The owner of a Church Lane property is seeking Planning and Zoning Commission approval for a zone change that would pave the way for a new restaurant at the site -- a proposal that has prompted zoning officials to again consider the best use of that downtown thoroughfare.
Steve Crowley, who owns 44 Church Lane, would like to change the property's zoning designation from its current status -- most of it lies in the Restricted Office-Retail District 2 zone, while a small portion is in the Business Center District. He wants the entire site to be given a BCD classification.
Changing to the BCD, a zoning change also known as a "map amendment," would allow the elimination of the property's six front parking spaces to accommodate a new restaurant with outdoor seating. Removing those parking spots would also facilitate construction of a new sidewalk in front of the property; 44 Church Lane does not currently have a pedestrian walkway in front.
"There's absolutely no transition between the street and the building; the tarmac runs right up to the building," said architect Frederick Hoag, who presented the proposed map amendment to the P&Z last week. "If we're freed of the requirement of that parking, suddenly we have opportunities that really help the transition from the street to the building and continue the sidewalk down the street."
A new restaurant at 44 Church Lane would have about 40 seats, "if we were lucky," Hoag added. Patrons of a new dining establishment there would park in nearby public venues such as the Baldwin Parking Lot on Elm Street.
Currently, 44 Church Lane is the site of the Wild Pear, a takeout eatery that has no indoor seating. The retail food establishment is set to close by Jan. 1 because it has been "negatively affected by certain economic issues as well as the issue of seating and building design," according to a Dec. 1 letter submitted to the P&Z by Wild Pear owner David Freije.
In his letter, Freije also expressed support for the proposed rezoning and outdoor seating that would be permitted by that change.
"In my view, for restaurants to succeed in this competitive environment, they need to have seating inside and out, and have a charming setting that's attractive to customers," Freije added in his letter.
Several Church Lane property and business owners also back Crowley's proposal.
That includes Tommy Febbraio, an owner of the Spotted Horse Tavern, and David Waldman, a managing member of the partnership that owns the Spotted Horse's building and a principal in Bedford Square Associates, the development firm that has contracted to buy the nearby downtown site of the Westport Weston Family Y.
Others are more ambivalent about the proposal.
Myrtle Avenue resident Page Englehart, who lives a few hundred yards from the property, said in a Dec. 5 letter to the P&Z that she supported Crowley's rezoning plan, but also had "concerns about the stress of these developments on parking and traffic circulation in my neighborhood."
Violet Lane resident Morley Boyd, who also lives near Church Lane, told the P&Z last week he also had misgivings about the potential for more substantial development in the town center if 44 Church Lane were rezoned to the Business Center District.
"Sixty percent of me is concerned about the principle of chipping away at the buffer that exists between the more intense commercial area of town and us," he said. "The more that stuff comes toward you, there are more unintended consequences. More people outside, the noise factor -- outdoor seating on Church Lane is fantastic -- but it does make me concerned."
Only two years ago, Church Lane was a quiet thoroughfare that was mostly dormant during the evening. During the last year, however, the street has been reinvigorated with the opening in March of the Spotted Horse in the 19th-century Sherwood House and the creation of a glass façade entry to the Urban Outfitters clothing store, which debuted in March next to the Spotted Horse. A few yards down the street, a new sushi bar, Pink Sumo launched last month at 8 Church Lane.
While many downtown merchants, town officials and residents have applauded the revitalization of Church Lane, many also fret about the prospect of over-commercialization of the street. Bedford Square Associates plans to re-develop the current site of the Westport Weston Family Y into a mixed-use complex that would extend from Church Lane's intersection with Post Road East to its meeting point with Elm Street. To facilitate more intense development for that project, Bedford Square Associates last year sought a map amendment to change 35 Church Lane, a property that Bedford Square owns adjacent to the current Y site, from the Restricted Office-Retail District 2 zone to the Business Center District. That proposal was turned down by the P&Z after scores of residents packed public meetings to register disapproval with the plan.
Members of the P&Z expressed differing views Thursday about the rezoning proposal for 44 Church Lane. Mirroring concerns by Englehart and Boyd about parking and traffic, P&Z Secretary Chip Stephens signaled his opposition.
"We've got to take into account not only noise, we've got to take into account what we've got in terms of resources," he said. "We've got to think about what this is going to result in terms of congestion and our resources downtown as they are."
Ron Corwin took a more supportive position of the rezoning proposal, arguing that it could promote more vitality in the area.
"A project like that would be a significant upgrade for the whole street and town," he said. "It would be transformative visually in linking all of those properties. Improving something like this strengthens the commercial value of the entities there and I think it improves the quality of the town."
P&Z Chairwoman Catherine Walsh had an ambivalent reaction, as she pondered the viability of a compromise measure, such as the creation of a Restricted Office Retail District/Historic zone to help Crowley accomplish his goals for his property. The two properties next to 44 Church Lane are both designated as RORD2 sites.
"I really don't like doing zone changes at all," she said. "But I really see the value in what you've done and it makes sense and, if there's a way, I'd like to figure out something."
The P&Z did not vote last week on the proposed rezoning of 44 Church Lane. It is scheduled to continue its review of the proposal in a work session scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 20, in the Town Hall auditorium.
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