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Editorial / Let fresh eyes help shape the vision for downtown

Published 12:24 pm, Tuesday, June 18, 2013
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When the Board of Education over the winter asked for $100,000 to have a private security company assess security and safety at the town's schools, it ignited a mini-firestorm.

School officials erred both logistically and politically when -- without seeking bids and without consulting our local experts in the Westport Police Department -- they recommended a specific company be hired to do the audit.

Ultimately -- after other firms were considered and local police involvement was assured -- the Representative Town Meeting did the right thing and approved the money to draw on the expertise and vast experience of a global security firm.

Even in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, Westport police likely could have done a very competent assessment of local schools. But given the stakes, why not draw on the technological and tactical expertise of a worldwide firm?

On critical issues, a fresh set of eyes and outside expertise is a good thing.

And developing a long-term plan for Downtown Westport is one such critical issue.

As with school security, the notion of hiring an outside consultant to assess downtown -- as proposed by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's Downtown 2020 Committee -- enflamed political passions, most notably those of Planning and Zoning Commission members. Some felt Downtown 2020 was trying to usurp the commission's authority on land-use issues.

After the commission and Downtown 2020 buried the hatchet this month, it's now time for all to agree that outside experts with fresh eyes should help shape a downtown plan -- experts who've helped solve similar problems elsewhere, experts who see possibilities we can't because we're too close to it.

With myriad development plans on the drawing boards -- some already underway -- decisions made in the near future will define for the next generation what businesses, services and institutions are downtown; how we get in and out of downtown; where we might park and how we might get around on foot; whether we'll have patches of green to enjoy amid the pavement; and whether the river will become a greater part of experiencing downtown.

It's a very complicated situation -- one which promises to become even more complicated. Downtown would generate more activity and draw more traffic with the redevelopment of the Family Y for businesses and housing, construction of a movie theater, renovation and evolution of the library, and the expansion and reconstruction of the Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts.

Those are just for starters. Toss in redevelopment of National Hall, new use of the Save The Children complex, and the Westport Arts Center's proposal to build a new facility next to the library on what now is Jesup Green, and you've got a very different downtown than you have now.

How do all of those new pieces fit with existing pieces?

Downtown 2020 has set a tough task for itself. It wants to address traffic flow and parking; create streets capes and green areas; provide access to the river; make downtown more pedestrian friendly.

Some of those goals seem at odds with each other. Turning Parker Harding Plaza into a riverfront park is enticing, but how do you replace the parking spaces there now? How do you improve conditions for pedestrians on Main Street when you can't widen sidewalks without eliminating on-street parking? If the goal is to preserve open space, do you allow an arts center to be built on Jesup Green, as intriguing as a cultural campus with the library and Levitt might be?

We have no doubt that members of the P&Z Commission and members of the 2020 Commission love Westport deeply and have strong opinions about its future. Many others do, too. If they didn't, they would not be as passionate as they are.

If it took as much as $200,000 for a top consulting firm top help Westport see more of the possibilities and avoid major pitfalls, it would be money well spent.

It's not a matter of ceding control to an outside firm. It's a matter of ensuring that Westport taps the best minds with the best experience before it makes up its own mind.