Westport P&Z focusing on next round of downtown revitalization initiatives
Updated 6:40 am, Thursday, May 12, 2011
Perched on a hill a few yards from Main Street in Westport, Town Hall maintains a close relationship with the town's center. In recovering from the recession, town officials, downtown merchants and developers have forged closer ties as they seek to give more economic and cultural impetus to downtown.
On Thursday, these parties will convene with residents at Town Hall for a public meeting hosted by the Planning and Zoning Commission that will explore a range of downtown revitalization initiatives.
The session starts at 6:30 p.m. The meeting takes place during one of the most active periods in the P&Z's recent history. In the last year, the commission has approved a series of text amendments that have loosened regulations on outdoor dining, outdoor events and liquor permits. The changes aim to attract more dining establishments and promote more nighttime activity.
"I think that the impact has been beneficial, and that the momentum has changed," said P&Z Chairman Ron Corwin.
"I think a new balance has been struck in creating a willingness to relax certain regulations to give more freedom to restaurateurs and entrepreneurs."
More InformationUp On Downtown The Planning and Zoning Commission will host a public forum Thursday on revitalization initiatives for Westport's downtown area. There will be presentations on recent regulation changes and future areas of focus, as well as a chance for the public to comment. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Town Hall auditorium.
As neighboring towns and cities, such as Fairfield and Norwalk, attract larger crowds to their burgeoning dining and nightlife scenes, promoting outdoor dining in Westport has emerged as a key objective of the commission. Last May, the panel passed Text Amendment 610, which eliminated the town's requirement for restaurants to go through public hearings to gain approval for outdoor seating. It also struck down the town's ban on retail food establishments putting in outdoor seating.
As a follow-up to that amendment, the P&Z in March approved Text Amendment 628, which allows restaurants to have outdoor music. It also permitted outdoor dining at establishments within 50 feet of residential zones, such as the Crumb's Bake Shop at Jesup Road and Taylor Place, provided that a street separates the eatery from residential areas.
Michele Albano opened her retail food establishment, Michele's Pies, last month at 180 Post Road East. She said 610 played an important role in persuading her to choose downtown Westport for a shop to complement the Norwalk Michele's Pies store.
"I definitely wanted to have more of a cafe seating area than I do in Norwalk," she said. "I had to make sure we were able do that before we moved forward."
Last July, the P&Z approved another major set of regulatory of changes, Text Amendment 613. Most prominently, the amendment struck down a longstanding rule that mandated a 1,500-foot distance between dining establishments with patron bars.
Westport-based developer David Waldman credited the amendment with allowing him to bring a restaurant next year to Church Lane's Sherwood House, which is being renovated by his David Adam Realty commercial real estate firm. Former zoning regulations would have ruled out a restaurant with a patron bar, because the approximately 5,000-square-foot site is within 1,500 feet of other restaurants with patron bars such as the Villa del Sol Mexican restaurant on Elm Street.
Waldman is also a principal in the Bedford Square Associates development group, which plans to convert the downtown Westport Weston Family Y into a mixed-use complex when the Y relocates to its new site at Camp Mahackeno in 2014. The 90,000-plus-square-foot redevelopment will likely include several other new restaurants on Church Lane.
Like the Sherwood House, those establishments also would not have been allowed patron bars under the 1,500-foot rule for liquor outlets.
"You'll have a group of restaurants that work on their own, but feed off one another like Elm Street in New Canaan and Fairfield's town center," Waldman said. "It will create more opportunities for people not just to shop here, but to eat and play here."
To facilitate a livelier dining scene, Waldman said Church Lane could eventually become a pedestrian mall.
But that proposal, along with the possibility of expanding portions of sidewalks on Main Street, would likely require a new parking strategy to compensate for the lost street spaces. Construction of a new parking deck could take place at the Baldwin parking lot on Elm Street, which has frequently been mentioned by town officials and downtown merchants as a feasible site. But such a project would require modifying the zoning regulations.
Bob LeRose, owner of the Main Street barbecue restaurant Bobby Q's, and president of the Downtown Merchants Association, said improving downtown infrastructure should precede efforts to attract more dining establishments.
"If we keep building up the downtown without allowing for more people to come, it's actually going to hurt the existing businesses that are here," he said.
As town officials try to rein in spending and taxes, financing for a parking structure, as well as other initiatives such as a downtown movie theater, would have to come largely, if not entirely, from the private sector.
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, however, did not rule out the town providing financial backing for certain initiatives.
"People are very reluctant to take on additional debt," he said. "But that should not stop us from planning or making some strategic investments, otherwise nothing will get done."
Corwin added that Thursday's public meeting will launch a new phase of the P&Z's review of far-reaching downtown revitalization projects, such as a new parking structure. After zoning experts, downtown business leaders and residents present their proposals, the commission will hold a work session to develop plans of action for feasible proposals.
"I think there're some terrific things about downtown. But it can be even better," Corwin said. "I think this is a good time to put on the afterburners."