Designing A New Downtown

Put retail and residences on Parker Harding Plaza.

Build a parking deck on the Baldwin Lot behind Brooks Brothers.

Add alleyways to downtown Westport.

And that’s just the start.

Slowly, quietly — but very imaginatively and steadily — the Planning and Zoning Commission’s Downtown Plan Subcommittee has been hard at work.  Over the past 2 years they’ve begun hammering out a vision that — if implemented — would fundamentally and radically alter not only the look and feel of downtown, but the way Westporters live, work and play.

It could even change our senses of time and scale — with ripple effects all over town.

Downtown Westport does not make much use of the Saugatuck River that runs through it. The walkway off Parker Harding Plaza is seldom noticed, and little used.

The plan draws inspiration from something called “form-based code.”  The idea is revolutionary — and too complex for a blog post — but it boils down to this:  Most building codes are restrictive.  They tell developers (and residents, and everyone else) all the things they can’t do.  It addresses very specific areas — restaurants, parking, building heights — in neat, tidy and very legal language.

So developers (and residents, and everyone else) find all the loopholes they can, and do whatever they want anyway.

Form-based codes focus on relationships:  between buildings, streets and public spaces.  They emphasize mixed use, walkability, scope, proportionality, connectivity — all taken together, neighborhood by neighborhood.

And yes, downtown Westport is a neighborhood.  At least (the subcommittee thinks) it could — and should — be.

With the help of Robert Orr — an architect, town planner and form-based code advocate — the subcommittee envisions a downtown Westport filled with brownstone-scaled buildings, European-style walking areas, boutiques, galleries, toy stores, ice cream shops — a mixed-use area not unlike what will soon rise in Saugatuck.

But because this is downtown Westport — covering much more space, in an area already filled with parking and chain stores — the impact will be much greater.

And, in some ways, much more quiet and mellow.

We think of downtown Westport as charming and friendly. But is the streetscape really inviting? Is it pedestrian friendly? What really draws us there? (Photo by Dave Matlow)

“We’re talking about a scale with sidewalks, streets and setbacks that is anthropologically attractive to human beings,” says Jonathan Steinberg, subcommittee chair.

“Everything would be walkable.  It would promote and encourage the return of mom-and-pop stores.  It would get Westporters downtown.  And when they’re there, they would slow down.  And linger.”

Many of the ideas — including decking the Baldwin parking lot — are not new.  Some have been discussed since the 1950s, when Parker Harding lot was built on landfill behind Main Street stores.  (Within days, it was nicknamed “Harder Parking.”)

But none of the ideas ever came to fruition.  Now, with Orr providing advice, visualizations — and a solid record of form-based code success (both his and others) all over the country — the subcommittee is taking another whack.

“We can create a real Westport town center for everyone,” Steinberg says enthusiastically.  “Not million-dollar condos, but a little bit retro, a more New England feel.  We can reclaim Jesup Green, and use the river in a much more productive fashion.”

For many Westporters, Steinberg says, Westport has lost its relevance.  Families’ lives here center on schools, kids’ activities, Compo and Longshore.  Our 2nd focus is New York.

“Most people don’t even see a problem with downtown,” he says.  “They view it transactionally — a place of commercialism and commodification — rather than a place to use and embrace, with a sense of community.”

Steinberg understands the daunting obstacles.

There is the “myth” that the cost will be borne by taxpayers.  “We could sell Parker-Harding to developers — not to do with as they wish, but through form-based code,” he says.

“In fact, the new structures built there would add to the tax base.”

When was the last time anyone actually sat in the tiny park at the corner of Main Street and the Post Road?

The Planning and Zoning Commission “needs to get their heads around it,” Steinberg continues.  “People naturally have reservations.  They worry that developers won’t adhere to our vision.”

Selling the concept to Westporters will be difficult, he says — including the idea of metered parking.

“People here feel they’re entitled to free parking,” he says.  Metered parking — which could involve an EZ-Pass-style system, and/or one with variable rates depending on demand — is meant to turn spaces over, Steinberg says.

“Right now, employees parking near buildings.  That frustrates customers, and keeps people away from downtown.  We have to change Westport’s mindset.”

Funds raised through parking fees could help improve downtown — new trees, nice light poles, frequent cleaning — Steinberg says.

What’s the timeline?

“We want to do this right,” says Steinberg.  “We hope to share something substantial by October, but it may take longer.

“We don’t want to shoot our mouths off.  We’re a very deliberate committee.  That’s why it’s taken this long so far.”

The subcommittee’s next meeting is this Thursday (August 12, 8:30 a.m., Town Hall Room 309).  Orr will be there, answering questions.  The public is invited.

“It should be a provocative discussion,” Steinberg says.

That’s one statement every Westporter is sure to agree with.

(For more information, contact Jonathan Steinberg:

33 responses to “Designing A New Downtown

  1. He must be kidding, or very new to Westport. Once again a “vision” to be thrust upon us; how jejune.

  2. John McCarthy

    This is one of the most important posts you have made. Surprised only 1 comment so far. Everyone on vacation?

    • Everyone except you, me and Jeffxs. I should note that the subcommittee has NOT reached consensus on the feasibility — or desirability — of these plans. Discussions are ongoing.

      When the P&Z is brought into the mix (for the subcommittee is part of the Town Plan Implementation Committee chosen by the 1st selectman — it is not a P&Z sub-group) there will be even more divergence of opinion.

      Discussions begin (as noted in the story) this Thursday.

  3. I just returned last night from enjoying the vibrant harbor scene in Annapolis, Maryland. While there I lamented that Westport and many older New England coastal towns don’t optimize the valuable assets of river or shore tourism.

    As a former wharf rat (live-a-board in Channel Islands Harbor, CA) the experience of cocktails and dinner while watching the sunset over the water trumps views of parking lots, highways, high fences blocking the streetscape and industrial dumps that make up a majority of Coastal Connecticut.

  4. I love the photo caption of “When was the last time anyone actually sat in the tiny park at the corner of Main St…” Probably around the same time there was a tenant in the retail space that was once the Westport Public Library.

    One of the biggest problems of downtown Westport is that there are too many empty retail spaces, which says to me rents are too high. Contrast our downtown to SoNo. Charming shops, art galleries, better restaurants and lots of them, and a vibrant nightlife with (“gasp!”) live music. This can happen because rents are not sky high. Little gems like Chocopologie could never survive in downtown Westport. I think it is fair to ask who actually owns downtown- does anyone know? If landlords would charge rents that would enable mom and pop businesses to survive then this would take care of itself. Maybe that’s where the pressure needs to be applied.

    In no particular order, I would love to see:
    1.) Main Street permanently closed to traffic between Avery Pl and Post Road (think a mini version of Church St. in Burlington, Vt.- an amazing pedestrian mall where national chains and mom and pops coexist).
    2.) Metered parking- the town needs the money. Go ahead and put a deck on the Baldwin lot.
    3.) A live music venue- I think what used to be waterworks would be perfect. And by live music I mean original recording artists not cover bands. You can go to 21 Daniel Street in Milford and almost any night of the week hear new music from real touring bands (BTW Milford has a very cool downtown- I’d recommend the subcommittee make some field trips). This might be an antidote to the tide of geriatrification that seems to be overtaking Westport.

  5. John McCarthy

    Are you David Waldman or some other large downtown property owner that might benefit from your proposed points? I am not a fan of anonymous comments and when I see them I assume that an agenda is being pursued.

  6. John,
    My main point was that downtown rents are too high. How exactly does that benefit a downtown property owner? I’m just a local resident who would like to have more fun in downtown Westport. I’ve experienced other downtown areas that are fun and inviting and why shouldn’t we have one?

  7. Perhaps downtown Westport is the way it is because people want it that way. There is a revealed preference. To suggest conditions should be changed because they are not consistent with one person’s preferences is foolish. Those who would change Westport should first try and understand how its current condition came about. The existence of high rents is a not a cause but an effect, so further analysis is needed.

  8. I’m a West Coast guy, now living in East Asia, though I did live for a few years in Downeast Maine in East Machias, Washington County, where I renovated an 1870s Victorian farmhouse. I enjoy reading this blog about the doings in Westport.

    I just want to express how happy I am to see this sort of thinking taking hold and taking place, and I surely hope it’s successful. Readers who sympathize and appreciate this sort of planning may want to look at this website, inspired by the writer E.F. Schumaker, who wrote the paper Buddhist Economics in 1966, which seems to reflect many of the types of considerations presented here.

    I would only add one thing…. is anybody thinking about adding some streetcars? I realize they wouldn’t do a lot of good unless there were trains funneling in from outlying areas, but it would be a start….

    Leon Breaux

  9. Ghost Town Guru

    I don’t buy the revealed preference idea. History is replete with towns, companies, nations and empires that lost their relevance and slowly but surely ended up as mere shadows of their former selves.

    • At what assurance can you provide that pursuit of one misguided “vision” will not bring about the result you are trying to avoid? History is replete with failed “visions.”

  10. Great post, Dan. I would love to see some of these ideas implemented–or at least see sketches of what Robert Orr and the subcommittee are thinking. I don’t quite buy the notion of “revealed preference.”

    • You and a few others believe that a “vision” should be imposed on all of us. I have seen the result of such visionary thinking and it is often not pleasant for those who do not share the vision and are swept aside or plowed under. Once again, there is no cogent analysis of why downtown Westport is as it is. None. without such an analysis if would be extremeley foolish to try and implement a vision.

  11. As nostalgic as I may be for “mom and pop stores,” in the end, money talks, and I can’t believe I may be sort of agreeing with the disagreeable JeffSX, but we get what the market determines we get. If Westporters really demanded bakeries and hardware stores on Main Street, they would be there right now, just like they were in the ’50s.

    • This presumes there is in fact a competitive market downtown. If it is an oligopolistic market, which I suspect it is, then the demands of Westporters will be secondary to the financial motives of the property owners. It is the property owners’ preference that has been revealed, not the community’s.

      • The property owners, whoever they are, will want their real estate put to its highest value usage. Without customers in the stores, they will not realize that highest value. Thus, the owners of the real estate and the store owners have a vested economic interest in maximizing the number of customers and the amount of traffic through their stores. The “visionaries” have no such interest. They are spending OPM. A direct result of implementing the “vision” may be fewer people downtown and a less desirable situation than that which exists now. But then, the “visonaries” have no skin in the game.

  12. Ghost Town Guru

    Jeffxs: I provide no assurance. None at all. Just like you cannot provide assurance that the so-called free market will figure things out. I am an absolute proponent of free markets, I am also well aware of their limitations. Downtown Westport contains a large number of loss making falgship stores for “luxury” brands that make their real money online and in other channels. Landords are happy in the short term, but other businesses struggle to cover the current high rents.

    • Fine, if you can provide no assurance, then let’s not invest any OPM in your “vision.” Letting the market work provides me and everyone else with a choice, we can participate or we can opt out. The “vision” offers no such option. I am trying to figure out why rents are so high if no one is making money. I think that there is a market clearing price, and those who want it take it for whatever reason. Towns, companies, countries, and empires can fail as a result of a flawed “vision”. Why bet on just one “vision?”

  13. Larry Perlstein

    Downtown Westport has the feel of an old worn mall, ala the Stamford Town Center. Fairfield, Stamford, Darien, and even Norwalk have eclipsed Westport as the place to go dinner, music, art, etc. That said, renovations such as those require a willingness to attract people from other locales, which the town was all about when I lived in Westport in the 70’s … now I’m not so sure.

    On a more positive note. at my recent Staples reunion, a lot of us local baby boomers lamented about the lack of locally owned independent stores in town … maybe that will be our gift to the town — opening up some interesting places.

  14. Why not put a parking garage at the Jessup Green parking area and redesign the Baldwin parking area? They could put a parking garage across from the police department or they could place them both spots. Why doesn’t the town have a contest for ideas of how to solve the parking problems? They could use the talents of the town brainstorm to a solution to this problem. Get the community involved in it. There is a solution out there.



  16. I was previously on the Vestry at Christ and Holy Trinity and involed in this proposal via David Waldman several years ago- It’s all great but necessary I’m not sure.
    1, Parking meters will NOT pay for it , where is the money going to come from??
    2, I maintain my position of several years ago ( when there were not so many empty storefronts on main street) when have you ever not been able to find a parking space downtown?? the baldwin lot is rarely full. You may have walk a bit, but come on- maybe valet parking should be included in the plan.

  17. This was an interesting meeting, with some history of the form-based code movement. As I understand it, the goal is to align planning & zoning with the needs of the community and demonstrated research about safety/consumer preference/what have you. With clearer and yet more flexible rules, development dollars are attracted to the area, and the market is a little freer to come up with bright ideas on how to use the space.

    An idea for an 06880 post – I often hear people talk about the demise of Gristedes downtown, but less often about the useful retail that still exists. How about asking folks for their top 10 list of useful places in Westport? Or things you can get in downtown Westport for under $10? I get funny looks whenever I describe walking around to do my regular shopping, as if I’m admitting I visit Tiffany’s every week 🙂 There are 3 grocery stores plus 2 farmer’s markets within a 15 minute walk!

  18. Does anyone remember when the “leaders” of Westport told us that no young people would move to Westport because housing was too expensive? Based upon this “vision” they shut down schools, which were then reopened and expanded at a huge expense when the “vision” failed. I would ask exactly whose “needs” will be served by this new “vision”, and how do our esteemed “leaders” know this to be true. Will the town get to vote for or against the “vision”?

    • John McCarthy

      I can be as skeptical as anyone on these types of things. But I attended the meeting this morning and came away thinking that there are things we can do to promote an environment which would result in a better downtown. I applaud those on this committee who have been giving serious thought to this matter. Not sure who you are so don’t know if you were there today. If you were, what did you think? If not, why don’t you come to the next meeting to hear what is being discussed and to participate in the dialog.

  19. A “better downtown”? By whose standards. By standards held by those who have an economic interest in the “vision”? I have yet to hear any cogent analysis on the topic of why downtown is as it is. Moreover, there seems to be a presumption that “something” must be done. You are not skeptical enough. There are vested interests in this case as in every “vision” we have had foisted on us in the last 30+ years I have lived in Westport. Finally, the track record of our so-called “leaders” does not inspire confidence that any
    “vision” they push will be worth a damn.

  20. John McCarthy

    Yes, as I push on into middle age, I am learning the lesson that while there may be “vested interests” hiding under every rock and lurking behind every corner, that this is no reason for opposing every idea that is proposed. Not sure where this world or humanity would be if people didn’t try and shape the world to their advantage. The goal in politics, especially on the local level, must be to have issues publicly debated and shaped for the best possible outcome for the largest number of people. Worrying about a perfect solution or one in which no one group benefits is a guarantee for stagnation.

    • Whose “advantage”? When land use restrictions are changed, there are winners and losers. Those who shape the “vision” often do so without a proper concern for those who will be disadvantaged. I do not think that government is advancing the general welfare when it makes some better off in order to make others worse off. BTW You should take a look at the on line debate about the efficacy of form based codes. It seems that those who do the planning are most in favor of advancing the “vision”.

      • My post should have read “I do not think that government is advancing the general welfare when it makes some better of by making others worse off.”

  21. John McCarthy

    And Jeffxs, I have also not “heard a cogent analysis on the topic of why downtown is as it is.” Anyone care to try and make one here?

  22. An interesting article on the economics of parking, from today’s NY Times. — Dan Woog

    • The authors are a tad confused. They deplore the “susbsidy” for parking spaces, but then ignore totally other land use restrictions that artificially distort the market for space, especially in places like San Francisco. Additionally, the artcle ignore subsidies that arise from the government’s financing of such public works as highway construction, bridge building and repairs, and the bailout of automobile companies. The analysis is incomplete and biased.

  23. I repeat: put a small a, maybe 2 salle theatre (with offerings such as the Film Forum in NYC or foreign films) theatre in downtown Westport and the place would suddenly come alive……Why not try this before anything else and watch what happens….