The future of downtown Westport, which has changed dramatically -- in my opinion, for the worse -- since I moved here in the late 1960s, is now in the hands of a special committee appointed by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and known as the Westport Downtown 2020 Committee.
Rarely in our town's history has such a panel of citizen volunteers had the extraordinary opportunity to change the face of our town. As noted in last Friday's Westport News in an article by reporter Paul Schott, the committee hopes to complete a "master plan" by the end of next year.
The key to any plan to revive downtown, it seems to me, is that it restore the generations-old character of Westport when many of the shops and stores were locally-owned. We have lost that personal touch.
On the other hand, one positive note was sounded by the committee chairman, Lou Gagliano. "We're not trying to become a regional center," said Gagliano, who has long been a force for improving our town.
"This is community-driven, community-oriented," he added. "What do you want to have in downtown Westport? What is missing? How do we make it more diverse? How do we keep it from expanding to a point that we are not satisfied?"
The panel's most significant task is to coordinate into one overall master plan all of the existing and previously announced capital projects planned or under way in the downtown area -- for example, redevelopment of the current Family Y site into a mixed-use complex; construction of a new movie theatre next to the Tavern on the Main restaurant; and development of the National Hall complex on the west side of the Saugatuck River.
To the casual observer, all of these projects have been until now perceived by many townspeople as a bunch of separate construction projects thrown together in a helter-skelter manner without a great deal of thought of how they will mesh together.
Committee member Dan Kail emphasized the importance of weaving together what has up to now appeared to be stand--alone projects into one, sensible master plan. He stated: "The plan ... has a good tax base, it's pedestrian-friendly to the town. It doesn't destroy what we believe is Westport."
If downtown is transformed into an area that includes walkways surrounded by trees and plantings that connect each of the separate projects in a logical, practical way for shoppers and for traffic, is carefully designed to eliminates potential bottlenecks, is pleasing to the eye, and ensures the safety of pedestrians, the 2020 committee will make an historical contribution.
I would like to see, for example, more restaurants return to Main Street, including sidewalk cafes; more green space; more specialty shops such as antique stores, flower shops, and a much greater variety of small commercial enterprises other than the big chain stores that have turned Main Street into a virtual mall. I realize there are economic considerations involved and that we cannot go back to "the good old days," but we can keep some of the spirit of those community-minded years in mind.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, during which the Saugatuck River flooded many stores on Main Street and on Post Road East, Board of Finance member John Pincavage wisely brought up the critical need for the town to build flood defenses if new businesses are to continue to consider downtown for future business locations. This is no small task -- and an absolutely critical one.
There is no doubt that that finding the money to draw up a master plan and then, in the current financial environment, carrying it out with capital funding is enormously ambitious undertaking. But, like everything else we have done in the past, Westporters have risen to the occasion.
With so much going on around town, it would be helpful if Joseloff moved up this comprehensive downtown plan to the No. 1 priority in town -- and then direct the 2020 committee to issue regular reports to the public. Town hall has demonstrated an exciting vision for the future. Now it is up to Joseloff and the panel he appointed to move into high gear and the community more involved.
After all, in the end, a master plan will have to be approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Representative Town Meeting. If we start a massive publicity campaign in 2013, that would put this vital plan on the front burner of everyone in town.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.