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Out of the Woods / Changing the face of Westport -- too much, too fast?

Published 6:28 am, Thursday, June 6, 2013
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There was a time when the much-feared, all-powerful master builder of New York, Robert Moses, headed a virtually independent agency that literally removed everything and everyone in its way to modernize the City of New York. His infamous motto: "To make an omelet, one has to break eggs."

In the past few years, there has been a rapidly-paced series of proposals in Westport that, if allowed to continue on track, would literally change what all of us have come to know and love as that "small town New England look" which we have cherished ever since it was founded in 1835.

Now, I suspect, there are so many projects on the drawing boards that if all of them were to be completed, I think they would literally change the face of our town as we know it, and possibly harm the charming, much-admired New England environment which has harbored so many creative and successful people over the years.

Here's what tentatively lies ahead:

The Westport Weston Family Y is moving to the Mahackeno complex and is scheduled to open there in the fall of 2014.

The Westport Library is reportedly planning a "transformation" of its building at 20 Jesup Road, which would expand its scope of services.

Nearby, the Westport Arts Center wants to erect a new building on that long-cherished space known as Jesup Green to replace its current Riverside Avenue structure.

The Bedford Square Associates plan to redevelop the current site of the Y and the adjacent 35 Church Lane into a new mixed-use complex.

Construction of a brand new multi-screen movie theater -- the only one in Westport proper -- is still in the early planning stages next to Tavern on Main.

National Hall is reportedly going to be renovated for its use by a commercial real estate firm.

The Baron's South Committee just recommended Jonathan Rose's latest bid on an affordable apartment complex, including housing for the elderly, although the plan still has hurdles to overcome.

The Levitt Pavilion is undergoing a major facelift and will be upgraded to a first-class performance center with groundbreaking schedule to get underway this month.

Save the Children is reportedly looking for a new location -- possibly out of Westport -- and that would spell a new use for its headquarters building.

All of these development projects have merit. They are all worthwhile. But when I add up the possible impact of what lies ahead of us, I believe that, if completed and taken together, the whole package could endanger our way of life.

They could clog the streets even more with traffic, make parking harder than it already is, and create the rush-rush atmosphere of New York City -- ironically, the very place from which many of us of us fled to enjoy a more enjoyable lifestyle here.

I do not doubt the sincerity of the plans under consideration by the Planning and Zoning Commission, which has prime responsibility for long-range planning. But I worry that in the rush to build, we may very well break some of the very eggs that have made out town a special place.

I think we should heed the words of Robert Moses and step back, take a breath, and actually digest all of these plans before we move too quickly.

Perhaps a large-scale model of what all the changes would actually look like when completed -- placed in Town Hall -- or a three dimensional rendering on a full page in this newspaper would give Westporters an opportunity to actually envision what could be ahead.

I suggest we pause long enough to actually see and digest what we are planning to do here. We need to be more proactive than reactive. Sure, there will the usual bickering between factions in town, but that is part of our fierce democratic process in Westport that has helped the town thrive.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at woodyklein12@gmail.com.