Westport's downtown parking puzzle: The right amount in the right place at the right time

For many who shop downtown, it's usually a race against time to get back to the car before it's ticketed for overtime parking.

That was Joan Newman's take on the local parking scramble. "I do think they don't give you enough time to park and shop," said Newman, who lives in Fairfield, but shops often at the Main Street stores. "Look, right now, I'm checking my watch to see how much time I have left before I get a parking ticket."

Nicki Keers of Wilton said she's gotten tickets for overtime parking downtown. "One time it was for parking in an area where you needed a permit," said Keers who comes to town about four times a month.

"Sometimes I get a space, but other times I need to drive around and around to find one," she said. "But I don't get frustrated because I'm a pretty patient person," she said. "However, it can be daunting."

Downtown parking -- whether there is an adequate amount and where it can be found -- has become a frequently debated topic during recent meetings of the Downtown Steering Committee, which is reviewing issues affecting the area's future development.

Some merchants, like Jennifer Cogswell, assistant manager at West Elm, say their employees find if difficult to get all-day parking spaces, "unless they come in early, about 7 or 8 a.m." Otherwise, the good spaces fill up fast.

Some employees, like those at Great Stuff, are lucky because their company provides parking, said Beth Hoffman, manager. But she has heard complaints from customers who have found it difficult to find a place to park.

Irene Cowen and her husband, Sy, longtime Westport residents who shop "all the time" downtown, had mixed views. "They could use more parking, but I don't want downtown to look like a mall," Irene Cowen said. Her husband said "there's sufficient parking," but suggested a scenario where only Westporters shop weekdays and out-of-towners on the weekends.

A "Your Downtown" survey conducted by RBA Group, the consultant hired to draft a downtown master plan and released in July, found that 88 percent of the 3,143 people responding said they drive to downtown. Of those respondents, 16 percent said it's hard to find a parking space, 26 percent it was easy, while 58 percent said it depends on the time. Asked if they avoid going downtown because of the difficulty finding parking, 71 percent said no, while 29 said yes.

A survey by the Downtown Merchants Association found that 88 percent of those employed downtown -- approximately 1,143 full- and part-time employees -- drive to work, according to Steve Desloge, association president and a member of the Downtown Steering Committee, which was formed to provide guidance and technical assistance to RBA as it prepares the downtown master plan.

"We recognize that we are in competition with consumers for parking spaces," Desloge said, adding that is partially because of the area's popularity. "It's a very well sought-after shopping destination and just a nice place to walk around," he said. "The success has put a challenge on parking" particularly on weekends when most out-of-towners shop and most employees are working, he added. He said another time when parking is at a premium is during lunchtime weekdays.

Desloge, who owns Rockwell Art and Framing on Post Road East, said the town has recognized there is an issue with parking and needs to strike a balance between a gowing number of shoppers and for businesses to provide parking for employees.

Another issue, he said, is better labeling of parking limits so consumers won't get stuck with a parking ticket, and more parking time offered for each visit. "Right now there is one-hour parking on Main Street and the first row of parking at the Parker Harding lot," he said. "That's less time than what's offered in all the surrounding towns."

He said the lack of time to shop "creates frustration and sometimes anger for those who can't finish their business," he said.

A parking study by RBA, as part of the downtown master plan, found there's a total of 1,885 available parking spaces, both on-street as well as public and private off-street parking in the downtown area.

Parking areas included are: Elm Street/Baldwin parking lot, currently with 261 spaces; Parker Harding, 215 spaces; Brooks Corner, 35 spaces; Avery Place, 97 spaces; Christ and Holy Trinity Church lot, 96 spaces; Sconset Square 44 spaces; Southeby's, 18 spaces; Jesup Green, 77 spaces; Westport Library, 87 spaces, and the Westport police headquarters, 157 spaces. Also included were the Gorham Island lot with 120 spaces and the Imperial Avenue commuter lot with 214 spaces.

The study also found that the peak hours were between 1 and 2 p.m. weekdays when 75 percent, or approximately 1,423 spaces, were occupied.

Other peak hours weekdays are from noon to 1 p.m. when approximately 1,348 spaces are occupied and between 2 and 3 p.m. when about 1,322 spaces are occupied, the study showed.

When the Gorham Island and Imperial Avenue lots are excluded from the analysis, the total number of occupied spaces between 1 and 2 p.m. was approximately 1,323 spaces or 85 percent of those available. When all privately owned lots, as well as Imperial and Gorham were excluded from the analysis, the total number of occupied spaces between 1 and 2 p.m. was approximately 916 spaces, or 88 percent of those available, the report found.

On Saturdays, the survey found, between 2 and 3 p.m. peak time, 1,337 of the 1,885 parking spaces, or 71 percent, were occupied.

"This indicates that the current demand within the extended parking area does not exceed the parking supply," according to the report.

Nevertheless, concerns about parking downtown have been raised often at a series of the downtown forum. And in a lengthy commentary prior to the Board of Selectmen's vote on a lease that would allow for relocation of the historic Kemper-Gunn House to the nearby Baldwin parking lot on Elm Street, where it will take up 22 spaces, developer Roger Leifer stated his case.

Leifer said that besides losing 22 spaces, others could be lost depending on what moves into the re-purposed building. He added that the Bedford Square project -- planned on the site of the Westport Weston Family Y -- will provide only 100 additional parking spaces, but would generate a need for between 400 and 550 new spaces.

Bedford Square, a proposal by developer David Waldman, includes four new buildings at 35 Church Lane, with 60,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and office space that will also include 26 one-and two-bedroom apartments, with two stories of underground parking.

"Parking is key," Leifer said, adding any developer knows that. He declined further comment when asked to elaborate last week.

Desloge agrees that a "next step" is to look at the overall parking issue to determine if more spaces are needed. That could include a parking deck at the Baldwin lot, he said.

"Ultimately, great solutions will take time to figure out," he said. "We have to find out what's the best balance."