By Paul Schott
The town issued a request for proposals for a downtown "Master Plan for Development and Implementation" on Wednesday, a top goal of the Downtown 2020 Committee's intiative to help revitalize the area.
The master plan will examine and make recommendations on an array of major downtown issues, such as parking, traffic, flooding, pedestrian access, landscaping and signs. It will also seek to integrate planning for a number of private capital projects in the town center and provide economic direction to help determine "additional growth opportunities."
"We have never been faced in the downtown area with so many changes brought about by projects in such a short amount of time," said Downtown 2020 Chairman Lou Gagliano.
"There are compelling reasons to look at the pieces that are missing," Gagliano said, referring to a potentially transformative period in the town center.
A number of major downtown projects are slated to start within the next few years, including the redevelopment of the current Westport Weston Family Y site into a mixed-use complex; construction of a movie theater in a lot adjacent to the Main Street restaurant Tavern on Main; reconstruction of the Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts; renovation of the Westport Public Library, and the proposed relocation of the Westport Arts Center to Jesup Green.
A recent report by Gagliano estimates that the cost of the prospective developments could total "in excess of" $200 million.
Town officials, downtown merchants and property owners and other community leaders have tried in recent years to rally public support for a comprehensive strategy to catalyze changes to address perennial issues that include parking, traffic, riverfront access and evening activity.
In October 2010, a "Downtown Plan Subcommittee," led by state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg when he was still a Representative Town Meeting member, presented a number of proposals related to many downtown issues that will be scrutinized by the master plan. But that committee's ideas and other recent downtown planning documents have struggled to gain traction without a permanent panel to champion the implementation of its recommendations.
The master plan RFP acknowledges such challenges, recounting that First Selectman Gordon Joseloff appointed the Downtown 2020 group in March 2012 "as a result of this lack of forward movement and with an increased number of private development projects [planned] for the downtown area." Since then, Joseloff has remained a strong supporter of Downtown 2020's work.
"With so much building activity already under way or planned, it is imperative that we see to it that the future of downtown Westport is carefully coordinated to ensure that the best interests of the town are paramount," Joseloff said in an email Wednesday to the Westport News.
To build public support for the master plan's goals, the RFP calls for the consulting firm hired by the town for the project to meet with town officials, such as Planning and Zoning Commission members and the P&Z director, to "coordinate efforts and to help guide the process" and public groups to identify "priorities of developments and improvements" for the town center.
During the last year, Downtown 2020 Committee members have met frequently in public meeting with zoning officials and RTM members, many of whom have expressed enthusiastic support for the committee's objectives.
"The issue is not can we afford to have a plan for our downtown, but can we afford not to? Dewey Loselle, a member of the RTM's Long Range Planning Committee, said in an email. "This RFP will lead to a plan that will influence and shape the coming change so that it is in the public's interest. I am hopeful that all Westport supports the effort to develop our first ever master plan and that everyone participates in the process."
Master plan proposals are due by March 14. Downtown 2020 Committee members will select the winning bid, with a decision set to be made by March 31. The master plan is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
The committee proposed last month that the town contribute $175,000 for the master plan. Gagliano confirmed Wednesday that the town's bill for the master plan will not exceed that total. Any town funding for the new master plan would require approval from the Board of Finance and RTM.
Downtown 2020 has received "slightly in excess of" $60,000 in commitments from private sources for the master plan, including $10,000 from the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce, according to Gagliano.
Since the beginning of the year, Downtown 2020 has received three bids from consulting firms to produce the master plan. But the prospective allocation of town funds for the initiative now warrants a formal RFP for the initiative, Gagliano said.
"Having others come forth is appropriate," he added. "I think the more the merrier. The more people who respond, the better we can do from a pricing standpoint and the more we will learn."
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