New zoning concept seen as key for revitalizing downtown Westport
Traditional zoning is a thing of the past, according to New Haven-based architect Robert Orr, a founder of form-based codes, a method of regulating development to achieve a community vision, where people converse with one another, not complete their business and head back home.
The featured guest at the Thursday morning meeting of the Downtown Plan Subcommittee of the Town Plan Implementation Committee, Orr unveiled a conceptual plan for Westport's downtown area that showed, among other things, the library parking lot converted into a park; shops closer to the Saugatuck River than they are now (but with a riverwalk directly behind the buildings); narrower streets designed to slow traffic; new playgrounds, and green traffic islands in locations where there is nothing today. His plan also shows the Imperial Avenue lot turned into a mini-Gramercy Park, surrounded by brownstones, and mixed-use blocks designed to resuscitate downtown's vitality at night.
"We want to create a downtown center where people come together as a community," said Jonathan Philip Steinberg, a member of both the downtown plan subcommittee and the Representative Town Meeting (RTM).
Steinberg said Westport's downtown is not really a center in its current state. "It's certainly not optimized," he said.
"I think there are opportunities for us to turn downtown into an asset the way we value Longshore, the way we value the beach," he added. "We have to impress upon the average Westporter that they ought to care about downtown Westport."
Steinberg said people now might visit, but they "don't linger."
Form-based codes, according to background information provided by the subcommittee, address the relationship between building facades and public space, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks. The regulations and standards in form-based codes are keyed to a plan that designates the appropriate form and scale (and therefore, character) of development rather than only various land-use regulations. This is in contrast to conventional zoning's focus on the micromanagement and segregation of land uses, and the control of development intensity through abstract and uncoordinated parameters (such as floor area ratio, dwellings per acre, setbacks, parking ratios, etc.) to the neglect of an integrated built form. Not to be confused with design guidelines or general statements of policy, form-based codes are regulatory, not advisory.
Form-based codes, often referred to as SmartCode, incorporate different uses within an area, rather than separating them. Also, form-based codes put more of a focus on enhancing pedestrian safety and enjoyment.
Orr and fellow founders of form-based codes have seen their concept implemented in such communities as Charleston, N.C., and the Florida resort town of Seaside, among other locales. It's about building communities where you "work, shop and play," said Orr, as opposed to having homes in one zone, shops in another, and so on.
It's about creating a community center, "where people meet, where dialogue and communication can take place," Orr said. "The form-based code actually adds value, as opposed to taking away value."
Orr's concepts for Westport include several parking garages to make up for the loss of some parking at Parker Harding Plaza by additional shops fronting the Saugatuck River. Parking fees, he said, would cover the cost of the garages. For everything to coordinate, shops and stores need to stay open later. He said having some go dark devalues, or harms, other businesses, "as people will not walk more than 25 feet past a `blank' or a bank." He even suggested a possible penalty for store owners who don't stay open at night.
"You have to look at your downtown area the same way you look at soil," he said. "You want to protect your richest, your highest organic soil." He said downtown will be much more attractive with shops adjacent to the river instead of cars in parking spaces.
"Cars have the best view of the river" right now, Orr said. "The cars are really pampered in Westport."
He also criticized the Cobra lights used to keep downtown Westport lit after the sun goes down. "That's for highways," he said. "We need to change ourselves into place makers."
Transforming Westport using standards set by a form-based code won't happen quickly. Other communities have taken 20 years for the "craftsman class" to come back.
An ideal downtown, Orr said, would have a mixture of retail and residential uses.
"There are two types of people that are going to want to live in this downtown area," Orr said. "People in their 20s and people in their 60s." The younger set might be living closer to the bars and restaurants, whereas the older group will be downtown as well, but on the periphery, perhaps over by the arts center.
"A neighborhood usually has a center and an edge," he said, and Orr's plan shows the edge would be only a five-minute walk to the heart of downtown.
"But if it's not a pleasant walk you won't do it," he said.
Orr said a form-based code "is protective of areas you want to protect, it's reparative of the sprawl areas, it's creative of new areas."
Orr also suggested a trolley be considered in Westport. He said in communities that have trolleys, ridership is far greater than use of buses on the same routes. Development, he said, could be based around a trolley line.
He proposed that owners of business property be allowed greater flexibility to subdivide to their properties to allow for a greater number of businesses.
David Waldman, founder of David Adam Realty, a full-service brokerage and property management company, said if new buildings are built, "we can add the theater and other things we're missing."
While someone in the audience Wednesday suggested it should be a downtown that caters to Westport residents, Waldman later countered, "This is not Westport's town. It has to be a town that attracts from a 30-mile radius." He added, "We are such a reactive town. We can now be proactive, at a time we need to be."
Steinberg said there is a lot to do long before Orr's concept plan, or a modified version of it, could become a reality, as the town does not own all of the properties that Orr proposed be transformed. In addition, substantial funding would be needed to accomplish many parts of the plan.
"We need leadership to make this a priority," he said.