The largest downtown development project in decades was unanimously approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission last Thursday, the last major hurdle in a years-long approval process to convert the landmark property of the Weston Westport Family Y into the multi-use complex called Bedford Square.
"Clearly my team is very pleased," developer David Waldman, a member of the Bedford Square consortium, said Friday. "It was a well-run process, both on our side and on the town's side. By working with the town and going through the process as we did, I think we created a much better project than originally conceived."
The proposal, which had already been approved by several other town boards, calls for retail, residential, restaurant and office use in the new development, anchored by a large public plaza off Post Road East and Main Street. The complex will incorporate and renovate the Y's Bedford building and a former firehouse as part of the project, while the Weeks Pavilion, the newer Y building, will be torn down.
The Family Y is currently building a new headquarters on its Mahackeno property in northern Westport, which it plans to complete next year.
The Bedford Square development will also include four new buildings at 35 Church Lane. The two existing buildings there will be removed, including the 1890 Queen Anne-style "Gunn" house, which the consortium of developers has offered to preserve by moving it across Elm Street to a plot in the town's Baldwin parking lot. That plan, however, has yet to be approved by the town.
In addition to 60,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and office space, the proposed development will include 26 one- and two-bedroom apartments, as well as two stories of underground parking.
Markers are already in place to outline the footprint of the four proposed buildings on Church Lane, which will require widening the sidewalk and road.
In considering the application, the commission had 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.
P&Z members had become familiar with the site plan during a lengthy review, grilling the applicants about numerous facets of the project during the course of several public meetings. During Thursday's work session, which was not open to public comment, the commission focused less on the breadth of the project and more on some of the ancillary considerations, including landscaping.
Zoning commissioners approved the plan with conditions, including the retention of trees along the perimeter of the site and the addition of landscaping to mask proposed concrete areas.
"We don't want concrete, we want green," said commissioner Nora Jinishian.
Waldman said developers should have no problem adhering to the conditions.
"Those are minor in what is really going to be a transformational project for downtown Westport," he said.
If his team receives approval to move the Gunn house to the nearby parking lot, Waldman said that relocation could begin in the spring. The entire Bedford Square project will take 18 to 24 months to complete, and Waldman envisoned a grand opening before Thanksgiving 2016.
Karen Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Bedford Square consortium, said cooperation between developers and the zoning commission helped steer the successful application.
"We commend the Westport Planning and Zoning Commission for the process that resulted in its unanimous approval of the Bedford Square Project, and we sincerely thank the town staff and PZC members for what was a thorough and fair review," Johnson said in a statement.
"We particularly appreciate the willingness of the commission to hold a special meeting in August to consider our application. The spirit of cooperation that has surrounded the Bedford Square project for the past year is what has made this an even better plan for commercial, residential and retail development, one that meets community expectations and will reinvigorate and reconnect the downtown Westport area."
Automobile and pedestrian traffic will be adversely affected during construction, but Steve Desloge, president of the Downtown Merchants Association, said the temporary problems are worth the long-term benefits.
"Our view is longer term. Sure, there are going to be short-term impacts. But in the end, it's going to bring approximately 50,000 more square feet of business downtown. It's going to bring more people downtown. It's going to start to transform the downtown into more of a walking and bicycling downtown," said Desloge, owner of Rockwell Art and Framing, 236 Post Road East.
"As president of the Downtown Merchants Association, we are thrilled that they are going to do it in a way that adds to and protects the charm of the downtown," Desloge added. "It's going to be a pleasant area. It's not going to be sterile. It's going to a pleasant place to walk and to shop for residents and shoppers. It's going to be a huge increase of business for downtown. It's all good."