Control over Saugatuck’s transformation questioned
WESTPORT — Questions regarding the pace and oversight of Saugatuck’s transformation came to the forefront at a recent meeting.
A request for proposal to enlist a planning consultant to transform downtown Saugatuck was put out by the town before members of the Saugatuck Transit Oriented Development Master Plan Steering Committee had any chance to review it — one of the committee’s explicitly listed responsibilities.
The town posted the request on Nov. 14, inviting consultants and firms with experience in transit-oriented development planning to bid on the project in Saugatuck. The deadline is Dec. 15. Nov. 17 marked the first steering committee meeting for Saugatuck.
Matthew Mandell, a member of the TOD steering committee, asked how the committee members could implement omissions, such as historical inventory, into the original request. Planning & Zoning Director Mary Young said there is an “expectation” by the town that the consultant will understand the area and conditions pertaining to historic resources, and she expects, as the process progresses, input will be heard.
Young said the town “lost some time” because of her predecessor, Steve Palmer’s, abrupt departure, adding there was a fixed window of time granted by the state — nine months — to protect the $440,000 state grant, or the town would lose the money. She apologized that the town had to move forward.
Peter Gold, another member of the committee, expressed a need for the town to enlist a traffic study, to which Young said the town has already commissioned such studies to evaluate congestion points. Mandell said none of the exits off Interstate 95 were included in the traffic study and asked to include those.
Responding to a question about pending developments in the area — Pete Romano has a design, video and plan for Railroad Place and has met with First Selectman Jim Marpe to discuss it — Cathy Walsh, another member of the committee, said, “We all know that something’s going to be happening” in what she referred to as the “Mario’s superblock.”
Who makes up the committee?
Co-chair Mary Young, Director of Planning & Zoning
Co-chair Craig Schiavone, town planning experience
Eileen Berenyi, town planning experience, Office in Saugatuck
Andy Boas, Investment Manager, Office in Saugatuck
Al DiGuido, Saugatuck merchant
Marty Fox, Westport Transit Director
Ed Gerber, representing the Westport Historical Society
Ward French, Chair, Architectural Review Board, Saugatuck resident
Peter Gold, Chair, RTM Transit Committee
Robert "Buck" Iannacone, 5th Generation Saugatuck resident
Samuel Levenson, Financial Communications Consultant, Saugatuck Area Resident
Mike Mahoney, Commuter Rail Council Member, commuter
Matthew Mandell, Executive Director, Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce
Cathy Walsh, Chair, Planning & Zoning Commission
Ian Warburg, Preservationist
Staff advisory members:
Sam Arciola, Deputy Police Chief, Saugatuck resident
Katherine Daniel, Deputy Planning and Zoning Director
Steve Edwards, Director, Public Works
Jen Fava, Director, Parks & Recreation
Alicia Mozian, Director, Conservation
Marpe followed up Walsh’s comments by saying, “We know there are lots of things out there. Some of which are more formalized than others, but as of the moment, not directly in front of Planning and Zoning.” He said the committee deserves a briefing on “what we know to be of interest.”
When the $440,000 state grant was approved for use by the Board of Finance in October, many board members were concerned about a $6 million cost of construction for the streetscape design and an additional $160,000 cost, both not included in the original grant. Sentiments on the board ranged from being “nervous” about money already being doled out before the steering committee’s input, to board member Michael Rea insinuating a developer may have already been chosen.
“You’re appointing a committee to do this research and this study and evaluation. I would like to think that you haven’t already drawn a conclusion and picked a project and maybe even a developer,” Rea said.
Romano’s Railroad Place design describes a 3-acre space with a pedestrian plaza, green market, restaurants, retail, apartments, offices, movie theater, hotel and parking for up to 450 vehicles.
Romano said he met with Marpe and town Operations Director Dewey Loselle shortly after the money was given to the town in June. He said the purpose of the meeting was “to let them know that we have something” and to see if both sides agreed. Both parties concurred, going forward, to keep each other in the know about how they plan to proceed, Romano said.
In response to Romano’s designs, Marpe said he “believes” Romano is “engaged” by one of the major property owners, who owns a great deal of Railroad Place, in a private development. Romano has represented the Shepard and Girden families, who together own the majority of Railroad Place, for the past four years.
“To my knowledge, it (Romano’s design) has not been presented to any town body for review or approval. So, the fact that it exists is related to what that particular set of owners has in mind,” Marpe said. “I don’t think he’ll propose (something) because he understands the conflict of interest, but I don’t know for sure.”
Romano said the drawings on his website are “very conceptual” and meant “to see what could be done in order to develop a value for their (his client’s) properties.” He does not anticipate downtown Saugatuck looking like the schematics on his website.
“I would stress that this is merely conceptual, and I don’t think the pictures in the conceptual drawings will ultimately be what the buildings will look like. I don’t think they’re conducive to what we’re trying to do down there,” Romano said.
The Saugatuck steering committee will meet every third Thursday at 8 a.m. in town hall.