Plan for new Church Lane project sparks debate
Public division over the direction of future development in downtown Westport was again evident Thursday night, as the Planning and Zoning Commission began its review of a re-zoning proposal for a prime property in the town center.
Bedford Square Associates, a development group that owns 35 Church Lane, is seeking approval of a map amendment that would re-zone the property from the Restricted Office-Retail District 2 zone to the Business Center District. The change would allow greater building density at the site and facilitate Bedford Square's eventual goal of combining the property with the adjacent Westport Weston Family Y lot to build a new mixed-use complex.
"Many of the critical components for a successful downtown are already in place," said Tom Cody, a lawyer representing Bedford Square. "But at the corner of Church and Elm Street ... we do not have the successful characteristics that we are looking for."
Cody argued, in particular, that re-zoning would allow for additional on-site parking, which he said would "minimize the need for space-gobbling parking lots."
As part of its redevelopment plan for 35 Church Lane, Bedford Square also wants to demolish the property's two existing buildings. The larger structure is an 1890 Queen Anne house listed on the town's Historic Resources Inventory.
P&Z Commission Vice Chairwoman Ellie Lowenstein inquired about the possibility of preserving the house by relocating it to a corner of the property, a proposal that received a lukewarm response from Bedford Square representatives.
"Bringing it up to the current codes of fire safety, handicap access, sprinkler system, HVAC system -- it's just not even practical," said architect Mark Herter. "It would be extremely difficult to do in that type of structure given its framing and the nature of the house."
Commissioner David Press also expressed skepticism about the long-term viability of the property's existing buildings.
"At what point does it become beyond redemption?" he asked. "If it stays the way it is, unimproved, over a certain period of time, these buildings deteriorate."
The P&Z's review of Bedford Square's map amendment is part of a broader community debate about the use and appearance of downtown Westport that has dominated the P&Z's agenda this fall. Responding to residents' fears of overdevelopment, last month the commission jettisoned a text amendment it had proposed that would have created a new zone to encourage the development of a downtown movie theater.
On Thursday, scores of attendees again filled the Town Hall auditorium for the session on the Church Lane re-zoning proposal.
"This zoning change would add density, it would add traffic and it would change our way life of life," said Don Zwyer. "My advice to developers or people who are in favor of what they [Bedford Square] want is go somewhere else, find another little town in Connecticut that wants to look like Stamford, but please don't do it to Westport."
"I don't quite understand functional obsolescence," she said, referring to a term used earlier by Cody to describe 35 Church Lane's existing buildings. "The Sherwood House is also considered functionally obsolete, yet it is being re-used."
David Waldman, a Bedford Square partner, is also the president of David Adam Realty, a Westport-based commercial real estate firm that owns the Sherwood House property.
Other audience members, however, expressed support for Bedford Square's amendment.
"I don't think that bringing something like this to our town will cause it to have it feel like New York City or Stamford," said Shari Korn. "I think this is really an opportunity to make a positive change and to move forward."
"For decades, we've been trying to solve the problem of connecting both sides of the [Saugatuck] River," he said. "We are going to execute a very well-crafted, sympathetic plan for the west side of the river, and I'm 110 percent confident that this team's going to do the same on the east side. With that in mind, we may be able to break that lack of linkage between the two sides of the river."
Greenfield Partners owns the downtown landmark, National Hall on the west bank of the Saugatuck River in downtown Westport. The P&Z last week approved a text amendment that paves the way for National Hall to be redeveloped as a new corporate headquarters for Greenfield.
In January 2010, the Representative Town Meeting overturned a similar amendment that the P&Z had approved for the Historic Design District, where National Hall is located. If approved by the P&Z, RTM member Amy Ancel said Bedford Square's map amendment could also be contested.
"This whole thing, because of the way it's being inched along, is a real crapshoot," she said. "There's a very good chance that if you approve this, it will be appealed to the RTM."
The P&Z did not vote Thursday on the application. It will continue its review of Bedford Square Associates' proposed map amendment for 35 Church Lane at a public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3, in the Town Hall auditorium.