Woog’s World: Infrastructure and housing issues demand our attention

In March, life around the world changed dramatically. The coronavirus careened across the globe. Schools, stores, restaurants and offices closed; toilet paper grew scarce; masks became ubiquitous.

It’s now late September. As Rod Stewart sang in “Maggie May,” “I really should be back at school.” Many students are — sort of. In Westport, a hybrid model has elementary school youngsters splitting half days, middle and high schoolers splitting days of the week — though perhaps 10 percent have chosen to stay home permanently, learning online every day.

It has taken some getting used to by everyone — students, teachers, administrators, parents, bus drivers, you name it — but it’s a lot better than those sad, chaotic days of spring, when everyone struggled to get to June by reading a map that did not really exist.

Yet in this science fiction-esque environment, the planet keeps spinning. The pandemic is just part of life. Westporters are adjusting to the new normal, and as fall — a new year, at least according to schools and Judaism — begins, the virus is not the only thing on our minds.

We’re still concerned with downtown. For a while this summer, it looked scarily dead. Planters replaced parking spaces; the idea was to give shoppers more room to move, but the sight was grim. Recently though, life returned to Main Street. Two weeks ago, a Fitness & Wellness Expo drew energetic folks. On Sept. 26, a Health & Beauty Day will pack the sidewalks.

More importantly, downtown boosters promise that many of the boarded-up storefronts that made Main Street look desolate for so long will soon be filled. An intriguing mix of new merchants moves into newly flood-proofed properties. Nearby Elm Street — closed to traffic, open to pedestrians — continues to thrive.

Downtown proponents have been heartened by an influx of new Westporters. Scores of families have relocated from New York. Frightened by the pandemic, seeking a smaller, more spread-out town in which to raise young kids, they like what see on Main Street and environs. They don’t know what it’s been, but they want to be part of its future. Their energy (and shopping dollars) bode well, it seems.

Some of those newcomers have moved into new apartments and condos that are sprouting up around town. Housing is one issue that Westport has long grappled with. It’s fallen off our radar a bit, as we focused this past year on sheltering in place, but it still looms large. Proposals for large developments on two important properties — Hiawatha Lane next to I-95 Exit 17 in Saugatuck, and Cross Street between Post Road West and Riverside Avenue — are still winding their way through the approval process.

They’re the biggest ones, but affordable housing is not going away. It’s on everyone’s radar across the state. Town officials are doing their part, making sure to identify potential properties, managing the process so as not to be blindsided by inappropriate proposals. Expect a renewed focus on this issue in the months ahead.

Also not going away — though the state Department of Transportation wishes it would — is the William F. Cribari Bridge. At least, the debate over its future is not ending soon. The 133-year-old swing span is, to many Westporters, a symbol of old New England. To others, it’s a dangerous relic that has far outlived its usefulness.

Should a new, modern, much more functional structure take its place? Should we simply renovate it slightly, bringing it up to code while keeping the inevitable increased traffic off the narrow streets of Saugatuck? Should we welcome state dollars for the project, or is this something we bite the bullet on, in order to maintain local control?

The Cribari Bridge is not the only piece of infrastructure demanding our attention. Our roads are crumbling. Our electric, phone and cable wires hang dangerously low, vulnerable to any decent-size breeze that blows by. Our river needs dredging.

Those are some of the issues percolating below the surface. For half a year, the coronavirus has absorbed most of our energy. It’s still important. But it’s not the only topic.

Westporters love to talk. As we gather this fall — masked, and at a safe distance, of course — these are some of the subjects we must discuss.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com