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.
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’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.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org)