Woog's World / Talk of Main Street's future nothing new

The title is intriguing: “Let’s Talk About Downtown and the Future of Main Street.”

That’s the topic of a forum organized by the Coalition for Westport.

Set for 7 p.m. on Monday, May 13, at 24 Elm St. — in Bedford Square (appropriately enough), a few steps from Main Street — the panel includes Joseph McGee, Business Council of Fairfield County vice president for public policy and programs; David Kooris, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, and a representative of the downtown community.

But when you stop and think about it, haven’t we been talking about downtown (and the future of Main Street) for decades?

We talked about it in the 1950s, when Main Street included just about everything a Main Street should. Hardware stores, record shops, gas stations, restaurants, clothiers, Oscar’s Deli (with a real pickle barrel), an Ice Cream Parlor, homes and apartments — it was all there.

Just to the west though, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the sides of buildings. Pipes dumped sewage directly into the water. It was smelly, unsightly — and a waste of space. So a pair of civic leaders — Emerson Parker and Evan Harding — conceived a plan. They’d fill in the river behind those buildings. They’d create a nice big parking lot. That would draw many more shoppers downtown.

Cars and asphalt were part of the postwar American dream. The river — which until just a couple of decades earlier had been an engine of Westport commerce — was an afterthought. The benefits of a river running through downtown were far less important than the prospect of customers surging into nearby stores.

We talked about downtown and the future of Main Street in the 1970s. The streetscape was changing. A spectacular winter afternoon fire in a hardware store directly opposite Brooks Corner (which had replaced a private home a few years earlier) created an opportunity for a very different four-story building — definitely not a hardware store — to take its place.

Klein’s Department Store — previously a small shop selling records, books and cameras — added another floor. Over on Gorham Island, a much-admired Victorian house was demolished. In its place rose an enormous, sprawling green-glass sided office complex. Some Westporters mourned — and warned about — the changes on Main Street. Others welcomed them. Politicians, planners and developers plowed ahead.

We talked about downtown and the future of Main Street in the 1990s. The Remarkable Book Shop — the iconic mom-and-pop in the cute pink building (which, it should be noted, had once been a private home) on the corner of Parker Harding Plaza — closed, to much teeth gnashing.

So did the Record Hunter next door. Also, the comfortable Atticus Bookstore and Café across the street. Dorain’s Drug Store decamped to Playhouse Square. Other locally owned businesses gave way to chains. Women’s clothing stores proliferated. About the only constant, it seemed, was Oscar’s Deli (though without the pickle barrel, and now located a few doors north of the original, in bigger digs).

Oh, and Westport Pizzeria, already 30 years old.

We talked about downtown and the future of Main Street in the 2000s. The Westport Weston Family Y had been trying to move out of its partly handsome (1923 Bedford building), partly hideous (1978 Weeks Pavilion), cramped yet centrally located home for a while.

A proposed site on Baron’s South was rejected by town officials. The Y decided to build on the Camp Mahackeno land it already owned. Architects’ plans were alluring. Many Westporters approved the idea. Many others were aghast at the idea that such a downtown anchor would leave.

After vigorous debate — and lawsuits — the Y got its way. It moved a couple of miles away. In its place rose Bedford Square, a retail, restaurant and residential complex that looks great, has redefined Church Lane, and is still finding its way. Its impact has not yet been fully felt; another building that resulted from a land swap is still rising in the Baldwin parking lot, behind Brooks Corner. (I would say “behind Williams Sonoma.” But that national chain moved a few yards away last year, into — of course — Bedford Square).

So the Coalition for Westport’s May 13 “Let’s Talk about Downtown and the Future of Main Street” forum is important. But it’s not new.

We’ve been talking about these issues since at least the Truman administration (and probably much earlier). The parameters of the discussion have changed — where once we debated filling in the river for a parking lot, now we’re thinking about a pedestrian bridge over it) — but the main topic remains the same.

What should downtown look like? What’s our vision of Main Street? Do we want incremental or drastic change?

Bring your ideas to the May 13 event. And for the one we’re sure to have on the same topic in 2043.

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.