Woog’s World: ‘Character’ will define debate over Saugatuck bridge
There are few guarantees in life. But mark my words: Over the next few months, you’ll hear a lot about the “character” of Saugatuck.
On Nov. 23, a public meeting (Town Hall auditorium, 7:30 p.m.) will offer the first chance for Westporters to weigh in on possible changes to the Bridge Street bridge.
Formally — and less repetitiously — known as the William F. Cribari Bridge (honoring the legendary cop who theatrically directed traffic at its western end), the 131-year-old structure is on a state Department of Transportation list for rehabilitation. That word can mean anything.
In terms of safety, the bridge is rated “fair.” It’s not in danger of imminent collapse, like the Mianus River bridge in the 1980s. That’s because a few years after that Interstate 95 Greenwich disaster, the Bridge Street bridge was renovated. It was already a century old.
During the project, a temporary bridge was built. When the renovation was completed the old bridge had been shored up, and a new turning lane added (going right onto Riverside Avenue).
The bridge is historic. A swing bridge — not a drawbridge — it’s the only one of its kind in Connecticut. It hearkens back to Westport’s maritime past, while reminding us (whenever it’s open) that the Saugatuck River remains an important waterway.
It’s not particularly handsome, in the way that, say, a covered bridge would be. But it’s lasted since the Grover Cleveland days. It’s an important, homey part of the Saugatuck community. (It’s also lured prospective homebuyers here. Located just a few hundred yards off bustling I-95 Exit 17, it promises a slow, homey way of life.) And when the holiday bulbs are turned on — just wait a couple of weeks! — it’s a wonderful wintertime beacon.
But the bridge has as many detractors as admirers. It’s narrow. The approaches on both sides create bottlenecks. It may well have outlived its usefulness. This is, after all, 2015, not 1885.
And yet … and yet. What happens if we replace our somewhat beloved Cribari Bridge with a newer, wider, more efficient bridge?
Sure, it will speed traffic from Riverside Avenue across the river, toward Greens Farms Road (and vice versa). But once over the bridge, that traffic won’t magically improve. There is just no place to put it — and those roads can’t be widened.
In fact, building a new bridge may actually increase traffic. Right now, smart drivers sitting in a worse-than-usual jam on I-95 know they won’t make any headway taking the back (Greens Farms/Bridge Street/Saugatuck) route — largely because of the bottleneck. A wider bridge — even without widening adjacent roads — might tempt some motorists.
Meanwhile, traffic throughout Saugatuck has increased dramatically since the previous bridge rehabilitation project. Saugatuck Center has brought restaurants, shops (including very popular Saugatuck Sweets) and 20 residential housing units to a neighborhood hemmed in geographically by a river, train tracks and interstate highway. Saugatuck is a far more vibrant place than it was three decades ago, but that popularity comes with a price. That price is congestion.
In a bid to keep the state Department of Transportation’s hands off plans that call for a big new bridge, a group of prominent Westporters has petitioned the state to designate the structure — along with adjacent Bridge Street, and Compo Road South from that intersection to the Post Road — a Scenic Highway.
Such a designation would not prohibit safety improvements to the bridge. It would, however, protect its character — and that of the nearby roadways, lined with 18th- and 19th-century homes, and still retaining their small-town charm.
Which brings us back to the “character” of Saugatuck.
The neighborhood was actually Westport’s first “downtown.” It’s where our original businesses opened. It’s where much of our shipping (and later rail) commerce took place. It’s where our “immigrants” (Irish in the 1840s and ’50s, then Italians a few decades later) settled.
Saugatuck is where some of Westport’s most important families lived, worked and thrived. There are too many to list here, but the neighborhood gave the entire town doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, builders, merchants, tradesmen and much more. Without Saugatuck, our town would be a very bland place indeed.
In the 1950s, the construction of what was then called the Connecticut Turnpike ripped the heart out of Saugatuck. Homes were razed (or, if lucky, relocated). Extended families were broken up.
It took years for the neighborhood to come back. Still, six decades later, the physical scar of that destruction — the I-95 bridge — looms hideously over Saugatuck.
Now there’s talk about rebuilding another Saugatuck River bridge. Thankfully, it will never be as big and ugly as its interstate counterpart.
But we should do everything we can to make sure that whatever happens does not, once again, change the special “character” of Saugatuck.