Westport downtown plan ‘accepted,’ but implementation awaits
Years in the making, the Downtown Master Plan is final.
What happens with it next, however, has yet to be determined.
At a special meeting Wednesday, the Board of Selectmen accepted the plan as prepared by the Downtown Steering Committee, and resolved to initiate a plan to prioritize its recommendations and implement them.
Selectman Helen Garten disagreed with a vote to “accept” the document, preferring the more neutral term “receive,” and abstained from the first part of the vote, which passed 2-0. The resolution to initiate a planning phase passed unanimously.
“We are moving forward and I am really excited about it,” said Melissa Kane, chairwoman of the Downtown Steering Committee. “A lot of people put a lot of work in over many years to get to this point, and it’s clearly something that needs to be done.”
Another committee — with the mission of reviewing plans for implementing some of the recommendations — is expected to be appointed by First Selectman Jim Marpe in the future.
Kane led the presentation for the selectmen, along with Dewey Loselle, town operations manager, and Mark Keener, director of town planning with RBA Group of Connecticut, LLC, the consultant hired to guide the steering committee. Over the past several years, the town invested $225,000 in the planning process, according to Loselle.
“This is really an extraordinary document,” said Marpe. “I think it sets a standard for urban planning, or municipal planning, in its depth and structure.”
“We all have things we disagree with, but I hope there are things we agree with,” he said.
“My judgment is that this is one terrific plan,” said resident Don Bergmann. “They have put together a very inclusive, very detailed, and very well-thought out plan … I applaud their effort.”
Garten expressed some concerns about the plan. "The focus of this plan seems to be new infrastructure," she said, including new roadways and new bridges, such as one proposed from the Westport Library to the Imperial Avenue parking lot.
"Infrastructure investment requires maintenance … and one of the problems we have is that we don't maintain our infrastructure," she said.
She also noted that some aspects of the plan offer no cost estimates. "To me that's a red flag," the selectman said.
Asked what the first priority should be implementing the plan, Kane responded that establishing better maintenance of town assets should be at the top of the list. She said this would require cooperative alliances with other bodies, including the Downtown Merchants Association, the library and others to "take advantage of strategic partners and not place the burden solely on the taxpayers."
Others also had reservations. Among those was Karen Swanson, a Westport resident involved with a downtown business, said many shopkeepers felt excluded from the process.
“While the DMA (Downtown Merchants Association) has certainly been involved … The DMA does not represent a lot of downtown merchants,” she said, noting that many oppose the possibility of long-term parking being moved across the Post Road.
“Many of the downtown merchants — the employees, business owners and workers — do not feel represented in this plan,” she said.
Morley Boyd noted that the residents, in responding to survey questions about downtown, specified maintaining Westport’s small-town character as the most important issue.
“I’m not totally sure that this plan is a complete response to that,” he said.
“If you look at (the plan) objectively, it contemplates a lot of new stuff, new infrastructure … You could conclude that it’s a fairly aggressive urbanization plan … so it does make me a little concerned.”
Others, however, were supportive, including state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, who said it “is a tremendously bold document.” He noted that it was designed to be a broad plan at this point and not tied to any of the specifics it offers.
“I don’t want anybody here to presume that anything that’s in there is … a slam dunk. Nothing in this town is a slam dunk, as far as I can see,” he added.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for the community,” Steinberg said, and that it represents a “long-term commitment by the town to make a big investment in the future of Westport.”