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Part Four: Designers, Commissioners Look Back On Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Process



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See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this story in the January 6, 13, and 20 print edition, respectively, or at newtownbee.com.

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 world was in 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, then-First Selectman Pat Llodra put a call out in early 2013 for a committee to work on creating a permanent memorial.

On September 17, 2018, the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission (SHPMC) made the official recommendation to Newtown Board of Selectmen (BOS) to choose the design labeled SH37 for the permanent memorial. The submission was created by Dan Affleck and Ben Waldo of SWA Group.

The entire board — First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, Selectman Maureen Crick Owen, and Selectman Jeff Capeci — approved the commission’s recommendation. With that, the SHPMC’s charge was officially completed.

SHPMC chair Dan Krauss told The Newtown Bee in December 2022, “Once we submitted the design, we didn’t know if we were going to continue or disband. Dan Rosenthal asked us to stay on and work the process through to when it was ready to be built and approved by the taxpayers of Newtown.”

With the commission working in an advisory capacity, the Town of Newtown moved forward negotiating with SWA Group about financing and other logistics.

On January 10, 2019, Rosenthal attended a SHPMC meeting to relay updates on the project to committee members. He offered information on the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) and possible referendum options.

Despite the town originally communicating with SWA Principal and Landscape Architect Justin Winters, who was based in New York, Rosenthal shared that Winters had since left the company. However, they were continuing to work with Affleck and Waldo, based out of San Francisco, California.

The town requested that the designers create three versions of their original design that would best accommodate the key elements of the initial vision as well as the town’s new budget for the project.

The original design, unbeknownst to the commission at the time of selecting it, was estimated to cost roughly 11 million dollars.

The town projected it would need the design to be at a lower price point to work with the town’s $4 million CIP allotment.

“I’m not going to make a decision on this without sharing it with you,” Rosenthal said at the meeting. “That’s the whole point of keeping this group.”

Design Modifications

The SHPMC had its next meeting on April 11, 2019, to review SWA Group’s three modified designs with Rosenthal.

Option one proposed removing the design’s bridges, switching from NaturalPave to asphalt, reducing pond treatment, reducing the path network, reducing plantings, removing benches, having a grading reduction, reducing irrigation, and simplifying the lighting plan. Option one was estimated to cost five million dollars.

Option two proposed switching the design’s plan from stone to concrete, removing its pavilion, removing pond treatment, reducing trees and plantings, and having a cheaper security fencing. Option two was estimated to cost four million dollars.

Option three proposed removing the design’s site circulation beyond the memorial feature access, reducing the extent of security fencing, having a steeper path (with more handrails), and slightly reducing the size of the memorial feature. Option three was estimated to cost 3.3 million dollars.

Commissioners voiced their dismay over these options being too different from the design they originally selected.

SHPMC member JoAnn Bacon, mother of Charlotte Bacon, who passed away in 12/14, said during the meeting, “I look at these three options, and this is not what we voted on. This is not what we envisioned. I, too, feel disappointed.”

Hearing the members’ concerns, Rosenthal said that in hindsight, setting a budget may have been beneficial, but ultimately, he believed selecting the design based on what moved them and not on pricing was important.

The SHPMC decided at the time that they did not wish to move forward with any of the three proposed budgeted designs.

As a result, some members expressed interest in seeking outside funding for the original project design to compensate the margin of money not accounted for from the town.

Focus On Budget

Commissioners submitted their feedback to SWA Group with the hopes that a new design could be crafted that kept the elements important to them, as well as staying in budget.

Krauss recalled this part of the process, saying, “It was hard. We had to make a lot of tough decisions. How do you get the design within a budget? … That was very difficult getting it to a place where we felt it was within a budget that was appropriate, but also maintained the integrity of the design. We wanted to make sure that the core of the design, the focus of what we were so passionate about, was maintained.”

At the commission’s following meeting on May 9, Affleck and Waldo phoned in to speak with the commission to discuss how to update the design so everyone was on board.

SHPMC member and former First Selectman Pat Llodra told The Newtown Bee in December 2022, “The committee dedicated many months to further analysis and refinement of the proposal, working with Dan and Ben in person or electronically. I found the SWA principals to be responsive, well informed, generally available, and committed to a successful outcome.”

She continued, “As is true with any such project, cost containment proved to be the most challenging aspects as the committee worked to adjust the project to meet expected limits in funding. The SWA principals worked well with the committee to determine alternatives and accept scope review in efforts to reduce initial cost estimates.”

During this span of time, the commission and Town of Newtown considered funding strategies for the memorial. Ideas included seeking out private donors or hiring fundraising firms for assistance.

After much debate, it was decided that the Sandy Hook permanent memorial would be completely town funded.

Doing it that way would result in the town maintaining ownership of the process and the design itself. It would also not run into the possibility of having to incorporate donor plaques and, therefore, the design would keep the focus on the victims’ names.

With so much design and budget uncertainly, Rosenthal told the SHPMC during its meeting on October 10, 2019, that they would not be ready for an April 2020 referendum vote.

He emphasized that the commission needs to be united with their design decision before presenting the project to the public and getting it voted on in a referendum.

‘Very Impressive’

On November 25, 2019, Affleck and Waldo phoned in to the SHPMC meeting to present their fourth design for the commission to review.

The two designers narrated a slideshow that displayed the specific updates they made, and the costs associated with the plan.

The design incorporated the elements that the commissioners wanted to keep and was on budget for the town.

SWA estimated the updated design would cost $2.79 million. After factoring a 15 percent contingency of $419,000 and a 17 percent total consultant fee of $485,000, the total project cost is $3.69 million.

Commissioners expressed their appreciation, including Martin who said at the meeting, “I think it’s very impressive the work that you did in a short period of time. My sense is that you really captured the spirit and the essence of the design.”

From there, the town began finalizing contracts and coordinating a time line for the project with the designers.

By the SHPMC’s January 9, 2020 meeting the group pivoted its focus on creating community engagement around the permanent memorial.

Rosenthal said at the meeting that it was “important we get it right” and not rush the process of making sure the community knows about the selected design.

The goal was to inform the community, then get the permanent memorial design on the referendum for November 2020.

“Everything is on track,” Rosenthal said at the end of the meeting.

The next step would be selecting contractors and beginning the construction phase of the project — which would all begin right as the global COVID pandemic took place.

Be sure to pick up a copy of The Newtown Bee’s February 3 print edition for part five of this story.

Reporter Alissa Silber can be reached at alissa@thebee.com.

Members of the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission — pictured, from left, Brian Engel, Pat Llodra, Alan Martin, Dan Krauss, and Tricia Pinto — listen attentively as Dan Affleck and Ben Waldo of SWA Group go over the design revisions displayed on the projector screen on November 25, 2019. —Bee file photo
An updated image of the Sacred Sycamore element illuminates the dark room from the projector in the Newtown Municipal Center on November 25, 2019. —Bee file photo
Flowers and trees line the walkway that stretches around the pond in the fourth revision of the Sandy Hook permanent memorial design created in late 2019. —SWA Group rendering
A rendering of the aerial view of the Sandy Hook permanent memorial design at SAC Field on Riverside Road was presented to the SHPMC in 2019. —SWA Group rendering
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