As critical Gunn House vote looms, RTMers tour endangered structure
Published 6:20 am, Thursday, October 10, 2013
With a vote looming to overturn the Planning & Zoning Commission's refusal to allow relocation of the historic Gunn House, Representative Town Meeting members Wednesday morning toured the Church Lane structure to see firsthand what the fuss is all about.
Nearly 20 RTM members, along with a few other town officials and the public, toured the property owner David Waldman, one of the partners in Bedford Square Associates. The event was organized by District 1 RTM member Matthew Mandell, who previously gathered about 500 petition signatures in favor of moving the circa-1885 house to a site in the town's Elm Street parking lot and save it from demolition planned to make way for the Bedford Square complex.
"This gives the RTM an opportunity to see the house and the new location, so they can understand how relevant the house is and where it will be going," he said.
Mandell said the RTM's Planning & Zoning Committee will discuss the issue next Wednesday, and the full RTM will vote Oct. 22 on whether to overturn the P&Z's recent refusal to approve the relocation plan. That vote, which is required following a citizens' petition asking for the reversal, must be two-thirds of the entire RTM -- or 24 of its 36 members -- in order to overturn the P&Z.
RTM Moderator Eileen Flug wouldn't comment on the pending vote, but welcomed the opportunity to visit the house at 35 Church Lane and proposed relocation site at the nearby Baldwin parking lot on Elm Street.
"It's an excellent opportunity for the RTM and the public to come and see everything, to help the RTM make an informed decision," she said.
Waldman's development team plans to incorporate the Gunn House property into its Bedford Square project on the site of the Westport Weston Family Y, and initially wanted to raze the structure and has filed for a demolition permit. But the developers subsequently offered to help save the structure by paying to relocate it.
On Wednesday, Waldman expressed surprise that the P&Z voted against the relocation plan. "It was an odd vote," he said, attributing it to "politics."
"I'm yet to figure out the real reason," he added, and "there was one (P&Z) abstention, which blew my mind as well."
Waldman's take on the proposal: "There's no risk to the town." He cited deed restrictions that could restrict national retailers from leasing the premises.
He said the footprint of the building is only about 2,000 square feet, and that it would take up only 20 parking spaces in the Baldwin lot. And with the Family Y moving to a new campus in the northern section of town, he said, the drop in the current demand for spaces in that lot will more than compensate for the loss area occupied by the Gunn House.
Lyn Hogan, an RTM member from District 3, pressed the point of downtown parking. "It's absolutely a problem," she said. "You can't pretend it's not."
"I think it's perception," Waldman responded.
Hogan said she intends to vote in favor of moving the house, but added, "I just think we have to be really cognizant of parking."
The house is presently somewhat dilapidated, and would require significant renovations for new commercial or office use.
"Everything would be brought to as much of its original state as possible," Waldman said. "The idea is to set it up into a group of different uses ... so there might be modifications as well."
Adam Brower, who has lived in Westport 48 years, joined the tour.
"We're interested in preserving the look of Westport," he said, expressing support for improving the streetscape along Elm Street.
"We had the right to take the house down nine days ago," Waldman noted of the demolition permit. "We said publicly we wouldn't, so long as it doesn't impact that (construction) schedule. We'll wait as long as we can," he said, citing April as the likely start date for work on the Bedford Square complex.
He said that even if the RTM approves the relocation, the plan still faces other hurdles. "This at least allows us to present a full set of plans and ideas," he said.