By Anne W. Semmes
There is a site in the Byram neighborhood of the Town of Greenwich where hearts are heavily invested that is destined for significant change, to the great expectation of many but consternation of some.
Best known at the site is the Dorothy Hamill Skating Rink, perhaps then Strassa Field, named for beloved community member, Sal Strassa, and lastly the Eugene Morlot Memorial Park with its flagpole and memorial plaque citing when the Park was dedicated, “On November 11, 1989.” That Memorial Park includes 13 trees dedicated and plaqued to 13 “Byram Boys” graduates of the former Byram School (now McKinney Terrace) who lost their lives in WWII, Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Eugene Morlot was a custodian at Byram School who found this tree-planting way to honor those country-serving graduates during WWII before the school’s 1978 closing. (Also located on this site, down the hill, is the oldest unaltered house in Greenwich, the Thomas Lyon House, circa 1739, facing West Putnam Avenue.)
The significant change on the drawing board is a brand-new state-of-the art skating rink that has been “in the works” for over two years, involving the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of Public Works (DPW), the BET, and Board of Selectmen. Seems the 50-year-old Dorothy Hamill Rink is worn out and undersized for current hockey standards.
At the end of those two years the figures found the cost of redoing the rink on site was about the same as building on a new site, $18 million. So, as of today, an architect chosen from the SLAM architecture firm for his rink design (with a price estimate of $19 million) is now to survey that new building site he has chosen – the large parking lot adjacent to the Rink that serves the general site area. Results of that survey are said to be due the end of March.
Overseeing Town building construction and maintenance is DPW Superintendent Alan Monelli, whose had some surprises in this two-year process. “I was unaware of the dedicated veterans’ trees.” Learning about them from architects he says, “I immediately changed the work scope..,whoever gets this contract, they can’t be even near the trees. They can’t even have the building cast a shadow on the trees to kill the trees. I don’t want anything happening to those trees.”
Surely a comfort to the chief custodian of those trees, Don Sylvester, Commander of the Byram Veterans Association, who with fellow Byram veteran David Wold have approached Monelli with their concerns of the placement of the new rink so near that memorial grove. Won’t that building block off the view of that graceful grove of trees growing alongside the now historic registered McKinney Terrace? Won’t the new building’s proposed height of 45-50 feet rob the sunlight for those trees?
“I believe Alan Monelli,” says Wold, “when he tells me they won’t touch the grove.” But seeing on the SLAM Proposed Site Plan how the service area of the new rink is facing that memorial grove, “the utility, the garbage cans would be up against the memorial.”
Also, on that Site Plan they see a relocated flagpole, set further along the Strassa Field, away from that memorial grove, when that flagpole is the annual gathering site on Veteran’s Day.
“We’re not opposed to the skating rink,” says Sylvester. But, “When they dedicated this Eugene Morlot Memorial Park site, it was an open site. Even if you put a building there, you’re changing the whole concept of what they wanted when they dedicated it.” He adds, “When they proposed this as a memorial, the last word these 13 men spoke was on a battlefield. Who’s to speak for these men today?”
One of those memorial trees is named after Liz Eckert’s late brother-in-law, Don Repaci.
That tree, to her surprise was felled without notice due to “storm damage” and is now replaced with a Pin Oak. “We are their voices,” echoed Eckert, thinking of Repaci who fought and died in Vietnam. “It’s been said that your freedom isn’t free, and as a community we need to honor and remember these members of our military that paid the ultimate price for our freedom. Every year on Memorial Day at 10 o’clock we have a service… a beautiful service put on by the Byram Vets. And this past year it got really well attended. And I was surprised because it was COVID time, but it’s been growing every year and social media has gotten the word out there, and the community is showing up and it means a lot to our family.”
Eckert serves as vice-chair of the Byram Neighborhood Association chaired by Joe Kantorski. “The sensitivity to the Memorial Park is top of mind here,” says Kantorski. To that end he and his committee have been asking to be representatives at the Town’s Dorothy Hamill Skating Rink (DHSR) Reconstruction Committee meetings.
“We are excited about the new skating rink,” says Kantorski, “and we look forward to working with the Town to make it happen.” But he adds, “We join the Byram Veterans Association in opposing any design that calls for a relocated rink that damages or dwarfs the memorial in any way. The Dorothy Hamill Skating Rink property is surrounded by residences and accessed via residential roads. So, as advocates for the community we must be mindful of the potential impact of this kind of project and ensure that the design is sensitive to the community’s best interests.”
Kantorski’s wish to be more involved in the decision making of that new rink, had him reaching out to the First Selectman Fred Camillo – “Byram is close to Fred’s heart. He’s lived here.” Kantorski got an enthusiastic response. “Fred is all for community representation and community input.” As of January, the BNA was invited to the DHDR Reconstruction committee meeting.
“When there is a meeting, they’ll be invited,” confirms Camillo. “and I’ve told Bill Drake [who heads up the DHSR committee] to designate a representative from the BNA and designate a representative from Byram Vets group. And then they will be invited to the meetings, and this way they can listen, even if they don’t have a vote, they can have some influence on it.”
But for those Byram Vets, it has been a long time of not being in the loop, not having a voice regarding the new rink planning. To compensate, Wold has developed impressive investigative skills. “I’m born and raised with speed skating and hockey and ice in Norway,” he says, “and I would love to see a proper facility here.”
That investigative skill is most familiar to First Selectman Camillo. “I’ve never seen people who continuously are accusing everybody of lying and corruption. And I can tell you when I brought it up to Alan Monelli, that the new building could block out the park which I agree with, Alan says I agree with it too, so we’re going to move it back. And I said, what about the playground there [in the memorial grove], it doesn’t have to be there. And he says we can move it. So, I’m getting a little frustrated with this.”
“I had David and Don in this office and said right now 99 percent of this town, maybe even more, doesn’t even know the Memorial Park is there. I want to change that now with a new rink coming.” To that end Camillo is urging new signage listing the Eugene Morlot Memorial Park, the Skating Rink, and the Strassa Field. And maybe, “Just maybe we can even fix that baseball field up finally and turn it around…you don’t put a field where it is now because of the sun in the batter’s eyes,” he learned from a Major Leaguer. “You’re putting the baseball field where it should be and you’re keeping it away from the Memorial.”
“What we’re trying to do is get to square one,” says Superintendent Monelli. ‘Everybody has these great ideas, but there’s a pro and con to every idea. We’re at the beginning stage, what we call 30 percent, so that we can start coming up with some ideas with the committee and get some initial feedback from the community so that we can start bringing it to the Board of Selectmen. And then bring it to Planning and Zoning, the Inland Wetlands architectural…But we have not even started that process yet.”
“One of the requirements that the Committee put out there,” he adds, “was they don’t want to lose the rink for two years. They don’t want to rip the existing rink down, and then build a new rink on the site. They want to see if they could build a rink someplace else in the park and keep the old rink in operation and then rip the old rink down and make it a parking lot after the fact. I don’t even know if that can be done yet.” That answer will come from the architect, he says.
Monelli had instructed the five finalist architects to “visualize this building” having given them “a bunch of attributes. We told them the building should be around 40,000 square feet or less. We want this kind of locker room, this size ice rink. We need a place to rent skates; we need skate rental storage. We need a front lobby area; we need seating, it has to be ADA accessible…. And for now, put it in the parking lot.”
“Since September,” says Monelli, “the community thinks that the drawings, the package that was received from the architect, is what they’re going to build, and it’s not. It was just a pathway.”