Downtown parking could open opportunities

Editors note: This is the second in a series of articles about the changing face of downtown Westport.

Downtown Westport is dealing with a lot of changes.

The Westport Weston Family Y will be moving. The main Post Office might be closing. The Levitt Pavilion will be totally overhauled, while the library also has some expansion plans.

One thing that has remained constant for the last several decades is the ongoing discussion about what to do with parking. The existing parking lots face overcrowding, and scoring a spot on Main Street is no easy task for drivers.

At Oscar's Delicatessen, owner Lee Papageorge said that not only do his employees coming in before the lunch rush have trouble finding spots that are available for more than two hours, but his customers also encounter difficulty trying to find a space.

"Everybody wants to eat lunch all at once, and Oscar's itself has no designated parking so we're at the mercy of the general public," Papageorge said.

It's believed by local business owners that revamped parking -- possibly a garage on the Baldwin parking lot on Elm Street -- could be the key to linking the downtown offerings, revitalizing the district and creating open space elsewhere in the area. Such talk isn't anything new, especially to Papageorge. He has heard talk of a garage for 34 years. Others involved in downtown have also been hearing about it for years.

"It's always being talked about," said Bob LeRose, owner of Bobby Q's Barbecue & Grill and president of the Westport Downtown Merchant's Association (WDMA). "We want to see downtown be a thriving business district and we know to truly achieve our goals we have to have a better downtown parking."

The biggest problem facing downtown parking right now is space. More is needed, but there's not really any existing land to build it on, short of paving over Jesup Green or knocking down a building. Some of the main downtown lots are at the library, Parker Harding Plaza, and two between the police station and Post Road East.

By creating a parking garage on the Baldwin lot, LeRose and others hope that the land adjacent to the Saugatuck River could be used for something other than paved parking. Ultimately, there's hope of making waterfront access more than a narrow sidewalk.

"To me, it's got to be the only place for it," said LeRose. "It might open up opportunities to open up places along the river. Right know we have this [land next to a] beautiful river but ... it's a parking lot."

With such discussions going on for a generation, the parking garage idea is a difficult one to bring to fruition.

Jonathan Steinberg, chairman of the Downtown Subcommittee of the Plan Implementation Committee, realizes the importance of parking, especially in light of the revamping of the Levitt Pavilion.

His subcommittee has been looking at the plans that have been proposed over the years and spoken with many people to see how to make the goals of the 2007 Town Plan of Conservation and Development a reality.

"We've really engaged anybody who has either historical perspective or a stake in downtown in one fashion or another," said Steinberg. "One thing they kept coming back to us no matter what we seemed likely to consensually endorse is that we have to address the parking first."

He's realistic about the obstacles -- mainly money -- that are preventing the garage from being built overnight.

Steinberg said, "People are going to say, `Look, we have economic issues here. We're pretty happy the way Westport is. We have great schools. We got Compo Beach. We got Longshore. Do we really think it's in our best interest to spend money for downtown and the like?' "

One of the methods considered to offset the cost is paid parking, but there's no consensus on how or even if it should be done.

Pappageorge said, "Money is not the issue, because if we had to tax all the buildings on Main Street, I think a lot of the landlords would be behind that because we want more people [downtown]. People mean money."

The issue of paid parking is something that LeRose wants to be careful with since it could "tick a lot of people off," but he's hopeful that something can be done since he's been encouraged by "a lot of positive conversations" about the situation.

"There's a lot of smart people and we can figure out a way to make it work," LeRose said.

The push to create vibrancy downtown and link the various assets, such as the library, the Westport Country Playhouse and even the Westport Arts Center on the other side of the river won't be completed simply by creating a parking garage, according to Steinberg.

"It's a means to an end and not necessarily an end itself," he said.