Panel promotes master plan to coordinate downtown development
Published 7:15 am, Friday, October 12, 2012
A number of Representative Town Meeting members indicate they back a new roadmap for future development in downtown Westport as a planning group seeks to rally support for the project.
Since its formation in March by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, the Downtown 2020 Committee has worked on developing strategies and initiatives to revitalize the town center. A new status report from the committee highlights goals such as creation of a "green necklace" of riverfront access, more open space and extending walking and bike paths in the town center; improving traffic flow and parking availability; support of both local and national retailers; greater evening use of the downtown, and supporting more "trans-generational" residential development.
"It's not that we're trying to re-invent the wheel, but we're trying to confirm what we really believe and figure out how to get it implemented," said Lou Gagliano, Downtown 2020's chairman, during an RTM Long Range Planning Committee meeting on Thursday. "We believe that the process needs to move forward in an aggressive way without preconceived notions about what is to be done."
Creating a "master plan of development and implementation" for downtown Westport is a top objective for Downtown 2020. Gagliano has argued in recent weeks that a downtown master plan would act as a crucial tool for fostering coherent future development, with the center area poised for dramatic changes during the next decade. He highlighted four major downtown projects: the redevelopment of National Hall on the west bank of the Saugatuck River, Bedford Square Associates' planned redevelopment of the current site of the Westport Weston Family Y into a mixed-use complex, the prospective renovation and expansion of the Westport Public Library and a new movie theater planned next to the Tavern on Main restaurant on Main Street.
"These projects will change the footprint of four significant pieces of property in our downtown area," Gagliano said. "To let those projects migrate without an overall master plan of development that really defines how they get integrated better ... in my view would be a mistake."
Gagliano also described Baron's South, the 23-acre site of the Westport Center for Senior Activities and the prospective location of a senior residential complex proposed by Joseloff, as an important downtown property.
A downtown master plan would need approval by the RTM and the Planning and Zoning Commission, according to Gagliano. Downtown 2020 hopes to complete the master plan sometime in 2013, he said.
Several Long Range Planning Committee members on Thursday appeared receptive to creating a downtown master plan.
"Looking at all the changes that are taking place -- the Bedford Square [plan], National Hall, the library -- it's like there's a moving train," said Velma Heller, a representative from District 9, which includes the downtown. "The idea of coordinating is a big deal."
To help them write the master plan, Downtown Committee 2020 members hope to recruit an outside consultant. Including that hire, producing a master plan for downtown Westport would cost approximately $150,000, according to Gagliano. During the meeting, Gagliano initially proposed 50 percent private funding and 50 percent town money to fund the master plan project. In response, John McCarthy, another RTM member from District 9, indicated he would consider supporting full town funding for a downtown master plan.
"One hundred and fifty thousand dollars -- it's not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things," he said. "If we are going to spend $50,000, let's spend $150,000 and do it right. I think this is a really important point."
"There needs to be some form of oversight forward on that plan," he said. "The money maybe should be all town money because we certainly don't want foxes redesigning the henhouse."
In addition to the RTM and the P&Z, Downtown 2020 members hope to rally the support of other important downtown stakeholders.
Francis "Randy" Henkels, the chairman of the town's Historic District Commission, also expressed his support Thursday for Downtown 2020's objectives. HDC members are seeking other town officials and residents' support for their own downtown initiative -- the proposed creation of a "village district" to preserve historically significant parts of the town center.
"I see our effort as very complimentary to this kind of master plan," Henkels said. "What we would be doing is, as I see it, identifying the qualities of the downtown that we all collectively value and want to preserve in any future planning efforts."
Gagliano added that a master plan could also help to catalyze encourage continued economic growth in the downtown and benefit homeowners as well.
"I believe that smart development that doesn't overbuild," he said, "that doesn't go up and out, that doesn't dump radial traffic in our residential neighborhoods and reconciles the issue of when is enough, enough, will lead to higher commercial taxes and lower residential rates."
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