P&Z takes up scenarios to revive Westport downtown
Updated 4:24 pm, Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Continuing its efforts to spark revitalization of Westport's downtown, the Planning and Zoning Commission formed two new subcommittees on Monday that will draft proposals for zoning changes and recommend layout and aesthetic changes for the town center.
"We've talked a lot about planning," P&Z Chairman Ron Corwin said on Monday. "My bias is now towards action."
The subcommittee led by Corwin will study structural changes to the downtown such as a new parking deck at the current Baldwin Parking Lot. Such a project would require amending current zoning regulations.
Commissioner Howard Lathrop will lead the other subcommittee, which will examine proposals such as widening downtown sidewalks and introducing outdoor dining on public rights-of-way.
Revitalization plans that require zoning changes would be reviewed during public hearings held by the full P&Z Commission. Other proposals, such as expanding sidewalks, would need the approval of the Board of Selectmen. Both subcommittees will hold their first meetings at Town Hall next week.
The new panels grew out of a public meeting hosted last Thursday by the P&Z that brought together downtown business leaders and residents to discuss a range of initiatives for Westport town's center.
"The essence of what we're trying to do is to make Westport a better place to do business," Commissioner David Press said at the Thursday meeting. "This is important to the growth of our Grand List and underlies what the themes are behind the zoning changes that we make."
The future of downtown, and its long-term vitality, have been top areas of concern for the P&Z recently. Over the last year, the commission has approved a series of text amendments that have loosened regulations on outdoor dining, outdoor events and liquor permits. The changes aim to attract more dining establishments and promote more nighttime activity.
Now, the P&Z has signaled its intent to gauge community support for more far-reaching proposals, such as a new parking structure and a downtown movie theater, which could require a series of changes to zoning regulations.
"There is anecdotal evidence that an art house cinema is good for the community, wherever that movie house is," said Sandy Lefkowitz, director of the Westport Cinema Initiative, a citizens' group that wants to bring a movie theater to downtown Westport.
Bob LeRose, owner of the Main Street barbecue restaurant, Bobby Q's, and president of the Downtown Merchants Association, also expressed support for the P&Z's plan to remake the town center. But he urged the commission to consider the impact that zoning changes would have on downtown merchants.
"If more restaurants are encouraged to come to our downtown area, and we have not sufficiently addressed our infrastructure and our parking, it will turn into a bloodbath," he said. "We will eat each other up."
For many years, town planners and downtown business leaders have mulled various configurations to downtown parking, including a new parking structure at the Baldwin parking lot on Elm Street.
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, who previously led a downtown planning committee during his tenure as a Representative Town Meeting member, outlined one of the most ambitious plans: the redevelopment of Parker-Harding Plaza into a mixed-use center.
"We could conceivably sell the land ... so that we create a scale of community, maybe a small village," he said. "You could have two or three-story brownstone buildings where you have small retail spaces on the ground floor and have some space for apartments."
In contrast to the acrimonious tone that has characterized debate of several zoning changes in recent months, a cooperative spirit characterized Thursday's meeting. The forum also attracted a diverse range of participants, including several eighth-grade students from Coleytown Middle School who presented downtown revitalization plans they had developed for an academic project. One group of pupils proposed remaking the west bank of the Saugatuck River into a hub for youth-oriented activities.
"A teen center or under-21 club would be a perfect place for teens who have nothing to do over the weekend or nowhere to go," said Scott Pecoriello. "There were would be things like ping pong, foosball and music."
P&Z commissioners also opened talks on the possibility of introducing form-based code into the town's zoning regulations.
A more flexible and aesthetically-focused model than the current Westport zoning paradigm, form-based code would allow the P&Z to approve a broader range of downtown projects. It could, for instance, allow mixed-use development of Parker-Harding Plaza without constraints imposed by existing regulations on building height and floor-area ratio.
"I think it [form-based code] may give you the opportunity that the Planning and Zoning Commission hasn't taken advantage of prior," said Matthew Mandell, chairman of the Representative Town Meeting's Planning and Zoning Committee. "You can set parameters as to what you want and trade for what you can get."
Regulatory change also appears to have support from several key figures in the downtown business community.
"You have the ability to take certain areas and dictate how you want them used," said developer David Waldman, whose David Adam Realty commercial real estate firm has several downtown holdings, including the new Gap store at 125 Main St. and Church Lane's Sherwood House. "You can say to a developer like myself, `I'll give you six stories, but those upper three stories have to be residential.' There are ways that you can control your own destiny."