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Downtown debate: Parking flap overshadows plans for 'charrettes'

Updated 5:31 pm, Thursday, August 14, 2014

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  • Downtown Steering Committee chair Melissa Kane and Mark Keener, director of urban design for the RBA Group, listen to concerns raised during a steering committee meeting Thursday in Town Hall where Keener discussed Charrettes planned next month concerning the downtown's future. Photo: Anne M. Amato / westport news
    Downtown Steering Committee chair Melissa Kane and Mark Keener, director of urban design for the RBA Group, listen to concerns raised during a steering committee meeting Thursday in Town Hall where Keener discussed Charrettes planned next month concerning the downtown's future. Photo: Anne M. Amato

 

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Residents will get a chance to weigh in on the future of downtown when "charrettes," or forums for public discussion, are planned as followups to a recent series of presentations on approved projects and pending proposals.

Preliminary details of the forums were discussed by Mark Keener, director of urban design for RBA Group, at a meeting of the Downtown Steering Committee Thursday morning in Town Hall.

But an argument over parking -- a perennial debate over what parking actually is available and what is needed -- intruded on what is supposed to be a collaborative effort.

RBA Group, is the consulting firm hired to draft a master plan for downtown. It has already conducted a survey that garnered 3,100 responses that found there was a broad consensus in several areas, most significantly, that future downtown plans should strive to maintain its "small-town character."

The steering committee has also held meetings where current and future plans downtown were discussed, including the new Bedford Square, the relocation of the Kemper-Gunn House, the relocation of the Westport Arts Center and expansion of the Westport Library.

"We've had surveys and workshops and now we are talking individually to people (members of town boards and commissions)," Keener said. "We are ready to deal with the hard issues."

Melissa Kane, steering committee chairwoman, said the group should consider "how we can use the charrette to ask some of the sticky questions."

The charrettes are planned for the weekend of Sept. 20 and 21, and will include walking tours covering a variety of categories such as open space, parks and streets, and recent and future building projects, Keener explained.

A pre-charrette event will take place Sept. 15 at which residents will get a chance to find out what will be included and agendas for the next week's events will also be available at that time, he said. There were no specific details about them available yet, he said.

He said following the walking tours residents will get the opportunity to talk about "what they came back with," he said.

"We want to make the concept of walking tours work," said Kane.

Besides projects, the charrette will also include discussion on a riverfront walk and redesign of Parker Harding Plaza, as well as an "active, greener Jesup Green."

It will also explore a controversial issue in the downtown area: parking.

The issue was brought up by Lois Shine, a member of the Representative Town Meeting's Long-Range Planning Committee and steering committee member, saying, "We need to know up front how much parking there actually is downtown."

"People still talk about the lack of parking," she said. "I've been here 60 years and never had a problem."

"We can say there are 800 spots, but they still feel there's not enough parking," Kane said. "We need to create a culture of understanding where the parking spaces are."

At that point, Planning and Zoning Commission member Cathy Walsh, also a steering committee member, interrupted. "I'm in the middle of a meltdown," Walsh said, adding she's been to meetings where downtown parking has been discussed and said the P&Z has also looked into the issue.

"We have connected the dots," she said, adding the zoning commission has a more accurate accounting of the number of parking spaces that will be lost with the relocation of the Kemper-Gunn House to the Baldwin parking lot. She said more spaces could be lost with a plan to make the Parker Harding parking lot into a "pedestrian friendly" area.

She said Kane is "spinning" when it comes to giving an accurate accounting of the effects of downtown plans, in particular how it will affect parking.

"I'm not spinning," Kane said. "I don't feel we are spinning anything. We are only showing what the potential plans are." She then pointed out that Walsh hadn't attended any of the steering committee meetings where current and future downtown projects were presented.

"We can't be at those meetings. It means we back them," Walsh countered.

As for those parking figures, Ken Bernhard, steering committee member, said if the zoning commission has information that RBA doesn't that panel should share it.

"Can you provide the numbers?" Steve Desloge, president of the Downtown Merchants Association and steering committee member, asked Walsh. Later, Desloge said that no parking has been added downtown in 10 years, while the need for more spaces has increased.