Residents check what's up with downtown master plan

Dozens of residents turned out Tuesday to scrutinize the draft version of a downtown master plan, prepared by the RBA Group whose representatives were on hand to elaborate on details of the proposal.

"It is so important to see so many here today," said Melissa Kane, the chairwoman of the Downtown Steering Committee, which is providing guidance and technical assistance to the plan's consultants.

"In order to come up with a plan that's a Westport plan, we need people's feedback," she told those attending the public forum held at the McManus Room of the Westport Library. Two detailed presentations on the plan were given Tuesday -- at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. -- followed by question-and-answer sessions.

Kane said that during the presentation "it was important to keep in mind that this is a work in progress and not the final draft."

But, she added, "you will see it is very comprehensive" with 40 recommendations for changes and improvements in the downtown area. She said questions following the presentation were encouraged, adding, they wanted to know if this "is a vision that we, as a town, can embrace."

The plan aims to make downtown more pedestrian-friendly, the audience was told. One way is by improving the downtown intersections along the Post Road, said Jackson Wandres, director of landscape architecture and planning for RBA. And, he added, "where sidewalks are missing, they have to be built." Others, already in place need to be repaired, he added.

He also said Church Lane is "a good candidate for a shared street -- a fairly new idea in the U.S. -- where pedestrians have the right-of-way."

The biggest transformation would be to revamp Jesup Green by removing the Taylor parking lot in front of the library and create a "big waterfront park" fronting on the Saugatuck River, Wandres explained. "Westport doesn't have a town green, per se," he said, adding the new green space could be it.

"This flat space could become a playground, a fitness course" or any number of uses, he said.

Another recommendation is to reconfigure the parking spaces at the Parker Harding lot and gaining 10 feet of space along the riverfront where an esplanade could be built.

The plan also proposes building a pedestrian bridge across the Saugatuck River to connect with the former Save the Children building where new development is planned, he said.

Parking downtown -- an issue raised by many residents -- was also addressed by Greg DelRio, RBA's transportation planner, who explained how changes downtown, like future development, would affect the amount of existing parking spaces.

Resident Pat Shea, during the question-and-answer portion, said parking could become more of an issue with "several new high-density developments planned" in town, including housing projects on the site of the Westport Inn and on Hiawatha Lane. "We made some assumptions about developments" in the master plan, Mark Keener, RBA director of urban design, told her.

Nikki Gorman, a pediatrician and mother, said she is "an advocate for a family-friendly community" and fully supports converting the Taylor lot to a green space. She said she would like to see a playground there, adding that she has circulated a petition with more than 300 signatures of residents who also support it, which she handed to Kane.

"I've already started a committee," she said, adding she also would personally like to see a fitness track there.

Fred Cantor, who said he comes to the library "a lot," thought the riverside esplanade at Parker Harding would be a great idea. "But why do you need an additional riverfront green at the library when parking is needed?" he asked.

Dick Stein, speaking with RBA representatives prior to the presentation, felt the same way. He said his concern is that creation of more open space, which he supports, also would mean a loss of parking spaces.

A number of residents, like Leah Fine, said they attended the forum "just to see what's being planned."

Fine said, who moved to town in 1969, she likes the idea of expanding Jesup Green, but doesn't want to see any more building downtown.

Her friend, Margaret LeBedis, expressed concern about the footbridge proposed across the river.

"I think it's for a very specific person's benefit," she said. "It's not for the town, but the town will probably end up paying for it."

The next step is a DSC work session Feb. 24 to review all the comments, including those from Planning and Zoning Commission members -- who reviewed the plan last month -- before sending any revisions to the plan back to RBA for the final draft.

Kane said comments will be accepted on the draft master plan until Friday on the committee's website,