Category Archives: Downtown

Mark Potts’ Westport: Then And Now

Staples Class of 1974 graduate Mark Potts has spent 20 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. He co-founded WashingtonPost.com, Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, and is a consultant with clients like the Los Angeles TimesVariety and Silicon Valley startups.

He’s lived far from Westport for many years — right now he’s in Lawrence, Kansas — but his heart remains here. Whenever he’s “home” he checks out Main Street, Compo, the neighborhoods (and Westport Pizzeria, “the best in the world”).

Recently, he inserted old photos of Westport into current scenes from Google Street View (or in one case, a New Yorker cover).

The result is a striking look at how Westport has — and has not — changed over the decades. For example, in 1970 a massive crowd — many of the them Staples students — gathered on the Post Road outside the steps of the Y as part of a nationwide “Moratorium” protest against the Vietnam War:

Mark Potts - 1

Long before those anti-war days, the building at the corner of the Post Road and Taylor Place was a drugstore  –first Colgan’s, then Thompson’s — with a real soda fountain. Today it’s Tiffany:

Mark Potts - 2

The view below is from the opposite direction, in the early 20th century. The Westport Hotel occupied the corner of the Post Road (State Street) and Main Street. Disturbed at the drinking and pool-playing going on there, Edward T. Bedford built a YMCA on the site to give teenage boys a proper place to play:

Mark Potts - 3

Before Main Street morphed into a chain mall, it was filled with mom-and-pop shops like Country Gal, and the locally owned Klein’s department store:

Mark Potts - 4

Before Parker Harding Plaza was built in the mid-1950s, the back sides of Main Street stores backed right up to the Saugatuck River. Some discharged their waste right into the water:

Mark Potts - 5

Much earlier than that, tall ships sailed up the Saugatuck to trade at Riverside Avenue wharves:

Mark Potts - 6

The 3-story National Hall building (also seen above) has stood since the mid-1800s. It’s been a bank, meeting place, site of the 1st Staples High School, a furniture store, a boutique hotel and a restaurant, among other uses:

Mark Potts - 8

For decades, the Clam Box served as the place to meet for good food (and, for local politicians, to make deals). Before becoming Bertucci’s, it was Tanglewoods:

Mark Potts - 9

In 1973, the New Yorker featured the Compo Beach pavilion on its cover. It hasn’t changed much, other than the addition of a nearby playground in the mid-1980s:

Mark Potts - 7

So, has Westport changed a lot over the years? You bet.

And has it remained the same: Of course.

Hit-And-Run Driver Strikes Downtown

Christ & Holy Trinity Church is a beautiful church, in the heart of downtown. They open their doors to all, in many important ways.

Which makes what happened yesterday morning even more deplorable than if it happened someplace else.

Someone tried to drive up the stairs from the parking lot to the Memorial Garden. He (or she) significantly damaged the wrought iron railings on either side of the stairway.

Church officials think the car may have gotten hung up on the step or railing. There are 2 spin marks on the ground.

Christ & Holy Trinity damage

They know it’s a Nissan since a piece of the front grill broke off. A bit of the plastic license plate frame says “Wilton.”

Keep your eye out for a Nissan — perhaps silver — with a damaged front end.

In the meantime, Christ & Holy Trinity will continue to serve all Westporters. But please: park in the lot.

Downtown Trees: The Sequel

This morning’s post warned that some beloved trees may soon disappear from downtown.

To everything there is a season, and all that. In a nearby location, 9 new trees will soon provide beauty and shade.

The Westport Tree Board has announced a “Memorial Tree Program” for Veterans Green. Trees may be purchased to honor — here’s the tie-in — veterans, for their service to our country.

New trees will join old on Veterans Green.

New trees will join old on Veterans Green.

A donation of $2,000 includes the cost and planting of the tree, 5 years of maintenance, and a 4 inch-by-8 inch commemorative plaque.

Nine spots have been chosen, on a first-come, first-served basis. The size and species of each tree will be determined by the tree warden.

Applications are available in the Town Clerk’s and Public Works department offices, up the hill from the green in Town Hall. They’re also at the Parks & Rec office at Longshore. For more information, call 203-341-1134, or email treewarden@westportct.gov.

Deadline for full payment is October 20. Just in time for Veteran’s Day.

Returning A Few Crumbs

The Y in downtown Westport is closed, and it won’t be coming back.

But Crumbs may be.

Business Insider reports that the luxury cupcake chain will begin reopening stores this month. They were shut in July, due to a cash crunch.

A Manhattan store will reopen Tuesday. Another 25 will follow, including the Westport location behind Tiffany.

That’s good news for cupcake lovers. Even better: With the Y gone, there’s plenty of parking nearby.

(Hat tip to Stacey Henske)

Crumbs

Downtown Trees: Enjoy Them Now

While Westport wonders about the fate of the cherry trees in front of the now-abandoned downtown Y — they’ll probably end up like George Washington’s — JP Vellotti is thinking about a different species.

These stand handsomely on the small rise at the corner of Church Lane and Elm Street:

Downtown trees

Though the nearby Kemper Gunn House will soon be moved to the Baldwin parking lot, these trees will most likely not go with them. They’ll make way for the Bedford Square retail/residential/office complex, whose construction begins soon.

JP wondered if — thanks to their location — they are elms.

They are not. He learned they are Norway Maples — a common street tree, he says, “but one that Columbia University’s forestry department calls an invasive species.”

Cherry trees, Norway maples, and whatever else is downtown: JP advises, “enjoy ‘em while we got ‘em.”

 

RIP, Y

The 90-year-old downtown Y is in its death throes this weekend.

This is the final day for the institution that since 1923 stood handsomely on the corner of the Post Road and Main Street. (And, less elegantly, on Church Lane since 1978.) It has withstood floods, hurricanes, Prohibition, the rise of post-war suburbia and the decline of mom-and-pop shops — plus much, much more.

Tomorrow, the Y is outta there. The new Mahackeno facility — bright, shiny, fresh, airy and modern — opens at 5:30 a.m.

We will miss plenty about the downtown Y. Like this:

YMCA in spring

And this:

YMCA original

And this:

YMCA lobby 1923There’s plenty we won’t miss, though. Like this:

blog - Y 1

And this:

blog - Y 2

And this:

blog - Y 3

A new day is dawning.

At Mahackeno — and downtown.

Save Westport Now: P&Z Denial Of Senior Housing Plan Was Correct

In response to recent “06880” posts — by 2 Planning & Zoning commissioners, and the Coalition for Westport — regarding the denial of senior housing on town owned property Save Westport Now adds its voice. Chairman Sidney Kramer says:

We would like provide clarity to the decision and offer high praise to all those who have, and will, continue to work diligently to address this complicated and challenging issue. In addition, we compliment the current P&Z Commissioners, who are duly elected representatives of both the Democrat and Republican parties, for their thoughtful deliberation of this matter.

We believe that the Commission’s near-unanimous decision to reject this text amendment was correct. It needed to be rejected—not because of political pressure or bias, but because the amendment itself was deeply and unacceptably flawed and would have created far more problems than it solved, all at the expense of Westport taxpayers.

Part of the Baron's South property, where a senior housing facility was proposed.

Part of the Baron’s South property, where a senior housing facility was proposed.

As the town moves toward an acceptable solution, we must keep in mind some of the problems with the denied amendment (see below), many of which have gotten lost in the heat of the discussion. These are things every Westport resident — and most especially our seniors — should know:

  1. The Amendment would have required developers to set aside ONLY 20% (or just 29 units) as “affordable”—whereas current state law requires that 30% be set aside and our P&Z has already determined that 60% is the appropriate number to justify utilizing town land for this purpose;
  2. If passed, the town would basically have been subsidizing housing for the well-to-do, since the income tests for the non-affordable units were very high;
  3. The amendment would have put the town further behind in terms of meeting the state minimum for affordable housing dictated by Connecticut State Statute 8-30G, since it would have increased the total number of units in town without a corresponding 30% increase of affordable units. That, in turn, would allow developers of other affordable housing projects to override existing zoning regulations anywhere in town, given that we would no longer have the benefits of a moratorium on the state-mandated minimum;
  4. The amendment would have allowed a private developer to acquire a valuable town asset (8+ acres of prime real estate with an estimated value of $10,000,000) for a mere $1,000,000 — less than the average cost of many residential building lots;
  5. The Amendment would have allowed for a 99-year lease that contained liberal assignment clauses that the town would not fully control;
  6. The additional amenities being offered by the developer were minimal (a therapy pool not the same as a full-sized town pool) and could not make up for the loss of this valuable asset or the increased problems this project would create in terms of the state mandate on affordable housing;
  7. The amendment would have exempted the entire project (as opposed to just the 29 affordable units) from the current 10% town-wide cap on multi-family dwellings. With 13 sites eligible for the same treatment, we could have easily ended up with significantly greater density, traffic and stresses on our town services (fire, police, emergency, and recreation); and
  8. Although the amendment purported to cover 13 sites, it was primarily targeted for Baron’s South (potentially making it illegal “spot zoning”), with insufficient thought given to its impact on the other eligible sites in town.

Finally, we note that portraying Westport as a place with no senior housing is inaccurate. One only needs to look at Whitney Glen, where the owners tried to get the town to lower the age requirement from 65 to 55 due to the fact that there are too many vacant units and not enough seniors applying.

The Whitney Glen condominiums behind Compo Shopping Center are age-restricted.

The Whitney Glen condominiums behind Compo Shopping Center are age-restricted.

We appreciate that this recent decision will delay things. But in the context of Westport’s more than 200-year history and with such valuable resources in play (for decades to come!), the 6 years spent on this matter is a drop in the bucket. We honor those who came before us, and those who will follow, by taking the long view and acting with great care in managing our town’s scarce and precious resources. Progress has already been made, and the investments of time and effort to date have not been for naught.  If we can solve the problems outlined above, we can find a solution that works for all of Westport.

David Lessing: Put The “P” Back In “Planning And Zoning”

David Lessing is a Planning & Zoning commissioner. He responds to chairman Chip Stephens’ recent comments on “06880,” regarding the P&Z’s vote against developing senior housing on the Baron’s South property:

Chip Stephens has attempted to defend his vote against text amendments that would have facilitated progress on developing senior housing on the Baron’s South property. While Westporters should appreciate his effort to help us make belated sense of the disappointing vote, unfortunately the defenses he offers are internally contradictory and fail to provide a road map for our other elected officials. In the future, the P&Z needs to fulfill its responsibility for “planning,” rather than — after an abbreviated deliberation — handing down “no” votes that sharply reverse progress made by the painstaking efforts of other elected officials from both parties over multiple years.

In his statement, Mr. Stephens cites as his reasons for voting against the text amendments: concerns about fairness regarding who would be eligible for the new senior units, and a desire to limit density of development and preserve open space. These are each valid concerns, but are mutually exclusive.

If Mr. Stephens opposes the text amendments because they would permit additional development and more density in Westport, then he should not also purport to be concerned about the quality and fairness of allocation of the senior housing that he would not allow in any case. Arguing about who gets housing you don’t support in the first place is a pointless exercise.

Debate over what to do with the Baron's South property has continued for years.

Debate over what to do with the Baron’s South property has continued for years.

I understand the rhetorical benefit of offering both rationales and not wanting to appear unsupportive of senior housing, but as elected officials we have a responsibility to the town to provide guidance that can actually be used in planning for the future. The P&Z vote and Mr. Stephens’ explanation of it leave it unclear whether any proposal for senior housing and recreational facilities on town-owned land would be approved, regardless of how much affordable housing is associated with it.

A different result could have been achieved if members of the P&Z participated earlier and more often in public consultation with other elected officials. Too frequently, our commission criticizes plans that are developed by others, rather than rolling up our sleeves and helping guide the development of plans that would either satisfy existing zoning regulations or present strong justifications for changing them. Rather than publishing statements defending our votes rejecting efforts as significant as Baron’s South, we should be embarrassed that we were forced to vote that way in the first place.

Certainly we had ample opportunity in the several months of public testimony and the more than 5-year saga leading to last week’s vote to contribute to the development of a proposal that would have satisfied our concerns. We cannot be viewed as setting ourselves above and apart from others working to keep Westport the wonderful community we all love. We need to form consensus through our public decision-making process that will give direction to others who rely on us to provide guidance on solutions that will work.

The P&Z must take a proactive role in downtown development, David Lessing says.

The P&Z must take a proactive role in downtown development, David Lessing says.

The need to improve how we operate will become even more critical in connection with the ongoing efforts of the Downtown Steering Committee, which has worked for months to gather input from a broad range of Westporters. The DSC hosted a successful and well-attended 2-day charrette that I attended last weekend. They have had effective leadership from a bipartisan group, including chair Melissa Kane and Westport operations director Dewey Loselle. As a community, we cannot afford to have this group devote significant effort on our behalf to improve our town, only to subject any eventual recommendations requiring P&Z approval to the same process we just experienced with Baron’s South.

To be clear, the P&Z cannot always give unified, clear, and actionable guidance for why it makes its decisions. However, by not even trying, we weaken our credibility and waste the time of the well-intentioned individuals and groups trying to improve Westport. It is our obligation to provide a positive road map for the development of our town. As a member of the commission and the sole vote in favor of the text amendments, I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners to meet that obligation in the future.

It’s Official: New Y Opens On October 6

The original proposal came around the turn of the century. The groundbreaking was 18 months ago. The ribbon-cutting was last month.

Now, finally — with unanimous approval from Westport’s Water Pollution Control Authority (aka the Board of Selectmen) — the Westport Family Y will get a Certificate of Occupancy.

At 5:30 a.m. on Monday, October 6, the new facility at Mahackeno will officially open.

The view of the new Y, from Mahackeno.

The view of the new Y, from Mahackeno.

Y officials originally thought they’d open around Labor Day. The delay involved approval of the private on-site waste-water disposal system.

So — less than 2 weeks from today — downtown will suddenly become less congested. Parking spots will open up on Church Lane and off Elm Street.

There’s plenty of room at the new Y, on Allen Raymond Lane (formerly Sunny Lane).

As for traffic on Wilton Road: We shall see.

About That Winslow Park Painting…

On many weekends over the past few years — probably while stuck at the Post Road/Compo Road traffic light — drivers have noticed a man and an easel in Winslow Park.

He’s set up on the grass. Facing banks on the other 3 corners, he’s been hard at work, painting.

Youngsters crowd around the unfinished painting.

Youngsters crowd around the unfinished painting.

Who is he?

Alert “06880” reader Russell Sherman reports that his name is Stanley Lewis. An accomplished artist, he’s finally finished his work.

It’s on display at the Betty Cunningham Gallery in New York, through October 25.

Stan Lewis Winslow Park painting

Lewis and his wife Karen live in Northampton, Massachusetts. But they spend a lot of time in Westport. Two of their 3 children — daughter Catherine and son Tim — have moved here.

Lewis loves Westport — and not just because he’s got 4 grandchildren in town, and the scenery is beautiful.

There are little things, like this: A year or so after he began painting, the town put up a new Winslow Park sign. It was right in the line of sight he was working on.

When Parks & Recreation director Stuart McCarthy heard of the problem, his crew moved the the sign.

Who says Westport is no longer an arts community?