It was literally the eleventh hour when unexpected questions brought review of the Bedford Square project by the Planning and Zoning Commission to a veritable standstill Thursday night.
While applauding the applicants for demonstrating what he said was "sensitivity" in adjusting plans for the multi-use project proposed for the downtown site of the Westport Weston Family Y, P&Z Commissioner Jack Whittle broached the question of why and how retail use could be allowed on the second and third floors of the revamped building -- as is proposed.
"The proposal includes second- and third-floor retail and a great deal of it," he said. "I'm thinking, `How is that possible?' "
"I'm not trying to throw a monkey wrench in the plans," he said. "I just really feel strongly about being consistent."
The Bedford Square developers had drawn up their plans based on an understanding of a 2005 ruling by then-Planning and Zoning Director Cathy Barnard, who wrote, in essence, that sections of the Family Y's second and third stories qualify for use as retail space.
In 2008, however, the P&Z ruled otherwise, Whittle noted.
"The uses being conducted at the Y were not commercial," Whittle said. "You do not really have a pre-existing retail use on the second and third floors that you get to continue ... That's the nagging problem I've got in my mind."
Karen Johnson, vice president of development for Charter Realty & Development Corp., who led the presentation for the Bedford Square development team, said she was only made aware of Whittle's concerns at 4 p.m. Thursday. She said she had consulted the partnership's lawyer and that they stood by their interpretation that the upper stories of the existing Y building still qualify for retail use.
"We really have to look at this from a holistic land-use approach," she said.
"You don't get to operate second- and third-floor retail in this town unless it's continuation of a prior use," Whittle countered.
Asked for his reaction, Laurence Bradley, who is now the town's planning and zoning director, said, "I don't think the commission ever weighed in on this fact."
Consequently, the commission decided to continue its hearing the application to July 18, when it hopes to rule on several variation requests for the project, including relocation of some floor area; extension of the floor in the mezzanine area, and a variance on the allowed rooftop height owing to skylights, elevators and rooftop condensers.
"Depending on how you decide on those, could affect the design of the project," said Bradley, who suggested at least two more appearances by the developers will likely be required.
The P&Z represents the last major hurdle to approval of the Bedford Square proposal, which has already been approved, with some modifications, by a series of other town boards and commissions.
The Bedford Square partnership initially unveiled the plan to redevelop the Westport Weston Family Y site, and adjoining property on Church Lane, about two years while the Y made plans to move to a new home on its Mahackeno property.
"Over the last 10 months we've really tried to interact with as many organizations and individuals as possible to explain our project to them," Johnson said of the subsequent approval process before various town bodies. After getting feedback, "in the case of the design aspects of this project, we even undertook a further redesign which we feel really incorporates a lot of the concerns," she said.