Fair Lawn Community Center
Kipp and 20th Streets, Fair Lawn, New Jersey
A Case Study
Today's Fair Lawn Community Center provides a place for all members of the community to meet and play with spaces for recreation, art classes, meeting rooms for seniors and hobbyists and a 150 seat professional grade theater.
Background & Process
The Borough of Fair Lawn, recognized the need for a new Community Center to replace their antiquated and inadequate facilities. In 2003 David L. Ganz, then mayor of the Borough, approached Allen Weitzman, to develop a design for a new Community and Arts Center.
At the time, the Borough operated two facilities in separate locations remote from one another. One was located in the Old Library Theater building on River Road and housed the Theater Club, Art Association and Radio Club. Originally built as a fire house in 1922 and expanded in the 1940’s, the one-story 8,000 square foot building was converted into a library during the 1950’s. When a formal library was constructed in 1967, the building was given over to the Recreation Department and converted into the Arts Center of Fair Lawn. Unfortunately, the building was ill suited for use as a theater and art hall. The 75 seat theater space had a flat floor so sight lines to the stage were poor; there was no separate lobby so people arriving late walked directly into the theater during performances . There was no room for administrative offices, box office, dressing rooms or other functional spaces associated with a community theater group. The Art Association also had a poor space, with no natural light and no privacy for the art model with an entrance directly off the street and no changing or storage rooms. The Radio Club fared worst, being given several small, dank rooms in the rear of the building with no direct access, only reached by walking through the theater.
The Old Library Theater
The Rec Center
The second facility called the Rec Center was located in a corner of the High School football field on Kipp Street. Totaling approximately 6,400 square feet, the building consisted of two single-story structures and basement, built at different times, that was inadequate when built. One side contained a non-regulation basketball court without side line clearances so players either ran into the walls or were careful to stay away from the outer edges. There were no bleachers or room for spectators and no lockers or changing rooms for home or visiting players. The other side of the building housed the original Recreation Center, with the Recreation Department offices and Table Game Room on the main level. Electronic games where housed in the basement, with only a single exterior stair as access, this was a violation of fire and safety coe standards which require two means of egress. Also, the recreation offices were so tight that to reach one desk required nearly climbing over another and lastly, the coat closet was so small and stuffed that children who came to play simply threw their coats on the floor.
Plan of the Old Library Theater (approx 8,000 sf)
Plan of the Rec Center (approx 6,400 sf)
Between the two facilities there was approximately 14,400 square feet of space. (See plans above).
Mayor Ganz’s vision was to sell the Old Library Theater building and adjacent parking lot to a private developer, netting between $2m and$2.5 m toward the construction of a new center housing all the community needs. The designers knew this would not be sufficient to simply replace the existing spaces in kind, never mind construct a “properly designed” facility to actually meet the needs of the programs.
Once the work was authorized, the first step was to create a Program to govern the design of the building. The Program listed the use, square footage, adjacency requirements, occupancy and any special needs or equipment for each use to be housed To accomplish that, Weitzman met with the individual user groups to determine their needs and aspirations. The resulting program yielded a building of approximately 75,000 square feet estimated at $18 to $20m which would far exceeded the Borough’s funding ability, so it was back to the drawing board for Allen Weitzman and Gary Snyder.
After several more rounds of meetings with the Borough and user groups, the final program emerged for a building of approximately 42,000 square feet with a budget of just under $10m and was approved.
During the development of the architectural designs, ultimately over nine schemes were presented and abandoned for various reasons. The final, approved design reflected a thoroughly modern aesthetic which, in the words of Deputy Mayor Martin Etler, reflected the forward thinking of the borough and not the past.
The Mayor’s Select Committee, led by Deputy Mayors Martin Etler and Steven Weinstein , and day to day coordination provided by Borough Manager Joanne Kwasniewski, were responsible for the review and approval of the developing design. As the design neared completion, meetings with George Fry, Director of Recreation and his staff fine-tuned the layouts.
Mayor Ganz seized on a state initiate for funding arts in the community projects, which allowed the county to borrow money from the bond market, using their stronger credit ratings, then to lend the money to the borough for the construction of the building. To ensure the project would be bipartisan and out of government hands, he suggested that a not for profit 501(c)3 corporation be formed to administer the project and selected John Cosgrove the head the group. Cosgrove, a native son, took the lead, assembled his group and took over the reins of leading the project as the client as well as being responsible for repaying the loan. Assisting Cosgrove was Lou Weiss, an experienced construction manager who worked tireless to see the project through to completion. Weitzman was instrumental in assisting the Borough and attended all the meetings with the County and bonding companies to develop the documents needed to obtain the loan.
Midway through the design process, it was discovered that primary electrical power lines serving Ridgewood would run under the proposed building. Construction in the proposed location would mean possibly cutting service to Ridgewood, a neighboring town. In response, the building was rotated 90 degrees , causing the two front entries (one for the children's programming and one for the adults) to not face the parking area but instead to face the athletic fields as it was too late in the process to redesign.
The resulting design featured the following attributes:
On the First Floor (see first floor plan):
The Art Studio
The Multi-function Gymnasium
A regulation high school sized court with adequate space along the sides
Senior Card Room
Radio Club Rooms
On the Second Floor (see second floor plan):
Recreation Department Offices
Youth Game Room
Electronic Game Room
Youth Toilets for Males and Female
Adult Exercise Room
Basement (see basement plan):
General Comments and Attributes
Total building area: 42,000. Final construction cost $9.75m.
The project was the sole winner in the 2006 Design Award from New York Construction/McGraw Hill for the project Small project category (Under $10,000,000). The project also won the 2009 Excellence in Design Award from the NJ Recreation and Parks Association.
Inclusive from start to finish
Throughout the design and construction process, Weitzman and Snyder remained committed to involving the community and addressing any concerns. They offered many renderings using 3d imagery and other modern design tools, and held walk-throughs to alleviate the concerns that come with putting a 40,000 foot structure where a 9,000 foot building existed.
The Fair Lawn Community Center was recognized for its outstanding design by the New York Construction Society under the new construction Under $10 Million category. But Weitzman and Snyder were unwilling to take sole credit for the collaborative effort. So they purchased copies of the award and gave it to members of the mayor and council, borough manager, and other partners who shared in the process.
Reflecting on what made the project so successful, Weitzman says, “This firm designs lots of buildings that we are not so-called experts at. So we learn. We’d never done a theatre, but we had enthusiasm instead of experience. We all pitched in and contributed our creative solutions. The Borough got a lot for their money and now has a unique building that everybody seems to love. We now have experience in building something we had never done before.”