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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

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WAC presses bid for Jesup Green home despite P&Z reluctance

Published 7:30 am, Thursday, March 13, 2014

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  • Peter VanHeerden, Westport Arts Center executive director, reads a letter from Matthew Mandell, RTM District 1, suggesting his organization merge building projects with the Westport Library on Jesup Green. Photo: Jarret Liotta / Westport News
    Peter VanHeerden, Westport Arts Center executive director, reads a letter from Matthew Mandell, RTM District 1, suggesting his organization merge building projects with the Westport Library on Jesup Green. Photo: Jarret Liotta

 

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Despite clear indications by the Planning and Zoning Commission that it does not favor any more development on Jesup Green other than the planned expansion of the Westport Library, a proposal to build a new Westport Arts Center adjacent to the library is back on the table.

In a presentation to the Library, Arts and Museum Committee of the Representative Town Meeting on Wednesday night, WAC officials proposed a new headquarters on the green that would eliminate riverside parking by moving it to an underground garage beneath its new home.

The structure would be built on a hilltop site across Jesup Road from the Police Department headquarters.

"We don't want to be humongous, because we don't want to carry the overhead, so we're looking at something between 7,500 and 10,000 square feet," said Lance Lundberg, the WAC board chairman..

The Planning and Zoning Commission recently gave approval to an "8-24" land-use report that allows the Westport Library with a formal proposal to expand about 35 feet further onto Jesup Green, with an addition for about 12,500 square feet.

When the P&Z "approved the 8-24 for the library, they indicated a strong desire not to have anything else on Jesup Green," First Selectman Jim Marpe told the RTM committee and representatives of both WAC and the library at the Wednesday meeting.

It seemed to surprise some committee members, however, that WAC official have not directly approached the P&Z with formal plans, or made public details of its proposal.

Lundberg said, in his estimation if the project were completed -- and the 91 parking spaces on the green relocated underground -- the amount of green space would be more expansive, allowing for more direct riverfront access.

"It's a phenomenal idea to me," said Rick Weber, RTM District 9.

WAC intends to fund the entire project, estimating the cost of its plans at $7 million at this point. Lundberg said there is already $3.5 million pledged in writing for the project.

"I think this is a major opportunity for the town," he said.

Lundberg, however, prompted a rebuke when in trying to justify WAC's construction plans, he described Jesup Green as an under-used,"dead" space.

"My personal opinion is that Jesup Green is a dead space," he said. "I think there's an impulse to say, `Let's fence this off and preserve it.' "

"I have to be quite blunt," said John Suggs, RTM District 5. "You had me until you got to a certain point tonight when you actually offended me ... when you disparaged Jesup Green as dead space, a cemetery."

"The fact you could look at it that way is very troubling to me," Suggs added. "It's very offensive."

Lundberg apologized, but stood by his opinion that the green now impedes flow between the Levitt Pavilion and library on one side, and the downtown on the other.

"Let's make it better," he said.

WAC representatives, however, did not have any specific plans to share at the meeting, and said they have done only some preliminary soil work to determine the best location for digging a garage underground.

Both WAC and library officials were invited to the meeting to give presentations on their projects. Some confusion sidelined discussion, however, when committee Chairman Arthur Ashman, RTM District 7, began by reading a letter from Matthew Mandell, RTM District 1, proposing the library and WAC share quarters in a new expanded building.

"Instead of a 10,000 stand-alone WAC, integrated, only 5,000 max would be needed," Mandell wrote of his shared-space proposal, with WAC's financial contribution "relieving taxpayer burden" for the library expansion.

While Ashman said he wasn't trying to push the idea, he thought it would serve as a basis for discussion, and could be a possible solution to questions about both projects.

"Some of Matt's assumptions are Matt's assumptions and only that," said Wendy Batteau, RTM District 8. "As I understand it the arts center wants to do something and the library wants to do something ... and we should not start from the point of view that these things should be merged."

Both the library and WAC representatives concurred, making it clear that the feel a shared project would not be a practical plan for either organization.

One committee member asked Marpe whether he would approach the P&Z with a request to consider arts center idea, or perhaps submit an 8-24 application for the project.

"I have worked hard to create a downtown steering committee that is made up of a lot of stakeholders," he said, noting it included members of the P&Z.

"It is out of that product that we have the opportunity to talk about the ideas that were shared tonight ... Frankly I can't be supportive of a different approach."