Editorial / Critical new chapter in a West Side story

Across the bridge from downtown, the red brick National Hall -- built as a bank 140 years ago -- rises like an Italianate fortress, guarding the west bank of the Saugatuck.

It has been more than a year and a half since the Representative Town Meeting overturned a zoning amendment that would have allowed offices to replace an upscale but soon-to-fail boutique hotel there.

The linchpin was a ban on offices on the first floors of buildings in the town's tiny Historic Design District. The planning & zoning commission approved them for National Hall; RTM overturned the decision. End of deal.

The Inn at National Hall, indeed went belly up just two months after the RTM action. The historic building's distinctive, tall windows have remained dark for 17 months since, giving the landmark a lifeless, blank stare.

Now, Greenfield Partners -- the same real estate investment firm that made the rejected office proposal -- is back with a new plan. It seeks the same zone change for office space that RTM squashed. But it puts considerably more on the table -- both for the neighborhood and the town.

In addition to putting offices on the first floor of National Hall, Greenfield has proposed building a three-story addition that would house restaurants, retail and office space. Greenfield owns the building now and would move its headquarters from Norwalk to the renovated space.

The planning & zoning commission, the RTM -- in fact, the town as a whole -- have a lot to think about. The decision made on this plan -- whether it is approved or rejected -- will impact not only National Hall property but the west side of the river immediately and perhaps for years to come.

A petition drive that led to RTM's killing of the zone change was launched by merchants whose shops are in the shadow of National Hall. Some have said the area needs more retail businesses that would generate more foot traffic.

Indeed, retail shops offer a far more welcoming face at street level than offices. They open their doors to the public and attract people who are ready to spend. Yet some neighborhood shops have closed in the past year. Greenfield's proposal has multiple upsides.

It would occupy and bring life to the signature building at a major intersection. It would create new jobs and bring employees and clients into the neighborhood every day -- people who likely would patronize area restaurants and shops on their lunch breaks and perhaps sometimes stay in town for the evening.

It would add valuable new construction to the tax rolls at a time when the town's grand list is shrinking. At the same time it would fill the empty existing building with computers and other business equipment that generate local tax revenue.

It also would make Westport the headquarters for another company -- one with a sizable investment in the neighborhood. Lax standards by banks making real estate loans triggered the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression -- one still being felt on Wall Street and Main Street. So it seems somehow ironic that a real estate company now wants to renovate a former bank to make economic progress.

Anyone holding their breath for National Hall to become an urban mall of a high end antique and fine art dealers will need exceedingly large lungs.

Not many people in a sour economy are waving development money around, and few businesses are expanding. Since Greenfield owns the property, a series of alternative ideas would be unlikely unless a "For Sale" sign went up. In the meantime, uncertainty about National Hall has made skittish some others with interest in the neighborhood.

Given recent history, it would serve Westport well to have a community dialogue about National Hall's place in a broader West Side development plan. But that is no excuse for foot dragging on Greenfield's proposal. The hardest part will be trying to fathom what today's decision means for tomorrow.