GREENWICH — Conjuring up images of Greenwich for generations past meant church spires, rocky ledges and the kind of colonial architecture that George Washington would have found familiar.
But in 2019, conjuring Greenwich’s appearance might summon a whole new visual vocabulary: bulky new homes, glass-box office plazas and suburban sprawl.
On social media and in hallways at Town Hall, the public conversation is revealing rising concerns about the character of the community — that Greenwich’s distinctive look and feel has shifted from that of a quaint New England community of bountiful visual pleasures, to one of ostentatious but unremarkable architecture and design, unconnected to the past or the natural world.
From a large new home in Cos Cob drawing neighborhood comments, to criticism about new projects proposed on West Putnam Avenue, not to mention the massive new retaining wall at the Old Greenwich train station, concerns are mounting that Greenwich is beginning to look like any other suburb in the metropolitan area.
As Greenwich architect Laura Kaehler noted, design can have an important role in quality of daily life, and the public has a right to be concerned over the built environment. Kaehler has been critical of the shortcomings of the massive new retaining wall at Old Greenwich train station — “the Berlin Wall,” as it has been referred to locally, she said.
“Details like this do not make or break one’s world, but they can be the ‘soft touches’ that enrich our lives in small, but important ways,” the Greenwich architect noted.
Kaehler said she has been dismayed by much of the new residential construction in Greenwich. “Beautiful neighborhoods are being torn apart with inappropriately scaled new homes — large homes with poor details, proportions and scale,” she said.
Local design critics have been up in arms in particular about a new home built in Cos Cob, part of a building boom that remade the visual landscape of the residential corridor along Valley Road in the past few years.
“This monstrosity just went up on the street I grew up on in Cos Cob right across from my childhood home,” wrote on observer about the new addition to the neighborhood. “We can’t decide if it looks more like a mausoleum, a small industrial prison, or the compound Bin Laden was using in Pakistan. Because it sure doesn’t look like anything in the quaint and quiet Cos Cob all around it.”
“Cold and horrible design” added another commenter. “Where’s the architecture police when you need them?” asked yet another critic.
Public comments have also been highly negative about a proposed new commercial and residential developments on West Putnam Avenue — amid concerns about suburban sprawl and over-development.
One local resident came to Town Hall to express concerns over the scale of the project - and whether she would ever be able to see the stars at night in her backyard if it were built. “It is beautiful at night. When my granddaughters visit from Ireland in the summer we lie on the grass and look at the stars,” said Lin Lavery, a former selectman, at a recent meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission. “The evenings and nights may never be the same.”
Her husband, Tracy Lavery, submitted an article from a business magazine to the P&Z Commission titled, “How Monotonous Five-Story Buildings Conquered America,” suggesting that such construction should not be conquering Greenwich.
The imperatives of the real estate market, and changing tastes in architecture, have made older homes that were prized by generations of earlier Greenwich homeowners no longer viable. The tear-down trend, in which existing houses are bulldozed to make way for newer construction, is still decimating older, and often more elegant, homes at a rapid clip.
“We lost some really great houses in ’17, ’18 — unbelievable houses,” said Stephen Bishop, chairman of the town’s Historic District Commission
Local government has been seeking to preserve older homes with some incentives, Bishop noted, and having some successes. A new town law, allowing homeowners to gain building and zoning incentives for expansion if their homes are historic, is yielding some results, he said.
But overall, said Bishop, the town has little control over residential design standards. “People don’t like boards and governments telling them what to do with their property,” he said. “It’s very hard to mandate.”
The result, he said, has been a diminution of local flavor.
“I grew up in Greenwich. It’s still a great town, and we have a lot of great architecture. A lot of houses being built aren’t horrific — though I’ve seen a few — but they don’t have the kind of charm you had in the past,” Bishop said. “They have a lot of formulaic stuff — turrets, for instance— but they don’t have the feel, the sense of history and the charm that you get in older houses.”
Jo Conboy, chairwoman of the Greenwich Preservation Trust, said it appears that the character of the town has changed irreversibly.
“People come into this town and want to live here because of the beautiful old buildings — but then they build these McMansions,” she said, using the term for large new homes with pretentious architecture. “We’ve been trying to stop that, but it’s hard to do.”