Residents debate Saugatuck traffic, housing, train parking

The “Saugatuck: A Gateway for Westport” December 2017 Executive Summary included a map of existing Saugatuck parking and proposed parking for the area.Sophie Vaughan /Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — A public meeting meant to discuss recommendations for the Saugatuck section of town instead triggered a wave of resident grievances about traffic, housing density, and train parking in the neighborhood.

Held at Town Hall Tuesday, the meeting was spurred by a $265,000 transit-oriented development state grant the town won in late 2016 to explore strategies for increasing housing, retail, and walkability in proximity to the Saugatuck train station.

Hired to help the town formulate a new vision for Saugatuck, the urban design firm BartonPartners created an executive summary report entitled, “Saugatuck: A Gateway for Westport,” which compiled original analysis and comments from the project’s steering committee. BartonPartners, a Pennsylvania based firm, was not invited to the meeting of the Saugatuck Transit Oriented Design Master Plan Steering Committee (SSC).

More than 30 people piled into a small town hall room to air their primarily negative thought about the project and its possible unintended consequences.

Traffic was the most commonly cited concern, with many residents saying the proposed 150 to 200 new multifamily residential units, 36,000 to 50,000 square feet of new shops and restaurants, and 20,000 to 35,000 square feet of new commercial space would exacerbate already bad traffic congestion in Saugatuck. According to the report, Westport’s proposed plan shows a relatively low intensity of new development compared with typical transit-oriented developments and represents a fraction of the neighborhood’s market capacity.

Resident and committee member Marty Fox expressed skepticism about the consultant’s conclusion that the proposed development traffic impact would be nominal.

“I would like the consultants to open up the black box and give us the actual numbers of what they assume the traffic would be from the additional units and what the offset would be,” Fox said.

Representative Town Meeting transit committee chair Peter Gold took a larger view of the neighborhood’s traffic problem, saying, “The solution to traffic is a broader problem than just Saugatuck. Saugatuck is the endpoint. By the time the traffic gets to Saugatuck, it’s too late.”

Challenging the very premise of transit-oriented development, Matthew Mandell, RTM member and executive director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce said, “I don’t believe that we should become a transit hub. I believe that Norwalk wants to become a transit hub, Fairfield is becoming a transit hub. They have their new metro station and are about to put in 400 units and 100,000 square feet of retail and office (space). That can go there. We can be different. We can be unique.”

Fellow RTM member Peter Gold disagreed with Mandell, saying, “You can make some of these changes without turning us into Stamford. We could become New Canaan, which has got a train station right in the middle of a very nice downtown without housing nearby, retail nearby, offices nearby.”

Former RTM member and Coalition for Westport activist Jennifer Johnson said Saugatuck will change and a development will occur, but, “with the idea of a plan maybe we can keep it in the public realm and emphasize the public realm.” After the meeting, Johnson explained that revenues from increased housing and retail space could fun waterfront, bike-lane, and pedestrian enhancements for the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, the resounding cry of meeting attendees was opposition to increased housing on the grounds of a supposed lack of demand and traffic concerns.

Save Westport Now co-chair Valerie Jacobs said increased traffic would cause decreased home values and enrage commuters with already long train commutes.

Riverside Avenue resident David Sarno said, “Nowhere in the principal's does it say that we need more housing. I don’t even understand how this came into being. I can only assume there’s some greed or stupidity associated with this concept.”

The SSC will next meet on Jan. 11 at 8 a.m. and BartonPartners will give a final report presentation on Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. Both events will be held at Town Hall.; @SophieCVaughan1