Westport's next generation imagines the downtown of the future
Updated 12:53 pm, Friday, April 15, 2011
Town officials, local merchants and other community leaders have all had their turn during the last couple of years to weigh in with ideas for revitalizing downtown Westport. On Tuesday, more than 20 eighth-grade students at Coleytown Middle School raised their hands to join the conversation.
The product of a new curriculum initiative called the "Eighth Grade Odyssey," the students devoted a full week of classes last month to researching and drafting group proposals for remaking Westport's town center. Approximately 40 groups -- totaling about 200 students -- participated in the project. Just five teams, however, were selected by Coleytown Middle School faculty to make multimedia presentations in the school's auditorium to a panel of town officials that included Selectman Shelly Kassen and Planning and Zoning Department Director Larry Bradley.
"Our goal is to make a more interesting and interactive downtown for all ages using walkways, festivals, restaurants and activities," said student Michael Mathis.
Mirroring many town leaders' calls for more vibrant downtown nightlife, his group's plan envisioned a series of new dining establishments on the Saugatuck River as well as repaving Main Street to encourage more pedestrian traffic.
Other groups focused on upgrading aesthetics of the town center through landscaping improvements such as planting more greenery by the river and hanging flower pots on street lamps.
"Items like flowers, benches, trees and grass will give downtown Westport a sense of community and belonging," said Jamie Tanzer.
Projecting plenty of youthful optimism, students took on some of the downtown's seemingly most intractable challenges. One team, for example, proposed the building of a teen entertainment complex to reinvigorate the west bank of the Saugatuck River, a section of the downtown that has struggled for years to economically coalesce with the rest of Westport's town center.
"If you were driving in downtown Westport on Saturday night, you would be able to see groups of friends and families walking from building to building," said Scott Percoriello. "Everyone would have something to do."
Other proposals included a community movie theater, a renovated and expanded riverside boardwalk, and a mini-bus service to ferry shoppers from the Imperial Avenue commuter parking lot to the downtown. Groups also recommended new attractions targeted towards local youth such as a mini-golf course and an outdoor basketball court.
Students, however, grounded their ambitious proposals in real-world scenarios. After canvassing Town Hall officials and local business leaders, they calculated cost projections for their plans. Expected expenditures ranged from approximately $20,000 for landscaping projects to several million dollars for new parking facilities.
The Odyssey project coincides with new efforts at Town Hall to push forward downtown revitalization. Kassen told the Westport News that a panel of town officials, the Downtown Plan Subcommittee, is transitioning into a citizens group that will carry forward proposals presented last year by the Subcommittee to enliven Westport's town center.
But the group will also study the students' proposals, Kassen said.
"Looking at downtown in a number of ways is certainly a high priority," she said. "We'll certainly take back some of their ideas."
Bradley added that the students' plans warranted consideration based on their creativity and practicality.
"The fact that they're uninhibited by budgets and by permits and that it's just free thinking is great," he said. "I think these ideas could be implemented. It's just going to take exploring each one individually."