Before writing the next chapter in the long-envisioned plan to expand the Westport Library, the Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday voted unanimously to continue a public hearing on the project so police and fire officials can weigh in.
The 8-24 report filed by First Selectman Jim Marpe suggests a 35-foot northern expansion of the library's existing footprint onto town-owned Jesup Green. Details of the plan, which lawyer Lawrence Weisman said still are being pulled together, were not reviewed Thursday. The P&Z was asked only to make a judgment on the land-use request.
"The only direction in which it can be expanded, practically, is in a northerly direction ... toward Jesup Green," Weisman said, with 75 percent of the structure's north side moving outward to accommodate the creation of a larger auditorium and a redesigned entrance.
"This would enable us to essentially replace the McManus Room," he said, with a flexible room that could seat up to 300, versus the current 120-seat capacity of the library's largest meeting room.
"This plan is certain to be refined and may undergo significant changes," Weisman said, but "we're here for an 8-24. We're not here to review these plans ... which are a work in progress."
Weisman, however, was questioned on the issue of whether the project might increase the need for parking. While he initially stated, "There is no change to the existing amount of parking spaces," following questions from P&Z commissioners, he conceded that parking demand could increase at times, such as evenings.
"I certainly can't guarantee that there isn't going to be an increase," he said, explaining that it would come "as a result of adding new programming" following an expansion of the library.
According to Zoning Director Larry Bradley, the proposed addition of 20,500 square feet to the library's floor area "brings the total size of the library, when this is said and done, to 67,800 square feet."
Marpe called the library "one of our crown jewels (and) a true community resource."
He said the expansion would be consistent with the town's Plan of Conservation and Development, by providing opportunities for more gathering space, more evening events and cultural expansion.
Maxine Bleiweis, library director, recounted some of the Westport Library's history, including the "mixed reviews" for the current building, constructed in 1983 and "impeded by a vaulted ceiling that created acoustical issues," she said.
"We operate now, despite our building, and every day fail our public by not having the right facilities," she said.
"We have standing-room-only in meeting rooms. We turn away small children regularly when we reach capacity," she said, calling the library "overused, oversubscribed and overrun with challenges."
"In addition to adding space required to operate properly," Bleiweis said, "the new plan addresses security and acoustics." She said it also would promote more after-hour activities for downtown, especially on the weekend.
The new plan, she said, is scaled down from a 2009 design originally considered for expansion.
Close to a dozen people spoke in favor of the plan, including Julie Belaga, a former state representative who also was chairwoman of the P&Z from 1971 to 1975.
"For years I have walked by Jesup Green and it has gotten sadder ... and it has frustrated me," she said. "This plan would enhance dramatically the appearance ... and the appeal of Jesup Green, which is after all an important historical spot in this community."
"We want a library that is excellent, that is the best in the state ... and that's what this plan offers," she added.
P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens said leaving the hearing open until Feb. 27 should not be construed as a potential poor report on the plan.
"It's nothing negative," he said. "It's just protocol."
Bradley said that a decision on the 8-24 report would be required at that time. If the P&Z takes no action it is automatically considered a positive report. Meanwhile, should the commission issue a negative report, it can still potentially be overturned by the Representative Town Meeting, if it is petitioned to act.