Out of the Woods / Plans aplenty for downtown, but it's time to make real progress
Updated 5:51 am, Thursday, February 13, 2014
Will we ever stop planning the future of our town and actually begin building, expanding or changing something?
In 46 years as a resident of this beautiful town, I am hard pressed to remember a single year when some private- or public-funded project has not been announced with great fanfare -- prompting people to get excited about it or to turn out in droves to oppose it. The debates have ensued for months or even years.
We have a habit of planning something, scrapping it and then starting over again a few years later. A case in point is the Downtown 2020 panel appointed by former First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, which put together an ambitious, exciting new plan to revamp downtown only to have it put aside by new First Selectman Jim Marpe, who appointed his own Downtown Steering Committee to oversee preparation of a master plan for downtown.
"In the end," Marpe told his new committee, "if we don't implement what we talk about and what we're planning, then all of this is for naught."
He said at the outset that "planning is not enough. We need to take the next steps. I hope this is not a committee in perpetuity, that it has a beginning and end." At the committee's first meeting, much of the talk was about how to get townspeople to be aware of the plans in progress.
Committee member Melissa Kane stated: "We need to make sure that we're casting the widest net so we can get as many opinions as possible."
Beyond the roughly 300 people who routinely show up at various public meetings, the group's chairman, Dewey Loselle, said he would like to see more young parents involved in the planning process, which is expected to yield some data in the near future.
Meanwhile, in line with Marpe's suggestion that town planners and committees pick up the pace of planning so the projects can begin to be built, the long-range plans for the expansion of the Westport Library are, at long last, scheduled to be reviewed by the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Once again, Marpe -- a former corporate chief operating officer who thrives on results -- gave the library project a lift last week when he stated: "This is an exciting and positive development for Westport, and lots of people are looking forward to having the facility that relates more to the evolution of its mission."
Marpe requested a copy of the library's plans and added, "The library has become less and less about books and stacks, and more about learning and exploring."
Under the inspiring leadership of Library Director Maxine Bleiweis, the majority of the expansion plan would include increasing the public space of the building by 11,720 square feet. In addition to the library, the Westport Arts Center has publicly announced plans to erect a new building on Jesup Green in place of the modest show space it now has on Riverside Avenue.
I think Jim Marpe is making a good point. He is off to a fast start as a former "mover and shaker" in the corporate world. He will find a lot more resistance among the voters of Westport than he did the shareholders of his company. Nonetheless, if he has the stomach for some rough and tumble politicking in town, he has a good chance of upgrading the face of Westport.
One caveat: I worry about Jesup Green, that it not be swallowed up in all the planning. It should remain as open space, a relief to all Westporters and visitors who come here. I hope other people out there are concerned about what happens to that beautiful piece of open space that we all treasure so much.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org