Woog's World / A big debate erupts over the size of downtown's 'small' businesses
Updated 8:36 am, Monday, March 3, 2014
The Planning and Zoning Commission last week was scheduled to review a text amendment. Numbered 672, it would limit the size of commercial tenant space in the Business Center District and Business Center District/Historic to no more than 10,000 square feet. The amendment would also prohibit merging commercial properties or tenant spaces across property lines within those two zones.
Sounds fairly straightforward.
It's not. Remember: This is Westport.
Throughout town, discussion raged. What seems to be a simple zoning proposal turns out to be a concrete symbol of an argument that has simmered theoretically for years: What is the character of downtown Westport?
There are many hands involved here. On the one hand are those belonging to landlords with property on Main Street and environs. They run the gamut. Some own small spaces; others have large holdings. Some are actual Westporters: born and raised here, still living in town. Some of those inherited their land; others bought it (some a while ago, others recently). Some are corporations -- and some of those are local. Others have no ties here, beyond the taxes they pay.
Most -- though not all -- oppose the proposed text amendment. They cite examples like the Gap. It occupies all three floors of a failed vertical mall. The concept of climbing stairs to shop in small stores never caught on among horizontal-minded Westporters. That building replaced a furniture store, which burned to the ground in the mid-1970s.
Landlords also say that stores like Restoration Hardware would not have been allowed had the text amendment been in place when the Fine Arts Theaters closed more than a decade ago. And they allege even Talbots could not have broken through a party wall/lot line, taking over the old Remarkable Book Store.
On the other hand are Westporters who say that those examples are precisely the point. These people don't want downtown to be filled with Gaps, Restoration Hardwares and Talbotses. They say that the proposed text amendment is exactly what we need to preserve the "character" of Westport. Let the chain stores -- and their out-of-town managers -- locate in three-story malls elsewhere. Call it NIMD -- Not In My Downtown.
But, as I said, there are many hands. The third hand is that not all Westporters feel that way. Property owners have the right to do with their property what they wish, these people say. If landlords think the best way to earn returns on their investment is to rent to a chain store, they should be able to do so. If they want to add on or build up, they ought to be allowed to. If the public doesn't like it, they have the opportunity to vote -- with their feet and dollars -- by not shopping there, the argument goes. But this is America; we should not stifle free enterprise by over-regulating it.
One more hand blames the downtown merchants themselves for the fact that we are even engaged in this argument. According to this view, the reason downtown is dying is that the stakeholders have not done their part to keep it lively. If only the landowners -- whether local or out-of-town (presumably, their representatives) -- got together to innovate, spruce up, make sure trees don't get chopped down, string Christmas lights, etc., then Main Street and environs would hum with shoppers. And we wouldn't have to worry so much about who or what went where, and how.
But wait! cries another hand. Who says there is a problem with downtown? We DO have traffic (street and pedestrian). We ARE attractive to retailers. Nike, Lululemon, the Gap, Brooks Brothers -- all have made substantial (and expensive) bets on Westport's future. The fact that they are willing to locate here -- in a street that is most definitely not a mall -- says a lot about this town. We should be happy, these people say, that people shop here. And we should not obsess over whether those shoppers live in Westport, Weston, Norwalk or wherever.
Just a minute! Is the sound of one more hand talking (if hands could talk). That is precisely the point. Ever since Marvel opened a bakery, Greenberg's opened a department store and Oscar's a deli, downtown Westport has been different from Weston, Norwalk or wherever. The mom-and-pops (or, to use a more modern term, "small businesses") have been the crucial difference-makers, setting this town apart from others. It is unfortunate, sad, awful, whatever, that of all the merchants and stores that once thrived downtown, only a tiny handful remain. Oscar's is one. Westport Pizzeria is another. And -- you knew this was coming -- it too recently relocated, when its lease was not renewed.
The P&Z no doubt talked about all this -- and much more. I'm guessing they did not come to a consensus. Hey: This column sure did not.