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Downtown plans by Westport Arts Center, cinema group in the spotlight

Published 6:55 am, Tuesday, August 12, 2014

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  • Members of the Westport Cinema Initiative look over a rendering of plans for a downtown movie theater prior to a special meeting of the Downtown Steering Committee Monday night. Members are: (from left) state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, president; David Feig, treasurer; Susan Iseman, secretary; Doug Tirola, vice president and Sandy Lefkowitz, executive director. Photo: Anne M. Amato / westport news

    Members of the Westport Cinema Initiative look over a rendering of plans for a downtown movie theater prior to a special meeting of the Downtown Steering Committee Monday night. Members are: (from left) state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, president; David Feig, treasurer; Susan Iseman, secretary; Doug Tirola, vice president and Sandy Lefkowitz, executive director.

    Photo: Anne M. Amato

 

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Proposals to move the Westport Arts Center and to open a downtown cinema took the stage Monday as the Downtown Steering Committee hosted another forum on the area's future.

The arts center is currently housed in a 3,500-square-foot rented building on Riverside Avenue, Lance Lundberg, WAC's chairman, told approximately 30 people attending the meeting in the Town Hall auditorium. He said the current location is "no longer adequate" and WAC officials are looking at a number of locations in town for a new site, including the former Save the Children site, just north of the Post Road, on Wilton Road.

But Monday's presentation centered on the arts center's possible relocation to a space at Jesup Green, abutting the Westport Library, which also plans to expand onto the green.

He said if a new WAC were built on the space, "it would hardly impact Jesup." Tentative plans under consideration call for a 7,500-square-foot, two-story structure possibly on a parking area adjacent to Police Department headquarters.

"This is not really about Jesup Green," Lundberg said. "It's about the arts collaborative in town," added Peter VanHeerden, WAC's executive director. He went on to say that building a new WAC headquarters at that location would create "a cultural campus" that would include, besides the library, the new Levitt Pavillion.

This, he said, could mean integrated programing and shared facilities.

The WAC officials said a new building would be privately funded, and they have secured commitments of $3 million toward the development and construction. The new arts center would include two galleries, an auditorium, studio space, a gift shop and cafe. They said between $6 million to $7 million total could be raised.

Representative Town Meeting member Carla Rea, District 8, asked if WAC officials are hoping to use town-owned land for free or expect to lease it. "We don't expect it to be free," Lundberg said. "We are willing to pay for it, within reason."

RTM member Arthur Ashman, District 7, said the question where the building would go "is really irrelevant now ... we should really make this work."

He said the building could be built next to police headquarters without any problems.

Resident Don Bergmann suggested relocating police headquarters and developing "the arts center there."

Earlier in the forum, plans for a movie theater by the Westport Cinema Initiative, a non-profit, grass-roots organization, were also discussed.

"We need a location and settled on the only undeveloped parcel -- a dirt parking lot behind Tavern on the Green, right in the heart of everything," said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, president of the initiative. That lot at 142 Main St. is owned by the Teuscher Family Trust and is currently used for private parking.

The cinema initiative has a lease agreement with the property owner and is ready to begin fundraising for the $4.5 million needed for building costs and one year of operational expenses, said Sandy Lefkowtiz, executive director of the initiative.

There would be three theaters inside the building including two with stadium-style seating, one with 125 seats the other with 75. A third smaller theater on a second floor could seat 50, according to Rich Hoag, the plan's architect. An arcade would run from Main Street to, and through, the theater, he added.

Representative Town Meeting member Lois Schine, District 8, asked about parking, especially when there are Saturday and Sunday matinees. Steinberg said cinema initiative officials recognize that could be an issue and that parking on weekends downtown is "a challenge for all."

Asked about a timeline for the project, Steinberg said once the needed town board approvals are obtained, such as those from the Planning and Zoning Commission, it would take 12 to 18 months for construction to be completed.