Residents debate parking, development near Saugatuck train station
WESTPORT — Westport received a $440,000 study grant from the state to revamp the Saugatuck Station area in June 2016 and now, nearly 19 months later, the project’s consultants have presented a draft report that pleases some residents and enrages others.
One of the most controversial aspects of the draft plan is a proposal to construct two, single-story, bi-level parking decks, which the report says, “can be inserted into the landscape with minimal visual impact” due to the existing grade at the lot’s proposed location between lots one, two and three.
Kristan Hamlin represents the Compo Beach area on the Representative Town Meeting and said she first ran for the RTM four years ago on a platform to increase parking near the rail station to reduce the waiting list for railroad parking permits, decrease traffic at the station, and maintain property values. Hamlin said property values are in danger of decreasing due to the difficulty of the commute from Westport to New York City.
“Metro-North has slowed by 20 minutes over the last five years, and commuters are at their wits’ end. We need to make things better on the front and back end for commuters in order to keep the commute time as short as possible,” said Hamlin, who is in favor of a parking deck on the New Haven side of the station.
A parking deck with 200 extra parking spaces will decrease traffic because fewer people will be driving around looking for parking spaces and there will be a more efficient flow of cars at the station, Hamlin said.
Seth Shapiro attended the meeting on behalf of the project’s consultancy, BartonPartners, and said providing a vision for deck parking enables the town to tell the state, which owns much of the railroad parking lots, its tolerance level for the type of parking structure the town deems acceptable.
Planning and Zoning Commissioner Chip Stephens disagreed with the plan for deck parking, saying the state may interpret Westport’s approval of deck parking as authorization to build larger parking structures.
The report’s proposal for at least 200 market rate multifamily dwelling units, small-scale service retail, and professional and medical office space also proved controversial.
“If you’ve got a reduction in a population, that flies in the face of the viability of the development,” said Ward French, a member of the steering committee overseeing the study grant, questioning the purpose of development in light of predictions for a declining population in Westport over the next few decades.
Matthew Mandell, also a committee member, RTM representative and Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce director, voiced opposition to the proposed housing, retail and office space, saying he doesn’t think Westport should become a city and provide the different types of housing needed in more urban environments.
“If millennials are interested in living close to train stations, they’re building a thousand units in Norwalk and they can live there and we can continue to maintain the character we have that’s different,” Mandell said.
The overwhelming complaint among residents and committee members with the study regarded the level of development and the implications increased development may have on traffic.
“Personally, I think it’s a plan for over-development. We don’t have the road network to support it. It’s a planner’s dream, but it’s too small an area and will lead to traffic congestion,” resident Michael Calise said.
Residents’ opposition to the development aspect of the draft plan is ironic, resident and historic preservation advocate Morley Boyd said, considering the grant’s purpose was part of an $11 million statewide initiative to support just that, development, albeit of the transit-oriented variety.
“It seems to have an existential flaw at its core,” Boyd said of the project.
Jennifer Johnson, a member of the land-use party, Coalition for Westport, took a more positive view of the project, touting the public-realm improvements, such as more pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets, waterfront areas, and parks that potential developers could fund as a condition of developing parking or residential and commercial space in Saugatuck.
“I think the report creates an exciting vision for the future of Saugatuck,” Johnson said.
Barton Partners will give a public presentation on the draft plan on Feb. 12.