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P&Z members want bid for downtown master withdrawn

Published 3:23 pm, Saturday, March 9, 2013
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Planning and Zoning Commission members are calling for withdrawal of the town's "request for proposals" for a downtown master plan of development because they say they were not consulted by the Downtown 2020 Committee before the document was released last week.

"I would have preferred it had they come before and had a little discussion," P&Z Chairwoman Catherine Walsh said during a commission meeting Thursday night. "I think if we would have had a little more input, it would've been beneficial."

In an email Friday to the Westport News, Downtown 2020 Chairman Lou Gagliano disputed Walsh's comments.

"It is not true that we did not reach out for the commission as to the RFP drafting process," he said.

Gagliano said he emailed a draft of the RFP on Feb. 12 to P&Z Director Larry Bradley and that other officials in First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's administration were also copied on the email "in an effort to obtain review and input comments." Bradley did not with respond with any comments or objections to the draft RFP, "to the best of my knowledge," Gagliano added.

The town issued the RFP on Feb. 27, shortly after Downtown 2020 Committee members decided that they wanted to start a formal bidding process for the master plan that the committee conceived. The RFP calls for the master plan to examine and make recommendations on downtown issues, such as parking, traffic, flooding and pedestrian access.

To build support for their work, Downtown 2020 members have held dozens of public meetings to discuss their goals since the committee's appointment about a year ago by Joseloff. P&Z members have attended a number of those meetings, while Downtown 2020 Committee members have participated in several recent P&Z subcommittee meetings. Members of the two panels appear to be on generally good terms, with Walsh mentioning Thursday that she met with Gagliano during a recent visit to Richmond Hill, Ga.

The master plan RFP reflects Downtown 2020 members' efforts to mobilize other town officials to help the committee achieve its objectives. It calls for the consulting firm hired by the town to produce the master plan to meet with town officials, such as P&Z members and the P&Z director, to "coordinate efforts and to help guide the process" and also convene with public groups to identify "priorities of development and improvements" for the town center.

But P&Z members have signaled that they wanted to work more closely with their Downtown 2020 counterparts before the master plan RFP was released. For some commissioners, that stance is driven by a desire to expand the scope of the master plan to also focus on Westport's Post Road commercial corridor, which spans about five miles from the Norwalk border to the Fairfield town line.

"We've got to stop piecemealing; we need a comprehensive plan," P&Z Secretary Chip Stephens told the Westport News Friday. "We need to take the problems at hand and the problem areas are the Post Road corridor and the downtown. I think they have to be intertwined."

Other commissioners such as Vice Chairman Jack Whittle and Howard Lathrop also support the withdrawal of the RFP. Lathrop described the RFP as "ill-conceived" and added that its March 14 deadline for bids is "too short a time to develop responses."

Ron Corwin, the longest-serving P&Z member, suggested that Downtown 2020 members have a "dialogue" with P&Z members and "if they feel after that discussion that they wish to make adjustments in the RFP they should do so."

Another P&Z member, Nora Jinishian, recommended a similar approach.

"I would not go as far to say that it should be withdrawn at this point," she told the Westport News Friday. "I think a telephone conversation would be the best method to communicate our concern."

But the rift between the P&Z and Downtown 2020 over the master plan RFP does not appear to be irreconcilable; P&Z members have invited Downtown 2020 members to participate in an April 4 P&Z meeting.

"I look forward to having Downtown 2020 here on April 4, Walsh added Thursday.

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott