Building’s move in play as P&Z again scrutinizes zone for Save the Children site
Plans for what is expected to be the next major downtown development project were again the topic of discussion Thursday at the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, with more scrutiny planned early next year.
Zoning Text Amendment 703, which would establish a new “Riverwalk” zoning district for the former Save the Children property at 54 Wilton Road — allowing a commercial/residential project to be built there — earned support from several town officials and raised concern among some others at the meeting.
Developer David Waldman, who spearheaded the Bedford Square project on the former site of the Westport Weston Family YMCA, would like to build a commercial building and a larger three-story apartment building on the site that would exceed the height, floor space and coverage allowed under the existing zone. As an incentive to win approval for the new zone, he has proposed buying the property at 1 Wilton Road, moving the 185-year-old building there onto the Save the Children property for preservation and allowing the state to move forward with adding a left-hand turning lane from southbound Wilton Road at the corner of the Post Road.
The panel made no decision, and will continue its review of the proposal Jan. 7.
“Whether or not Amendment 703, as currently drafted, is the appropriate vehicle for advancing a Riverwalk District or the project at 54 Wilton Road,” First Selectman Jim Marpe said, “the ability to relocate a historic structure that could improve traffic flow at a difficult intersection will have a positive, long-term impact on Westport.”
Others also spoke in support of a proposed pedestrian bridge from the property across the Saugatuck River to Parker-Harding Plaza or Gorham Island, although not part of the plan, has been discussed as a possible project by Waldman and the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee.
Melissa Kane, the downtown panel’s chairwoman, said a pedestrian bridge could create a walking loop “which would ease traffic congestion (and) would be a major enhancement to … downtown.”
She called the plan “the best and perhaps only vehicle to allow these major improvements downtown to occur.”
While the applicant’s lawyer, William Fitzgerald, said he believes the new zone classification would be the best means of attempting to get zoning approval for the redevelopment plan, P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens said he wasn’t convinced the application might not more properly be first reviewed by the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Stephens also was concerned about the specificity of the discussion with regard to a text amendment, which theoretically should be broad enough to apply to similar properties around town.
“This is a very site-specific amendment in my opinion and I’ve got to be sold on this,” he said. “Personally I’d rather see some of this go to the ZBA,” he added, noting that creating a new zone could have repercussions down the road on other applications.
Francis Henkels, chairman of the Historic District Commission, also raised questions about whether endorsing the zone change could later impede the P&Z’s ability to control what can be built on the site.
“Having adopted the terms of the text amendment, will you be bound to honor all of the terms of the text amendment … or do you have some flexibility in what you can approve?” he asked the commission.
Larry Bradley, the zoning director, said the commission would retain the power it has with special permit applications, but in those instances the burden shifts to the commission support issuing a denial, versus the applicant having the burden of convincing the commission beyond meeting requirements.
Commission member Alan Hodge took note that some changes in the amendment might better make it “the applicant’s job to demonstrate necessity … essentially putting the burden on the applicant to explain themselves, rather than the commission to say why not. I think that’s fair.”
“I guess speaking personally, what I see in the demonstration plan is not quite what I would envision for that site,” Henkel said, noting the proposed buildings’ proximity to National Hall and other structures in that area.
“I would like to see more negotiation …,” Henkel added. “There’s room on the part of the town to increase its amenity in what it can receive in adopting this text amendment.”