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Op-Ed / With many projects, master plan for downtown Westport a must

Published 8:41 am, Friday, February 15, 2013
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With an unprecedented number of major construction projects planned and underway downtown, the town administration must become a participant rather than an observer in planning our future.

The Family Y is relocating, and the mixed-use Bedford Square project will be built; National Hall is being reconstructed; Save the Children is leaving; construction of the new Levitt Pavilion will start in the spring, a new library is planned; a downtown movie theater is in the works; and senior housing on Baron's South is under consideration.

Even though traffic patterns will change and significant demands will be made upon the infrastructure, there is no broad, public participation in issues such as river-flood mitigation, parking, street landscapes, signage, public restrooms, curb design, traffic flow and pedestrian access. Previous plans have provided piecemeal rather than comprehensive solutions and none have been implemented. The window of opportunity to act is closing quickly.

Accordingly, the administration formed the Downtown 2020 Committee to create a master plan of implementation to guide our community towards a more vital, livable and pedestrian-friendly downtown. Over the past year, the committee has met more than 30 times -- with most of the town's public groups and private stakeholders.

Notwithstanding all its hard work, the committee's members are confronted with challenges that require input from experts in town planning, traffic management, historic preservation, parking options, natural resources, regulatory systems and more. The critical, almost urgent, need is to hire a consulting firm to provide the required analysis and expertise to develop a comprehensive master plan. The idea has resonated with businesses and concerned local citizens alike who have pledged more than $60,000 -- including $10,000 from the Chamber of Commerce for this purpose.

The committee has met with a number of professional planning firms with expertise in traffic engineering, urban planning, parking, landscape design, architectural services and environmental science. Although a request for a proposal is being sent out, the projected cost for the required services is in the range of $195,000 and $225,000.

The town administration will be asking the Board of Finance for a special appropriation of $175,000 to partially pay for the professional services required to help guide Westport into its future. The projected return on the investment is significant.

With proper planning, we can ensure that the developers will coordinate their projects and contribute to the infrastructure in ways that make sense for the entire community. With planning we will have more workable traffic patterns, more accessible and better managed parking, effective water management to help mitigate downtown flooding, a walkable downtown with ease of pedestrian access, improved river accessibility, proper lighting, parks and public spaces, and an attractive landscape design, which in turn will protect our commercial tax base.

Without such planning, our downtown district will grow as it has in the past -- in a haphazard, project-by-project manner, which has resulted in a situation where parking lots dominate the town's valuable waterfront acreage, pedestrians walk on inadequate sidewalks and commercial garbage bins are publicly exposed. We have no town green, and, when the shops close, a desolate Main Street after hours.

When the RFP process is over and the prospective consultant is chosen, the Board of Finance and the RTM should thoroughly review the proposal. At this critical juncture, we need expert advice on how to coordinate and capitalize on what the developers are planning -- leading to the development of a master plan for our downtown. We hope the decision-making bodies will agree. If we fail, future Westport generations will look around at our downtown and ask, "Who planned this?" And the answer will be "no one."

Let's not fail.

The author is chairman of the Westport Downtown 2020 Committee.