Planning for a downtown revitalization

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles about downtown Westport. The next article will deal with major changes coming to downtown Westport that will further alter the area from what it used to be.

When Ron Corwin was campaigning for re-election to the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission, there was one issue that everybody seemed to agree on.

It wasn't the planned Westport Weston Family Y at Camp Mahackeno. It also didn't pertain to the affordable housing text amendment that the commission has been working on. Rather, everyone seemed to think that downtown Westport was in need of revitalization.

"I see a lot of potential downtown," said Corwin, chairman of the commission. "The commission itself cannot bring forth applications, but the commission can -- by modifying its regulations -- signal applicants the directions that we would like to encourage."

While the scope of the P&Z Commission's power is limited, Corwin has some changes he'd like to propose later this year when the newly elected commission lays out its goals for the coming years.

Some of his suggestions range from instituting a moratorium on new banks to widening the sidewalks, to any measure that would make it possible for a movie theater to come back to town.

Revitalizing downtown, however, is nothing new to the commission. In the Westport 2007 Plan of Conservation and Development -- known as the Town Plan -- an entire chapter was dedicated to the "Westport center," which includes the Levitt Pavilion, the Westport Arts Center and, of course, Main Street and part of Post Road East.

Commission members found at the time that people were longing for the downtown Westport of old, where someone could see a movie, peruse a variety of family-owned stores and then pick up some groceries before heading to their car.

Based on interviews cited in the Town Plan, 70 percent of people polled felt that there were too few locally owned stores, while 65 percent felt there were too many national retail chain stores. Interviewees seemed satisfied with the amount of "fine dining" and "quick service" restaurants, but 50 percent felt there weren't enough family restaurants.

Those businesses were just one aspect of the survey. More than half wanted more cultural and recreation activities available downtown.

When the Town Plan was completed, a Plan Implementation Committee was created and the Downtown Plan Subcommittee was created to focus solely on the downtown area.

Jonathan Steinberg, chairman of the subcommittee, could not be reached for comment as of press time.

In a 2008 interview with the Westport News, Steinberg said, "I'm excited about the prospects [of downtown Westport]." Yet, he noted, "It will be a long road."

A message left at the office of the Westport Downtown Merchant's Association was also not returned as of press time. This nonprofit organization consisting of local business sponsors downtown events and has commissioned studies about the downtown area.

The Town Plan acknowledged that those businesses were not coming back. Instead, some questions were raised.

One question asked was, "How to evolve a new downtown area that is vibrant, and vital, has aesthetic appeal, is functional for the citizens and meets the needs of both the residents and the commercial interests and other public and private establishments located there?"

The other question was much simpler: "How does Westport go forward?"

That question is not so easily answered.

Corwin noted that some of the zoning regulations in Westport are restrictive. Restaurants aren't allowed to be on the second floor of buildings, and another hindrance is that patron bars aren't allowed to be within 1,500 feet of each other.

Service bars, which are essentially just restaurants that bring alcoholic drinks over to the diners, have no such restrictions.

One restriction was temporarily suspended this year in an effort to make it easier to create outdoor dining areas. According to the decision made by the commission, this was done "in light of the current uniquely adverse economic conditions."

Next year, the commission intends to streamline the process of creating outdoor dining.

Corwin acknowledged that some of these suggestions he had might work and others might not.

"It's a challenged economic environment, but it is what it is," said Corwin. "We can't change the broad economic environment but we can do things that provide more flexibility to deal with the bad times and do even better in the good times."