Questions arise as panel promotes need for downtown master plan
As they prepare to seek town funding for a proposed downtown master plan, Downtown 2020 Committee members got an ambivalent response Tuesday night during a presentation to the Representative Town Meeting's Planning and Zoning and Long Range Planning committees.
The master plan is a top goal for the Downtown 2020 panel, appointed in March 2012 by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. Its members have argued that a master plan is needed to coordinate a number of major capital projects planned for the town center, which include:
- Redevelopment of the Westport Weston Family Y's property
- Construction of a senior residential complex at Baron's South
- "Transformation" of the Westport Public Library's building
- Construction of a movie theater adjacent to the Main Street restaurant Tavern on Main
- Construction of a new Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts on the east bank of the Saugatuck River
- Relocation of the Westport Arts Center to Jesup Green
"We believe we are at a critical fork," Lou Gagliano, 2020's chairman, told the RTM committees. "Time is not our friend, because those projects are going to happen. And if we don't coordinate them, I can guarantee you that we're going to be talking about a missed opportunity to bringing solutions to traffic, people-walking, congestion, lack of streetscape planning, flooding, etc."
In March, seven firms submitted bids in response to the town's request for proposals to produce a master plan. Downtown 2020 members are considering five of those bids, Gagliano told the Westport News. Those proposals range in cost between approximately $169,000 and about $198,000.
Downtown 2020 will seek a town allocation of no more than $175,000 for the master plan, and its requested appropriation for the project will likely be less, according to Gagliano. Private-sector contributions could cover the difference between the town's allotment and the total cost of the master plan. Downtown 2020 has so far received approximately $65,000 in commitments from private funding sources, including a $10,000 pledge from the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce.
Gagliano said he would also be receptive to having the town pay for the entire project, if the cost is under $175,000. Town money for a master plan, however, would require approval from the Board of Finance and RTM. Gagliano said he would like to secure backing from those bodies by the end of July.
"Why can't the town be pro-active and speak on behalf of citizens to be able to do more with what's going to happen anyway, than just allow it to happen ... willy-nilly?" said Bob Jacobs, another 2020 member. "Why can't we, as a group, as a town, as a community, do something that is greater than the sum of its parts? And the only way you can do that is to create a plan."
But that proposal elicited a number of queries from several RTM members, who questioned whether 2020's scope would encroach on the work of other town bodies.
"I just don't understand why it's this group and not Planning and Zoning," said Wendy Batteau, District 8.
"If they want to buy 100-109 Main St., and they're going to build within the regulations, how do we tell them that we want trees on this side and bigger sidewalks?" he said. "If we're going to spend this money, and we're going to get this, how are we going to keep their feet to the fire?"
Other RTM members appeared more enthusiastic about 2020's plans.
"The problem is every decision that's made by a commission or board or the Selectman's Office is made by them in the context of what they have in mind," said Jonathan Cunitz, District 4, chairman of the Long Range Planning Committee. "It's not coordinated on a townwide basis, and that's where this committee and the product of this committee can provide the framework, so all the various town bodies that can influence the planning will know where to go."
Among the handful of audience members who spoke, most expressed concerns about the master plan and the scope of Downtown 2020's work.
"I'm concerned that this concentration on the town center ignores Post Road East and Post Road West," said Michael Calise. "The majority of the taxpayers and the majority of the properties are outside the downtown center ... It's almost as if the committee is indirectly working against the rest of Westport by concentrating on the center."
Patria Swann questioned 2020's role in relationship to the P&Z.
"Shouldn't this committee be under the direction of the auspices of the P&Z?" she asked. "I don't understand why they have to be the liaison for a developer and certainly not for downtown Westport. The very premier outlets are practically storming over each other to get a spot on Main Street and the environs."
Connie Greenfield, a member of Save Westport Now, a political party and citizen group that focuses on land-use issues, also voiced reservations.
"You haven't told us enough; you haven't told us where you're coming from," she said. "We don't know what this committee wants and what you will tell the planning people. That's my qualm."
Sal Liccione, a downtown resident, said he supports a master plan for the area.
"I hope the RTM and the P&Z does it," he said. "It will be bad enough if they don't support it. We need more sidewalks in the downtown."
The Long Range Planning and Planning and Zoning committees did not take any votes Tuesday on the master plan.
Downtown 2020 members are scheduled to meet with the Planning and Zoning Commission in a public hearing at 7 p.m. May 9 in the Town Hall auditorium to further discuss their proposal.
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