GREENWICH — Parents of athletes, school officials and other residents have complained that the Cardinal Stadium bleachers at Greenwich High School are unsafe, but two inspections last week revealed something else: The bleachers were not built to code 50 years ago.
The finding, reached by an engineer as well as the town Building Department, prompted Superintendent of Schools Ralph Mayo to announce Monday evening that the home-side bleachers are closed, pending repairs to bring them up to current code or replace them.
School officials may have to consider alternative locations for graduation, and home and visiting spectators will both sit in visiting-side bleachers.
“We realize this is an inconvenience for upcoming athletic and ceremonial events, however, we will not compromise the safety of our staff, students, families or visitors to our schools,” Mayo said. “The high school is working on alternative plans for graduation and athletic events and will issue details as soon as they are available.”
The graduation ceremony is set for Monday, June 17. One option for the school board is to move the ceremony inside to the Performing Arts Center, which is the plan if there is inclement weather. Due to the size of the graduating class, the ceremony would be held in two sections.
The school district is now researching options to repair the bleachers in the short term. A proposal to replace the bleachers is included in the proposed municipal budget, which is up for a final vote in May by the Representative Town Meeting.
Some fans were sitting on the bleachers Monday for lacrosse games between Greenwich Academy and Greenwich High School, but they will not be used going forward, Mayo announced.
As of Tuesday, the plan is to use the visiting-side bleachers for all spectators at Cardinal Stadium, GHS Athletic Director Gus Lindine said.
Athletics and accessibility advocates say the stadium is a safety hazard for able-bodied fans, prohibitive to those with disabilities and inconvenient for Greenwich athletic teams and their visiting rivals. The Board of Education and the Greenwich Athletic Foundation’s first priority — to fix the bleachers — could solve these problems.
Last month, the father of a New Fairfield lacrosse player reported feeling the bleacher sagging under his foot on the visitor’s side of Cardinal Stadium. No one has been hurt by the decaying stands — yet.
“Additional and recent concerns” about the bleachers prompted Dan Watson, the director of facilities for the school district, to ask an engineer and officials for the town Building Department to conduct inspections.
Although Building Department Official Bill Marr and Deputy Building Official John Vallerie do not usually conduct inspections years after structures are built, they agreed to examine the bleachers.
As they walked alongside Watson, the facilities director pointed out deteriorating columns, steps and hand-rails, and “other little repairs,” and the temporary supports that had been put up in 2016, Marr said.
The engineer hired by Watson drew up a report on the stands, which concluded that the structure could support only a 60-foot load per square foot, Marr said.
He and Vallerie checked old permits, finding one from when the bleachers were erected on the old football field in the 1970s, and the other from when the bleachers were relocated by helicopter in the mid ’70s.
They discovered that the building codes dating to the time of both permits required the bleachers to bear 100 pounds per square foot, meaning the bleachers have been out-of-code for nearly 50 years.
“Due to that and the report, we had to tell Dan we’re going to declare it not safe,” Marr said.
The bleachers can be repaired to meet the load requirements, but that may not be cost-effective, Vallerie said.
But the closures do not mean the bleachers are officially designated as “condemned,” Marr said.
“We’re not going to condemn the bleachers because it’s possible, maybe not cost-effective, that they could have an engineer make something to support the load,” he said. “They have the option to take it down.”
The bleacher closures will mostly affect the boys’ and girls’ junior varsity and varsity lacrosse teams. If the closure occurred during football season, the school would need to relocate upwards of 2,000 fans at home games.
The high school has other fields with stands. Field 3, which is lined for field hockey, lacrosse and soccer games, where freshmen and junior varsity teams play their games, and Field 7, which is used for non-varsity football games and practices, which has stands that can hold several hundred people.
The Cardinal Stadium bleachers are part of a larger development project that began with an initial feasibility study conducted in 2017-18, calling for replacement of the aging bleachers, among other facility, safety and use improvements.
The potential repairs to the current bleachers are a separate issue from the planned changes to redevelop the stadium, including new bleachers and other amenities in and around the stands, said Rick Kral, president of the Greenwich Athletic Foundation and longtime advocate for stadium upgrades.
“No one planned for this to be closed now,” he said. Now, he added, the school board will have to consider relocating graduation.
Kral predicted that either the Board of Education would spend the money to fix the bleachers, or the members would close them, take them down and install new bleachers as part of the greater renovation project.
“If the inspection reveals relatively minor issues that can be repaired, it will be worthwhile to make those repairs and allow the planning committee to proceed,” he said.
If the bleachers are not worth the repair, the closure will play into the general stadium rehabilitation plan the BOE is working on, he said.
The GAF leader said he believes that school and town officials took seriously the comments made during public hearings about how the bleachers were not safe, and were falling apart.
Kral credited the BOE for following up on the speakers’ claims and inspecting the bleachers themselves.
“It’s an unfortunate situation, but one that needed to be handled,” he said. “You can’t take chances with public safety.”