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Size, appearance of Bedford Square project questioned in first official review

Published 3:22 pm, Wednesday, October 3, 2012

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  • Karen Johnson, vice president of development for Charter Realty & Development Corp., goes over some of the details of the Bedford Square project at Tuesday's meeting of the Historic District Commission/Architectural Review Board Joint Committee. Photo: Meg Barone / Westport News freelance
    Karen Johnson, vice president of development for Charter Realty & Development Corp., goes over some of the details of the Bedford Square project at Tuesday's meeting of the Historic District Commission/Architectural Review Board Joint Committee. Photo: Meg Barone

 

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A meeting of the Historic District Commission/Architectural Review Board Joint Committee ended Tuesday night without a recommendation to the Planning and Zoning Commission on proposed renovations to the Bedford Square project proposed for the downtown site of the Westport Weston Family Y.

Several board members suggested they prefer an earlier version of the proposal for the project at 59 Post Road East, a portion of which is located in the Business Center District/Historic area of the town's center. The overall redevelopment plans for the Y site and abutting Church Lane property were formally unveiled last week by the partnership, Bedford Square Associates.

Three representatives for the development team outlined details that would create an overall 90,000-square-foot mixed-use complex of retail, office, restaurant and residential spaces that includes the existing Y's Bedford building and a former firehouse, while leveling the Weeks Pavilion and replacing it with new construction, as well as new buildings on Church Lane.

Architect Mark A. Herter, an associate of Centerbrook Architects and Planners in Essex, said the proposal would include less square footage and coverage than the overall 105,000 square feet that exists today because the developers propose creating a courtyard and better pedestrian pathways, including a path to Main Street. He said the proposal has "substantial pedestrian amenities" and preserves two distinctive buildings.

Joint committee members said Tuesday they were unable to make recommendations at this time because of a number of factors, including unresolved planning and zoning issues; the need to see more drawings of the proposal that more accurately reflect existing features and show more detailed angles of proposed elements, and concerns about the possible razing of a historic Queen Anne Victorian-style Gunn house at 35 Church Lane.

"We can't really comment on the (Business Center District/Historic) without taking into account the (Restricted Office Retail Dsitrict 2) area that contains the Gunn house," said Betsy Wacker, a member of the Historic District Commission as the joint committee.

The developer is considering moving Queen Anne house to another location to create room for parking, which Karen Johnson of Charter Realty & Development Corp. in Rye Brook, N.Y., called critical to the project.

One of the issues that didn't sit well with Wacker and fellow HDC and joint committee members was the scale and architectural design of the proposed building on Church Lane that would replace the Weeks Pavilion.

Herter admitted that the feel along Church Lane would be dramatically different from what's there today. However, he said the top two floors of that four-story building would be stepped back to keep from creating a solid mass, adding the design is in keeping with the Patagonia building across the street.

Joint committee members weren't so sure.

"When we look at that elevation we need to look at it in relation to the Bedford building. Is it really compatible?" asked HDC Chairman Francis H. Henkels.

HDC and joint committee member Grayson Braun said she appreciates the attempt to create usable space behind the buildings, which the developers said would include a courtyard and easier pedestrian access, but also expressed concern about the appearance of the building on Church Lane.

"We are all very aware of the massing and verticality of the new structure on Church Lane. We fear there will be a canyon affect," Wacker said.

"I'm not comfortable with the way the building is looking," said ARB Chairman George Masumian, referring to the proposed replacement for the Weeks Pavilion. Masumian called it too "urban" for Westport and said it would detract from its Westport/New England character. "Is this what we want to transform Westport into?" he asked.

ARB and joint committee member Jon Halper said not only do some of the design features strike him as too urban, but also too "Tudor-centric." As currently included in the design, Halper said the building too closely resembles the Bedford building, which would "suck the diversity" from the streetscape.

Masumian said it would also temper the uniqueness of the Bedford building.

Halper called the Bedford building "a beautiful precedent to play off of," but wondered if that style needs to be reflected throughout the development.

Herter said the new structure is meant to complement the Bedford building, not to replicate it. However, he said he understood what committee members meant about the design "too much of a good thing."

ARB and joint committee member Ward French suggested the developers pay homage to the Bedford building by keeping the project more residential and humble in scale. He said the YMCA, when it first built the structure in 1924, could have constructed a more grandiose structure but created an attractive building that has become the cornerstone of Main Street. He said he has an aversion to the development plan because it diminishes the Bedford building.

Joint Committee members seemed to be in agreement that a 2009 proposal was closer to what belongs in downtown Westport.

"I thought the initial plan had a lot of character," Henkels said. Much of that character is lost in this recent proposal, he said. The earlier proposal "was much more responsive to the character of the Bedford building," he said.

According to Henkels the latest proposal loses its old references to the timber of the Tudor-style Bedford building. He called it "discordant" and "disconnected."

"What we saw in 2009 was a much smaller project," Masumian said.

The next time the developers come before the HDC or the joint committee, Wacker said she expects to see drawings that more accurately reflect existing features and a map that shows the "proper and true visuals of the proximity of things" along Church Lane. She said one drawing, which is supposed to be of existing features, does not include the firehouse doors as they are now. Next time she wants to see to have accurate drawings "not as they have magically evolved to something you want them to be."

Johnson said they thought it would be unrealistic to expect any decision at Tuesday's meeting because it's such a complex project. She said the reaction to the design was helpful, and added that the developers can go back and take a look at certain issues.

She said, however, the plans present a "tricky situation" because the project falls into two separate zones (BCDH and RORD2) with two different sets of standards. "We appreciate this will be a lengthy process," Johnson said.

She, Herter and David Waldman, president of David Adam Realty, another of the Bedford Square partners who attended Tuesday's meeting, will bring their proposal next to full Architectural Review Board at its meeting next week.