10 February 2008

The Threat to Philip Johnson's Alice Ball House: A Further Explanation

An acquaintance in New Canaan sent us a long, thoughftul and, it seems, well-informed reply to our post about our visit to the Alice Ball House and our talk with its owner, Cristina Ross (here's the post). Here it is:

I have a couple of thoughts on the AB scenerio to pass on, where there may be confusion either on your or my part:

Asking Price: It is not considered a "Fair asking price" by many who otherwise appear to have been interested and have made inquiries. Owner paid $1.5 million in 2005 and two years later listed it at double that price; it's a tiny house - 1440 net sf living area including two small bedrooms. I believe it is smaller than many of the comps you mention.

I understand she would like to recoup her legal expenses and whatever she has put into the house, but now, especially in a "down" market, that probably is unrealistic. As I was told she had a permit for "cosmetic improvements" which I believe cap out at $2,500; if that is true, then the improvements could not have been very costly. I suggest you check out the permit.
Asking a lot of money for a house in New Canaan can also mean you are not really interested in selling it, sending a negative message to a potential buyer.

Environmental Commission: The letter that the Commission wrote to the owner clearly states the reasons her application was denied: too much filling of the wetlands, adverse impact of upland activities far greater than they need to be, and there are feasible alternatives that would cause little or no impact on the wetlands.

It then suggested she reapply, keeping in mind 12 points (some paraphrased):
1 Reduce the width of the driveway crossing the wetlands
2 Use grass pavers instead of gravel on driveway and parking areas
3 Straighten the driveway
4 Reduce the flare out of the driveway as it approaches the parking area
4 Rotate the garages in order to pull more of the parking area out of the wetlands and buffer area
5 Reduce the size of the parking area
6 Restore existing grass area currently located in wetlands for mitigation to offset some of the proposed wetland filling
7 Pull back the terrace and stone wall in front of the proposed house away from the wetlands
8 Reduce the amount and area of grading around the proposed house
9 Reduce the overall activity in the uplands in order to reduce the run off into the wetlands
10 Investigate whether adding onto or renovating the Philip Johnson house or otherwise building up front is a prudent alternative in lieu of a driveway crossing
11 Push the house upslope on the lot and further away from the wetlands

Only #10 would suggest that in order to "build up front" she might have to tear down the Alice Ball house, but it is not explicitly recommended.

You may obtain the letter from the Environmental Commission office in Town Hall. When I examined the plans, the recommendations all seemed quite doable and encouraging a re-application. I suggest you review the plans and the letter from the Environmental Commission.

I am certainly sympathetic to her, but is unclear to me why the owner did not reapply with a scaled back version, "that preserves the integrity of the Alice Ball House and respects the scale and character of the site" (as stated in a letter to Christina Ross signed by the Glass house, the National Trust and the New Canaan Historical Society Aug 17, 2007).

I do not believe anything has been heard before the Planning and Zoning Commission. I understand that the neighbors sued the Zoning Board of Appeals for giving a variance to allow the AB House to remain as a secondary residence on the property.

The neighbors are evidently going to object to anyone building a house on the rear of the lot, where there is more high ground than in front of the wetlands; and the wetlands, which cut across the width of the property, then curve around toward the road on the north side, eliminating that end of the front section as a build-able area. Not many options here at all!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tom Andersen writes a thoughtful letter. This issue is really a conflict between preservationists and environmentalist; ironically both motivated by preserving the health and aesthetic quality of New Canaan. The preservationists seem to have a distorted idea of what "saving" the Alice Ball house represents. Philip Johnson did not design a pool house for a mcmansion; he would not have. He designed homes to organically blend with a natural setting. Environmentalists need to decide if wetlands are important or not. Some people can't move three skunk cabbages and some can build driveways and pools. The town needs consistent application of policy.