pavilion was too big, cost “way too much money and wasn’t going to work structurally.” Payne grew up on Judson Road and now visits twice a year from her home in Georgia. She said, “I chime in with the people who think it needs to be simple. Just a restroom and a place to wash off.”

She also said she was disappointed that the pavilion was “not available for the kids” this summer, adding that Penfield is the best beach in town for children. “Penfield has the sand bar — Jennings doesn’t.”
A woman walking at the water’s edge agreed that renovation plans should “keep it simple, low cost, low maintenance.” The woman, who identified herself as a beach-area resident but declined to give her name, said the pavilion should retain the event space, but that the town should “get rid of the lockers.” She also said she saw a “lack of wisdom” in beach-area building in Fairfield today.

“It used to be low building for the hurricanes, now it’s all multimillion-dollar [structures],” she said. “They want it to be like Greenwich and Darien, but Fairfield was always low-key.”

Other residents enjoying the beach favored a building like the one that was damaged. Stephanie Cahill, who grew up in Fairfield, said, “I definitely think the [pavilion] should have lockers,” adding that she used them when her three sons were young. Cahill said she had also “been to many parties” at the pavilion, preferring the event space there to the Jacky Durrell banquet facility on the western edge of the beach. Of the scope of the renovation, Cahill said the town should “do it right. What if we get another big storm? Then you just waste the money that you spent.”
Cahill’s view was shared by Brian and Joyce Zukauskas, who were walking the length of the beach.

“In a town like Fairfield,” Joyce Zukauskas said, “it’s a shame they haven’t done anything. Keep it all — it’s a benefit to the community.”

But Brian Zukauskas cautioned, “Move it off the beach or the same thing is going to happen again.”

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