Lou Gagliano’s Goal: Perfect “2020″ Vision

I met Lou Gagliano — chairman of the Downtown 2020 Committee — at the Parker Harding Starbucks.

Everything you need to know about Lou’s challenge — to help make downtown Westport “more vital, livable and pedestrian-friendly,” in part by recapturing the Saugatuck River and making it a center of everything that goes on on both its east and west banks — is captured in that paragraph above.

Starbucks epitomizes all that is wrong with the way we’ve allowed downtown to develop — and it has nothing to do with corporate vs. mom-and-pop.

The seats Lou and I sat in are tucked into the far corner, facing a dismal stretch of the Post Road. I stared at a store selling workout gear; Lou looked at Klaff’s.

This is what coffee drinkers could see from Starbucks — if only the seats faced the river, and the parking lot was not in the way.

Starbucks’ prime real estate should be the windows facing the river. That’s where the seating should be. Maybe the architects were bottom-of-the-class interns. Maybe they just didn’t realize the river was there, because in between the coffee shop and water sits a parking lot, plus a tiny plot of grass with one half-assed bench.

If Lou’s committee is to succeed, it will have to come overcome half a century’s worth of town attitudes. Ever since Parker Harding Plaza was built — as landfill in the 1950s — we’ve viewed the river as an impediment to development, not an asset to be cherished and valued.

The Saugatuck River cuts off stores and businesses on Post Road East from those on Post Road West, Riverside Avenue and Wilton Road. It’s forced us to create big parking lots on one side, and rue the lack of parking on the other. We haven’t given much thought to what the butt end of Main Street stores look like — the answer, I realized as I parked by Starbucks, is “really, really ugly” — because we haven’t given much thought to the river a few yards away.

The Downtown 2020 Committee — appointed by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, whose members include business executives, planners, architects and marketers — has a difficult task.

(“2020″ was chosen not only for its realistic target date, but because it stands for “excellent vision.”)

East is east, and west is west. In downtown Westport today, they seldom meet. (Photo/Wikipedia)

Working with stakeholders — Westporters, landlords, merchants, the library, Senior Center, Young Woman’s League, Westport Cinema Initiative and many others — it hopes to reposition vehicular and pedestrian traffic, while tying together retails, restaurants, housing and services, all while several important projects (the redevelopment of Church Lane and soon-to-be-former YMCA building, along with the construction of a movie theater, for example) move from theory to reality.

Downtown 2020 will address everything from the streetscape (with “sidewalks that are really unwalkable,” Lou says) to signage, garbage collection and public bathrooms.

Right now, only a ribbon of greenery — and concrete — separates Parker Harding Plaza from the river.

They’ll do it without soliciting taxpayer money — Lou favors the establishment of an economic development commission — and with the understanding that the Board of Finance, Planning and Zoning Commission and RTM all will have their say too.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Lou insists. He means that 2 ways: Westport has examined similar issues in the past, from previous town plans to innovative ideas suggested last spring by Coleytown Middle School 8th graders.

And it’s not like no one’s ever recaptured a river before. Both Providence, Rhode Island and San Antonio, Texas have revitalized their downtowns by taking advantage of a resource that was there, under their noses, all the time.

San Antonio, Texas has done a fantastic job recapturing its river.

The timetable is tight. Lou estimates there’s a short window — 12 to 15 months — when much of the consensus must be reached. If not, he says, some of the projects already planned (like Church Lane and the cinema) will go forward on their own, without coordination into a coherent downtown whole.

“We can’t do this retroactively, or change one little corner at a time,” Lou says. “We have to look at the town’s 2 major intersections — the river and the Post Road; integrate all 4 corners, and figure out how it all fits in with the surrounding areas.”

There is nothing off the table, Lou notes — except for taxpayer money. “We won’t spend any of that,” he promises.

It’s an exciting vision. Lou has assembled a dynamic, energetic and broad-based committee to mold it, direct it and move it forward.

Hopefully, one day a few years from now — even before 2020 — that “vision” will mean a view from Starbucks that focuses less on the Post Road, and more on an ever-changing river that brings all of downtown together.

(The Downtown 2020 Committee’s next meeting is next Tuesday [March 27, 8:30 a.m., Town Hall Room 309]. The public is invited to attend. For more information on the committee, email ljgags@aol.com).

Downtown Westport has a lot to offer. The Downtown 2020 Committee hopes to tie many disparate elements together.

35 responses to “Lou Gagliano’s Goal: Perfect “2020″ Vision

  1. John McCarthy

    Yes, we all love the river.
    Isn’t there a Downtown Plan Sub-Committee that was tasked with the same mission as this new committee? What happened? Did Gordon lose control of the Downtown Plan committee when he lost control of the P&Z in November?
    While not spending tax-payer money is a great sound-bite, how much control will the town lose by outsourcing its planning to a privately funded entity?
    And for my final rant, I was disappointed to see that Gordon didn’t explicitly appoint a Downtown-Area resident (like Dan) to this committee. (If a committee member does live within walking distance of Downtown, and I missed it, then i tone down this criticism.) Those of us that live within walking distance of downtown will be most impacted by the change in traffic patterns and other changes that are looking to be rubber-stamped by this committee. There should be someone tasked with making sure our voices are heard.

    • Ahh access to the river, like a movie theater is an excellent reason to build a parking garage downtown. Remember when Barron’s South was going to be workforce housing? The desire of downtown real estate owners – including the 1st Selectman – to increase density downtown has been relentless. This commission just seems like another attempt to game the system to achieve the outcomes they have been trying to achieve for years.

      In addition, the aversion to seeking public funding to realize their vision just seems like an aversion to public accountability. The residents of Westport have paid tens of millions of dollars to support investments in town infrastructure and will continue to do so as needs require. Why is downtown different? Perhaps, because as we all know – 7 property owners rule our world.

  2. Lucky Lou,
    You’re gonna need lots of luck.
    Few simple suggestions:
    Get a website/blog started if you want fresh opinions. Maybe Dan can help.
    He is THE MASTER.

    My guess is that 830 AM Tuesday will re-assemble the Brown Baggers. You need additional thoughtful input, like John McC & Dan W.
    Many Westporters are at work or on the train in the AM.

    Please widen any parking stripes to avoid “downtown dingtown.” especially with all the expanded SUVs. Make parking pleasant. It’s the first step.

    NO PARKING METERS! Announce that immediately, please. You know what they did to NYC. Free parking…after all, our real estate and automobile taxes should include downtown parking.
    Thank you.

  3. Dan, San Antonio’s Riverwalk is a manmade thing so they technically did not do a good job recapturing it, it’s as natural as Disney. A planned retail area from the start. The river ran under the town and they dig down and got to it, and widened it.

    • And Providence “recaptured” the river by getting rid of a huge parking area that covered most of it. Now they have a very successful “Waterfire” event a few times a year, with music, food and lots of stuff on the river.

      My point was that those two cities had rivers that were not being utilized fully. I think the situation is the same with the Saugatuck. It’s there, but we don’t take advantage of it as much as we could. I’m sorry if I didn’t explain that as clearly as I could have.

  4. Richard Lawrence Stein

    Much of Europe in my limited travels, and many places in the US of A have centered or exploited there waterfronts… Some have taken them back from blight and decay… Baltimore, Georgetown, and the two named by Dan… How and why Our lovely Westport is not planned or designed like this is hard to fathom. But just a word of warning the Mayor of Providence went to prison for corruption… So transparency needs to be first and foremost… As well as keeping the taxpayer out of the fray…..in all seriousness Lou and I mean this best of luck!!! I think that you have a formidable uphill battle, but vision and truly out of the box thinking will make our water front even more exciting.

    • Ah, Buddy Cianci — mayor of Providence. He had 2 separate administrations as mayor. The first one ended when he was forced to resign after pleading guilty to assaulting a contractor with a lit cigarette, an ashtray and a fireplace log.

      But Providence voters were forgiving, and 6 years later he was back in office. That’s when the city’s real renaissance took place. Under Mayor Cianci’s watch a new train station and several hotels were built. Providence grew as a technology center; Waterfire started drawing 100,000 visitors on summer nights.

      Mayor Cianci’s second resignation occurred when he was convicted of racketeering. He did manage to beat 26 other charges though, including conspiracy, extortion, witness tampering, and mail fraud. The good news: none of those charges involved the river!

      I spent 4 great years in Providence, and have remained a huge fan of the city ever since. One of my longtime hobbies is following Rhode Island politics — there’s nothing like it in anywhere else in the country. It makes Illinois and New Jersey look like high school student councils.

      • In defense of Buddy, the contactor was dating Buddy’s ex-wife. But Buddy did use RI State Troopers to kidnap the contractor.

        Also, the racketeering charge was due to Buddy’s pulling of construction permits of the University Club years after they had denied him a membership. He held the permits and tried to extort a free membership out of them. His meeting was wiretapped and resulted in my favorite Buddy quote, “The toe you stepped on yesterday may be connected to the ass you have to kiss today.”

        You have to love it.

        • Love Buddy’s “toe” quote. Gonna use it.

          “The gun changes hands” is another favorite.

  5. To see the future of downtown Westport…..just look at what has been done with the former “Needle Park”.

    Bye Bye Vegetation………..Hello Brick and Concrete.

  6. I think we need a committee to evaluate the work of the 2020 Committee. If anyone thinks that this grandiose effort will not end up swallowing tax dollars at some point, they should see a man about a bridge in Brooklyn.

    • Emma,
      You could be the chair person of your personal committee to evaluate the committee…but then we would know that you are really Diane Farrell, the Committee Queen of abdication.
      armMAN has uncovered the secret plot to attract aliens in cars to an underground garage by the Downtown Oligopoly Group (DOGs) headed by Gordo (GsDOGs). Remember the Bloomingdale’s garage fiasco? armMAN is on to something, as are you when it comes to using tax dollars at the end of the report. Ask him to join your committee.
      Go get ‘em, Emma!

  7. Richard Lawrence Stein

    The “Brown” in you comes out!!! And I am talking About Dan’s Former University!!! My wife went to school in Providence too, so I know a thing or two… Corrupt you betcha.. Great job and fun times, you betcha too… Emma as always we can count on your pessimism, cup half empty, some how we will screwed, and plain old negativity… Why not be part of the solution. Novel idea… Get involved so you can see what is being done.. And we can have you be Dan’s ears and eyes… And we can all rest easier

  8. Estelle T. Margolis

    Lou,
    I applaud the effort you are making. It could vastly improve the down town area. If we have to leave the parking can we cantilever over the river on both sides with benches and tables? Build an Elm Street parking garage with the movie integrated in it, might be one of the answers.

  9. Anyone thought of building a new YMCA on barges that could float on the Saugatuck. They could float back and forth between downtown and Mahackeno and keep all the complainers in town happy.

    • Cut a hole in the barge floor for an Olympic pool. With a glass bottom to fish watch! Westport Aquarium. Parking barges…60 minutes or we dump you in the river. Welcome :-)

      Hey Lou, you gotta make it 2 hour parking. Try walking the street, even 1/2 the street, checking out a few stores, maybe trying on something or chatting with a neighbor in under 60 minutes. How about a quick bite at Oscar’s or wine with lunch at Tavern on Main in under 60 minutes?
      Fuggettaboutit. Not possible.

  10. Check out the library. The only view of the river is from the room with the copy machine!

    • I’m not sure what you mean by that. There are 3 reading rooms with fantastic river views. (But only after the renovation. The “original” library — built in 1986 — did not take full advantage of the site.)

    • Jim,
      How dare you? These were the most prestigious expensive architects hired by our politicians and, of course, a committee of bobble heads. Right after we pulled a fast one on the deed restriction on the old library (insert nice try Ira-Gordo deja vu Linxweiler House) and sold it to:
      GUESS WHO? Yep, David Adam Waldman. Guy gets around…gotta give him credit. Alan Raymond supports the Y move (old debt repaid) and then gets a street named after him to boot. Rumor DAW is a heavy donor…not blood.

      • The new library was built on a dump; very appropriate.

      • Actually, the old Library was sold in 1986 by the Library Association Trustees to an entity formed by the late Alex Land and Drew Friedman. You can look it up.
        The Waldman family had nothing to do with the purchase of that property or the removal of the deed restriction (said removal was entirely above board, vetted by the Ct. Atty. General’s office and approved by the Superior Court—hardly a “fast one”).
        Later, perhaps 10 years later, the old library property was transferred to a Waldman entity—though it was probably led by David’s late father Michael, as David Waldman was probably a minor at that time.
        Sorry to burst your conspiracy balloon and your misinformed (and now unsupported) cheap shot against both Alan Raymond and Ira Bloom.

        • Bob,
          My recollection.
          The deal happened one day after the listing expired. Maybe it was Waldman, michael who orchestrated the sale. There were many silent partners on Main Street at the time and many “surprising” sales…like the date and TO WHOM of the library sale. Anybody who watched it go down knew it was an inside job from an inside player(s) to an inside player(s). They probably thought it was best for the town, BUT it wasn’t Kosher. IMHO.

          Raymonds support for the current Y location got him the Street. Who benefits? The buyer of the current Y.
          Ira worked on deed-busting on the Lynxwriler(sp?) house. No cheap shots
          intended. He does what GJ tells him. The title Town Attorney is a misnomer.
          Check out the DW-AR relationship. AR is a fine gentleman and a town historian. His support of MahakaNo was a bit of a surprise to many.

  11. Just a guess

    Turn Parker Harding into a park. No condos, mixed use nonsense, just – grass and trees. Maybe a path or two. A dining kiosk? Sure. Put a deck on the Baldwin lot. Meter it. Close off main street to traffic from Avery Pl to Post Road. Ok committee finished. Let’s have lunch.

  12. More ideas for the malling of downtown Westport.

  13. Just more “Let’s mall Westport” ideas.

  14. The Dude Abides

    I have spent many a night on the San Antonio river walk and Houston is doing the same thing on the bayous downtown. My suggestion is to make the area north of Post Road, a free car zone where folks can walk freely without any traffic. Turn Parking Harding Plaza, as “Just a Guess” suggests, into a park with some small vendors. Build a large mulitple tiered parking garage behind Brooks Brothers and allow access only via Imperial Avenue. Not much you can do about the Post Road traffic but it would free up one side of downtown. The cars need to be eliminated from the downtown experience with their horns, pollution and crazy-harried drivers. Good luck. 2020 is not that far away!!

  15. David Loffredo

    Good luck Lou, Westport could use more guys like you.

    The Y was smart, they’re leaving the over politicized pseudo corrupt mess and went back to the only patch of dirt they actually control, so leave them out of it.

    Downtown could learn from Saugatuck.

  16. Back in the 60′s, shortly after joining the WPD, I remember hearing that one of the major oil companies had offered to dredge and develop the river and all they wanted in return was the right to sell gas to the boaters who would be coming up to visit downtown Westport.