Westport's Downtown 2020 Committee sought to rally public support at a forum Tuesday night for a "master plan" for the town center, while traffic flow, pedestrian safety and flooding emerged among the most pressing concerns for residents and town officials.

Established in March by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, the seven-member Downtown 2020 panel aims to develop initiatives to foster a thriving town center. Its work focuses on creating a "green necklace" of riverfront access; adding more open space; extending walking and bike paths in the town center; improving traffic flow and parking availability; supporting a vibrant mix of retailers; encouraging increased evening use of the downtown, and producing more "trans-generational" residential use in the center. Many of those goals will likely affect the future use of town-owned properties in the downtown, such as Parker-Harding Plaza, Jesup Green and the Baldwin Parking Lot.

"We're not trying to become a regional center," Downtown 2020 Committee Chairman Lou Gagliano told an audience of about 25. "This is community-driven, community-oriented. What do you want to have in downtown Westport? What is missing? How do we make it more diverse? How do we keep it from expanding to a point that we are not satisfied?"

Drafting a master plan of development and implementation for the downtown is a top goal for the 2020 panel. Members envision a master plan as a tool to help coordinate planning for major capital projects planned or under way downtown: redevelopment of the current site of the Westport Weston Family Y into a mixed-use complex; building a new movie theater next to the Tavern on Main restaurant on Main Street, and ongoing redevelopment of the National Hall complex on the west bank of the Saugatuck River.

"That plan hopefully will have projects that can be implemented over time to accomplish the maintenance of a viable downtown for Westport," Downtown 2020 member Dan Kail said of the prospective master plan. "It has a good tax base, it's pedestrian friendly, it's friendly to the town. It doesn't destroy what we believe is Westport."

The master plan would also include a comprehensive study of downtown traffic. The flow and volume of vehicles in the area is a longstanding concern for many residents who live near downtown.

"I am completely disinclined to let my young teenage children go downtown to walk over to the library to get books," said Kate Comstock Davis, who lives near the west side of the town center. "I live within walking distance of the town [center], but the Post Road is such a hazard."

Peter Eyes, who lives in the same neighborhood as Comstock Davis, also highlighted traffic as a major issue. "If we polish this jewel, you have to figure out how where you're going to put all the people," he said.

Jane Eyes, wife of Peter Eyes, said she would like to see more "casual" dining establishments to complement the planned cinema.

"The movie theater may be there, but if there isn't casual dining, I'll still go to the Garden [movie theater in Norwalk] and eat at Fat Cat [Pie Co.]," she said. "I think that we'll skip over Westport and go to Fairfield and Norwalk, unless those types of activities are here."

Board of Finance member John Pincavage argued that businesses would be disinclined to commit to downtown Westport if the town does not develop more secure flood defenses. The storm surge during Superstorm Sandy caused the Saugatuck River to overflow and inundate parts of Main Street and Post Road East with several feet of water. A month later, several national retailers with outlets in the town center, including Nike Running and Banana Republic, are still closed because of flood damage suffered during the storm.

"How can you protect it from flooding every couple of years?" Pincavage asked. "What's going to happen is businesses aren't going to go there. They can't make money -- the insurance rates are exorbitant or non-existent."

Gagliano responded that dredging the Saugatuck River and installation of flood gates should be considered as options for helping to mitigate flooding during future storms.

Next steps

A consultant, who the Downtown 2020 members hope to hire in the first quarter of 2013, will figure prominently in developing a master plan.

Including hiring a consultant, writing a downtown master plan would cost approximately $150,000, Gagliano estimates. The committee has proposed a public-private partnership -- 50 percent private funding and 50 percent town money -- to fund the master plan project, Gagliano said. Downtown 2020 members plan to apply for a $75,000 allocation in the 2013-14 town budget for the master plan. Gagliano said the committee would seek only 50 percent town backing for the plan because he does not think town officials would approve the entire $150,000 funding request.

The Downtown 2020 Committee so far has raised $17,000 in private contributions for a master plan. That total includes a $10,000 donation from the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, Gagliano said. Committee members hope to raise the rest of their $75,000 private-sector target by the end of January.

Committee members have already sought to gain support from a number of downtown stakeholders such as the Downtown Merchants Association, the Historic District Commission, the Westport Historical Society and the Westport Public Library. Gagliano, meanwhile, has also led the town's application for an approximately $500,000 grant from the state's new Main Street Investment Fund for sidewalk construction and improvements in the downtown area. The town will likely learn the amount of its grant allocation in the early spring of next year, Gagliano told the Westport News.

The committee hopes to complete a master plan by the end of 2013, Gagliano said. Adopting a downtown master plan would also make Westport eligible for more economic development grants, he said.

A downtown master plan would need approval by the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Representative Town Meeting, Gagliano added.

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