Part Three: Designers, Commissioners Look Back On Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Process
After the tragic and incomprehensible events of December 14, 2012 (known in town as 12/14) that left 20 first grade students and six faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary School dead, the community and the world shared a state of grieving.
Temporary memorials were put up throughout Newtown to honor the lives taken through gun violence. It was in those sacred spaces that people openly wept, embraced loved ones, left meaningful mementos, and sought comfort in community.
While those commemorative spots were not meant to be kept intact forever, First Selectman Pat Llodra put a call out in early 2013 for a committee to work on creating a permanent memorial.
In December 2017, the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission (SHPMC) received nearly 200 memorial design submissions from individuals and companies around the world.
After countless hours of discussion over the course of months, the members narrowed it down to three top designs.
One of those designs, labeled SH37, was created by Ben Waldo and Daniel Affleck of SWA Group, based out of San Francisco, California.
Affleck is an associate principal and grew up in West Hartford. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts at Skidmore College and his Master of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. His experience includes various projects throughout California and internationally in China.
Waldo, SWA Group designer, also has experience with numerous projects in California, as well as in Minnesota, where he is originally from. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies and his Bachelor of Design and Architecture at the University of Minnesota and his Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of California Berkeley.
The two had been scanning the American Society of Landscape Architecture (ASLA) website in 2017 when they saw the permanent memorial request for submissions.
Waldo reflected on this time, telling The Newtown Bee on Zoom in December 2022, “We had already been discussing doing a competition and something meaningful as an opportunity to collaborate together. When we saw it, it felt like the perfect opportunity.”
They began their collaborative process by taking coffee break walks together at work. They both knew how important the design would be for the community. They decided that they wanted its concept to be simple and connect with people.
When on Zoom with The Newtown Bee, Affleck said, “For a few weeks we had a dialogue about it, then when we settled down and took a really good look at the site analysis, I started to create a conceptual grading plan to tie the site together. As you know, it has these multiple levels and two ponds, so we were thinking, ‘How do we unify it to make it feel like a singular thing?’”
He continued, “The idea of circular organization started to come together … it kind of happened intuitively and naturally for us, which isn’t always the case with design efforts. When we created the circle, we had to question what would be at the center of the circle. That’s when we came up with the water feature and the tree.”
After the SHPMC selected Affleck and Waldo’s design to be in the top three finalists, they received a letter by chairman Dan Krauss about the good news. They were also given feedback on what the commissioners and 12/14 families thought of their design.
The two listened carefully to the input they received and made updates to their design. Specific changes that were added at this stage were making an emergency access path, resting benches, and bridges.
Then they flew out to Connecticut to visit the memorial property on Riverside Road for a guided walk with commissioners Krauss, JoAnn Bacon, Tricia Pinto, and Donna Van Waalwijk.
On July 17, 2018, Waldo and Affleck presented their design in person to the commission.
The SHPMC was joined by its Advisory Panel and many town-affiliated groups, including the Newtown Board of Selectmen (BOS), Board of Finance, Legislative Council, Planning and Zoning, Parks and Recreation, Inland and Wetlands, Land Use Agency, Conservation Commission, Public Building and Site, and the Police Commission.
“I remember it being very positively received … I think the commission felt that we heard them very clearly and responded directly to their feedback,” Waldo said. “You get the sense in a moment like that, that there is trust forming and we could have a partnership here with this project. We as designers are here for you and work for you, for your needs for this project. They believed we could do that for them.”
Affleck added, “We had worked on this independently as a competition, but at that time we said we were going to do this with our firm SWA, so there was institutional support … At this point, we had also reached out to Fluidity, which is a water feature designer, knowing that the water feature would be a critical element.”
A third partner had been brought in at that point: SWA Principal and Landscape Architect Justin Winters, who is a Fairfield native.
The fact that Waldo and Affleck had established connections, already reached out to companies, and showed their ability to pivot when given feedback was all seen positively by the commissioners.
Affleck closed their presentation by saying, “This project means a lot to us, from the bottom of our hearts.”
Each designer had a half hour to present, followed by half an hour open for questions. Then there was a half hour break in between each designer’s allotted hour to have a public participation portion.
The second designer to present, at the SHPMC meeting on July 17, was landscape designer Justin Arleo of Arleo Design Studio LLC, based out of Tempe, Ariz., for design SH108.
The final presentation of the afternoon was for the design labeled SH240. The group members that created the project were RSP Dreambox Associate Principal and Experience Design Director Teri Kwant, Damon Farber Landscape Architects Principal Landscape Architect Joan MacLeod, and Svigals + Partners Associate Principal Julia McFadden.
McFadden had experience working on many local projects throughout Connecticut, including the new Sandy Hook Elementary School.
On July 30, 2018, the SHPMC met to select the winning design.
Many members expressed that they were impressed with the thorough work that was put into Affleck and Waldo’s presentation, saying it made them even more confident in their ability to bring their design to fruition.
Those that previously had concerns for specific design elements said they appreciated the designers’ ability to show flexibility by taking the commission’s recommendations and modifying their design.
At the meeting, Tricia Pinto, SHPMC member and mother of Jack Pinto, who died on 12/14, said the design was always a strong contender for her, and after hearing their presentation, it was her “first and only preference.”
She also relayed that out of the five 12/14 families she has been in contact with in the last week, all have told her that they would select SH37 for the permanent memorial design.
Fellow SHPMC member JoAnn Bacon, mother of Charlotte Bacon, who died on 12/14, agreed. She not only “loved this design,” but it was the only design she would want to vote forward.
Bacon added that she appreciated how “very respectful and responsive” the two designers were toward the project and the people involved.
Advisory Panel member Tom Tavella, who has more than 30 years of experience in land use planning, landscape architecture, and urban design, said the designers have his vote of confidence that the tree will not be an issue, because he believes “SWA is one of the best firms in the world.”
Pinto initiated the motion to recommend selecting the design labeled SH37, and it was unanimously approved.
SHPMC Vice Chair Alan Martin told The Newtown Bee in December 2022, “It spoke to us. The simplicity of it, and the symbolism of it.”
Commissioner Van Waalwijk was on the same page as her colleague, telling The Newtown Bee, “We all agreed about Dan and Ben. We liked them as people, we liked what they had designed — it was a little elaborate, we knew that. It was big and beautiful and lots of money. Their personalities, their compassion, and how they presented themselves made us all agree these were the guys we wanted to work with.”
Following the unanimous decision, Krauss sent out a letter congratulating Affleck and Waldo of SWA Group. He requested they send their cost estimates for the design.
On August 9, 2018, the SHPMC officially voted to recommend the design to the BOS.
The following month, the commission worked together to fine-tune their plan for what to present at the upcoming BOS meeting. The group created a slideshow that included its mission statement, a brief history of the commission, its design process, and specific details about the chosen design.
The big day came on September 17, when members of the commission, as well as SWA Group representative Justin Winters, spoke before First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, Selectman Maureen Crick Owen, and Selectman Jeff Capeci.
“It just feels like Newtown,” Van Waalwijk said while describing the design image that showed a bird’s eye view of the site.
It was a “labor of love,” Martin said about the process.
The members agreed that not only did the design have their commission’s unanimous support, but it also was the most favored design with the families directly impacted by 12/14.
After the presentation, Rosenthal expressed his gratitude for the years of work the SHPMC put into selecting a site and design for the permanent memorial, saying, “I applaud the commission.”
“You’ve all done a fabulous job,” Crick Owen said to the commission. Capeci added, “Thank you for all your work.”
Also, despite the group’s charge now being completed, the BOS approved the SHPMC’s request to stay on until the design’s completion.
Later, during the BOS meeting on September 17, the Board reviewed the First Selectman’s Proposed 2019-20 to 2023-24 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). It listed that the permanent memorial would receive two million dollars in 2019-20 and another two million dollars in 2020-21.
This came as an increase for the memorial, which was originally designated $250,000 in the Legislative Council Adopted CIP for 2018-19 to 2022-23.
While a major milestone for the project had been accomplished by selecting the memorial design, the next phase of work was just beginning.
Be sure to pick up a copy of The Newtown Bee’s January 27 print edition for part four of this story.
Reporter Alissa Silber can be reached at email@example.com.