Woog’s World: Westport’s changing real estate climate

In a town where zoning battles are a blood sport, this was a rarity. The Residence at Westport — an assisted living community offering independent, assisted and memory care options — was planned, built and opened without a peep.

Set back from the Post Road opposite Greens Farms Elementary School, it’s bright, warm and welcoming. Residents enjoy anytime dining (including a bistro and pub), entertainment, a fitness center, concierge service, even parking for electric vehicles.

What’s not to like? Nothing. Still, it took nearly half a century to build.

In 1973, the Planning and Zoning Commission passed a regulation allowing a senior living facility in town. It would have enabled older Westporters to stay close to friends, in the community they loved, after their children grew up and they wanted to downsize.

The Representative Town Meeting turned it down.

“We don’t need those old folks,” one member said. Julie Belaga, who chaired the P&Z back then, and championed the project, never forgot those words. Today she’s 90 — and a happy resident of The Residence.

Today it’s Westport’s only assisted living community. But it won’t be for long.

Across town on Post Road West, plans are proceeding for a second facility. The project is propelled by Maplewood, a Westport company that runs 15 senior living communities in five states. This one is across from Kings Highway Elementary School. For decades, it was the site of automobile dealerships (current tenant Carvana sells used cars online).

Maplewood will clean contaminated soil. They’ll relocate two historic houses. Then they’ll build 49 units for assisted living and more for memory and full care. Two assisted living units will be designated as affordable.

It’s another winner for Westport. Residents may not even notice the new projects — after all, there’s little that generates less traffic than an assisted living community. Yet they are emblematic of a change in Westport’s housing patterns.

It may not be as dramatic as the 1940s and ‘50s, when post-war families flooded into town, demanding new homes that altered the look and feel of what had always been a town of old homes and quiet main streets.

But assisted living communities are not the only housing departure from the colonials, Cape Cods, split levels — and, more recently, mega-mansions replacing older stock — that defines “Westport” in our mind’s eyes, and to the world at large.

A few yards from The Residence, at 1177 Post Road East, a four-story, 94-unit apartment complex was completed in 2018. Despite dire predictions of dramatic increases in traffic, the changing character of our town (one- and two-bedroom units don’t attract families, the backbone of suburban life for decades) and increased demands on services, 1177 has been another barely noticed addition to our community. It is, though, a nice addition to the grand list.

Around the Post Road East corner, several apartments rose behind a new retail complex at the foot of Long Lots Road. The project faced similar traffic and density hurdles before final approval. Now it’s there and the negative impact is similarly nil.

Apartments are now an important element of Westport housing. In Saugatuck, 20 units were snapped up as soon as they became available. Buyers were singles and childless couples who loved living in a walkable, restaurant-dense neighborhood and being able to walk to the train station. Sure, this was when people actually took the train to work, but the pandemic has not dimmed Saugatuck’s allure.

One of the most controversial development projects in years was Daybreak Commons. When five stand-alone and four duplex townhouses were proposed as a 55-and-over community, opposition was fierce. Though the property — by the notorious multi-road intersection near Merritt Parkway Exit 42 — was occupied for years by a nursery, some Westporters feared an explosion of new traffic. Others called the design “too dense.”

The homes were built. Owners moved in. Some have lived here for years; now empty nesters, they wanted to downsize. Several Daybreak residents are spending the winter in Florida. None of the opponents’ fears have come to pass.

Changes in Westport’s housing stock and patterns do not lie ahead. They’re already here. And they’re not limited to the senior, single residents and childless couples noted above. When COVID-19 propelled young families out of Manhattan and Brooklyn, they wanted Westport’s amenities: beaches, beauty and schools.

But many also wanted to live as close to downtown as possible. Suddenly, those homes were in demand. The trend will accelerate, listing agents say.

No one knows what Westport will look like 10 years from now. Chances are though, we’ll have more than just two senior living facilities. We’ll have more apartments. And our town will be even more attractive — and livable — than ever.

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.