Downtown Activism

It sounds like an oxymoron:  “Downtown Activist.”

For years, property owners sat idly by as Main Street morphed into Mall Street, local shoppers fled to more friendly and/or funky places like Fairfield, and the movie/bar/entertainment scene ossified.

Chain stores were happy to be here.  Rents rose.  There was not a lot of activity — but no reason for landlords to take an active role in anything downtown-related.

Drew Friedman is trying to change all that.

A major downtown property owner himself, he’s organized a group.  Its mission:

To formulate, propose and help implement an action plan to improve Downtown Westport as a vital community center for culture, art, entertainment, government, business, social activity, riverfront enjoyment and ambience.

Its name:  Downtown Activist.

Downtown Westport hums with activity, in this cover photo from Downtown Activist magazine.

The group has a website.  It’s got a glossy, full-color, 24-page magazine.

What it doesn’t have is a lot of activity.

The idea of the group — reinforced through the magazine — is to

  • Solicit ideas (via questionnaires,  and input from “downtown stake holders, interested parties, professionals and Activist Group members”)
  • Organize members into committees to “explore and evaluate the proposals recommended for downtown improvements”
  • “Translate committee recommendations into renderings, videos, interviews and other presentations to facilitate communicating the suggestions”
  • And stuff like that.

The magazine — it says $1 on the cover, but they’re really free, at Town Hall, Oscar’s, the alley leading to Bobby Q’s, the library and train station — is packed with information.

There’s a story on the history of parking in downtown Westport that includes a fascinating, little-known and very esoteric discussion of the Baldwin Lot (behind Williams Sonoma).

There’s a piece on beautification.

And there are photos of possible sites for more parking.  (Parking is a constant theme in the Downtown Activist magazine).  Suggested sites include the police station lot, Jesup Green (yes, the green itself), and the Baldwin lot (which seems pretty full already).

There are also 4 questionnaires.  They cover downtown in general; parks, park amenities and apartments; walkways and amenities, and (ta-da!) parking.

Drew was hoping for a lot of feedback.  So far, he’s disappointed.

“Most people don’t seem to have much interest,” he sighs.  “That’s been my experience over the last 40 years, trying to get people interested in zoning matters.”

One big name has sent in his $25 membership fee, and said he looks forward to participating.

Planning and Zoning Commission chairman Ron Corwin told Drew he’s eager to hear the questionnaire results.

Otherwise, the silence is deafening.

Drew keeps plugging along.  Recently, he sent a 2-page information sheet to every downtown property owner.  (Mailing 150 or so magazines was too expensive, Drew says.)

He got a few responses — though not as much as he hoped.

“I don’t know,” Drew says.  “They’re the largest stakeholders in downtown.”

They own property.  They make their money there.

But unlike Drew Friedman, they’re sure not downtown activists.

44 responses to “Downtown Activism

  1. If landlords like Drew actually cared about downtown before the shops were empty then perhaps his survey wouldn’t be necessary! The little shops couldn’t survive due to the greed of the landlords. And by the way, I just looked at the survey and it’s ALL about parking! Who cares if there is more or less parking….there is nothing downtown to park for. People will walk if there are worthwhile shops and activities. Make the rents accessible to small interesting shops and people will have a reason to shop and stay. Why worry about parking when we can use the internet to shop the GAP, JCREW etc????

  2. They want the town to build them a parking garage. Nothing like a good survey to demonstrate “grassroots” support. It worked for the Barron’s South boondoggle.

    I can’t wait for the P&Z to claim the only way to beat Fairfield is to build a parking garage, put in meters and make Westport residents pay to park on their own damned streets.

    • They are doing that. Well known that Corwin wants to change the zoning downtown before the November election with no real input from the public. I understand that a specialist in building garages has been hired by P&Z ( as a consultant. And they holding meetings now (a Friday during the day in August!) to be ready to make the final decision to pass the Enabling Legislation…..Not quite the open process one would liek to see.

  3. Gimme a break

    The DMA [Downtown Merchants Association], and Drew, and David are interested in getting more crowds downtown to shop. More crowds = more cars = more parking. They also want TRIPLE AAA tenants who can afford the higher rents that increase the value of their properties. AAA tenants are NOT Mom & Pop stores that offer unique and interesting wares… the big guys offer mass appeal stuff that, as pointed out, you can buy on the web, or Stamford, or Trumbull.

    The signs “WELCOME TO WESTPORT” on the light poles on Main Street are a dead giveaway… DUH. The merchants figure they must attract “out of towners” to increase store revenues and then rents. That’s why they want us taxpayers to build them a huge parking structure for muggers and car thieves.

    Improve downtown? Lower your rents, get the Mom & Pop’s back. That’s the solution for an improved downtown. FAT CHANCE.

  4. The Dude Abides

    Well, Drew, the only reason I go downtown is the YMCA and possibly the library. One is going and the library is too damn noisy for me. Barnes and Noble is quieter than that place with more selection. I also bike to downtown so parking garages (ug!) are not a concern. I guess you could pretty well flatten the entire place and put a few benches out to gauze at the river. That would be nice. Need anything else?

  5. I agree with the Dude. Downtown Westport has been dead to me for years so I do not care what the landlords want to do going forward (except asking taxpayers for a handout for parking). They made their decisions and I have made mine; eating and shopping in Norwalk and Fairfield. That is how the free markets work.

    BTW, the landlords will no doubt pull out the old bromide on how a parking lot will help MY property value so I should be happy to pay to help them make more money. Nothing better than socialists who wrap themselves in capitalist clothes when convenient.

  6. The nature of downtown Westport reflects the preferences of the market; for better or for worse. Mom and Pop are gone because they were not viable commercial enterprises. Trying impose one vision when contemplating changes is not likely to generate sustainable outcomes.

  7. Arthur Champlin

    Downtown is a true reflection of Corporate America taking over this country. Certainly Mom and Pop can not compete with the purchasing power of a corporate global conglomerate and we peons think little of buying local when it comes to price or what is fashionable. We have become pawns in a very costly game that has gone all the way up to the government that rules us.

  8. The real downtown activists – with the preservation and enhancement of the charm and character of downtown (without the cloud of other financial interests in the matter) can be found in the Save Westport Now organization.

    • “I don’t know,” Drew says. “They’re the largest stakeholders in downtown.”

      Now, which party is going to ignore what these guys want?. We know the Westport Democrats – who back their P&Z team 100% – are fully on board. And, I somehow doubt the Westport GOP is going to resist the congenital desire of all republicans to always support the “largest stakeholders” in every town. So, are the SWN candidates independents, or just republicans too embarrassed to be republicans (understandable)? Inquiring minds want to know.

      • I would say the Republican members of the P&Z (Walsh and Kraweic) have stood for intelligent and sensitive planning of the sort most Westport residents (and they are the true “stakeholders” in our downtown) want to see in the downtwon area – in the face of the Corwin-led majority’s push for something else. I would also point out that the Republican slate for the P&Z in the upcoming election (which, full disclosure, includes me) stands for downtown uses and zoning that remains sensitive to the character, charm and broader use by residents concerns.

        • Whay exactly does that mean? Be specific.

          • He is a politician. Specificity is not in his kool aid. I, for one, would like to see a more pedestrian friendly downtown. Not much you can do about the Post Road but Main Street certainly could be blocked off for traffic. Street vendors, people milling around, kids running in the streets, some ole dude playing the saxophone, belly dancing. It is car intensive now. And nowhere downtown takes advantage of the view of the water. Radical idea would be to dig up Harding Plaza and rebuild stores right on the water. Nice. Change. Please?

            • Jack Whittle

              Actually, being a politiicain is not in my Kool Aid, and I have no future political agenda beyond the P&Z; I didn’t even seek out the nomination, it was suggested to me because of my views (I suppose). It’s hard to be specific on the entire range of downtown issues, but I happen to believe that we have lost some of what drew us (Westport reisdents, from 8 to 80) to downtown in the past. And drew us from morning through evening.

              I’ll be specific on the topic of movie theaters and building heights. Yes I absolutely see a theater as a critical draw of local residents, from a wide range of ages, to downtown into the evening. But, anyone who claims we need to increase permissable building heights to six stories in order to permit a theater is simply using the agreed good concept (of a theater) to sneak in a big change in the zone and one that will negatively impact the character of downtown, permanently. And it is simply not necessary to accomplish the agreed good idea of a theater. Instead, it is due to pandering to special interests.

  9. The Dude Abides

    So that is all we get? A low theatre? Not too specific.

    • Movie theaters? Been there, done that. The market rejected them. Why “change” downtown to accommodate a failed concept?

  10. Dude – I understand you present yourself as one who has lived here for quite some time – given that, I ask you: was the ceiling low in Fine Arts 1, 2, 3 or 4 before Gordon showed them the door?? They want 65+ feet because they are stacking the theaters, one on top of the other – necessary??

    Happy to respond to and consider your thoughts. Let me ask – what was it that used to draw you downtown, which is no longer there?

  11. The Dude Abides

    I went to the old theatre. Never the Fine Arts 1,2,3,4 so don’t know. But I do go to Trumbull every Wednesday in the winter months to see movies. Once you go stadium seating, you can not go back. Whether that requires height, I don’t know but it does require a lot of space that downtown does not have unless you put it next to the Ladies Club on Imperial? The comments above by CAS are similar to mine. Get rid of the cars and conjestion. Make everything north of the Post Road, a car free zone. Ferry folks in by trolley or golf cart if need be. Enhance the entire area by using the water as a backdrop e.g River Walk in San Antonio. Your efforts are not unappreciated but this is Westport. We never agree on anything?

  12. Jack Whittle

    True, we will never agree (completely) on any one topic, but often a solid concensus will emerge. Like you, I happen to think we have a sorry utilization of our great river resource in our town, “downtown” especially so. That’s why I applaud what Gault did in Saugatuck, by transforming an industrial riverfront use to an attractive community use with direct pedestrian access and retail (even retail tied to river activities) that works with the river setting. Unfortunately we have eneded up with a situation in downtown where we have parking lots occupying the prime space along the river (at both Parker-Harding and Jesup Green) which is decidedly less-than ideal – that was a serious mistake in the PLANNING side of the planning and zoning function. This was a mistake back when the Jesup Green lot was redeveloped with the new library, an opportunity missed (the fact that the PH lot was created from fill after the stores were there is a bit more forgivable.)

    As for a pedestrian mall created by shutting down a portion of Main Street to autos, I spent some years living in Boulder Colorado where they did that with Pearl Street to great effect, so I have witnessed how that can work well. Great ideas.

  13. What is missing in the whole debate at P&Z is an articulation of a real vision for downtown Westport. If the goal is to significantly increase the built square footage downtown, and more parking spots are needed, then let’s hear someone say that. And debate that openly. And then use that as justification for building a parking garage in the Baldwin lot with the required increase in parking spots. Unfortunately, the debate has been too simplistic: We want a movie theater and remove parking from along the river therefore we need to build a parking garage in the Baldwin lot. How big? Will there be a net increase in parking spots downtown? What guarantees will there be that PH space will actually be removed? Is a parking garage a Trojan Horse for massive overdelopment for downtown. Mr. Corwin, before you pass a text amendment allowing for a parking garage, I believe you owe answers to these questions to all Westport residents and property owners. The piecemeal way that downtown “Re-Development” is proceeding is quite dangerous.

    • “vision” not again. Do you mean a “vision” similar to the one that brought us the $10,000,000 dog toilet?

      • Actually, no, although nice attempt at re-direction. I just want someone on P&Z to answer whether they want to allow more built square footage downtown. And if so, how much. And then make sure its actions are consistent with the answer. Property owners and the DMA are largely motivated by having as much rentable square footage on their property as possible. Good for them. But the P&Z can’t simply use what individual property owners to guide our town regulations. Which I think is what is happening here.

        • John, there is no profit in an open and honest debate. Obfuscation pays. This is a feature not a bug of our discourse in this town and beyond.

          Also, if I recall from the Y situation, one of the P&Z members had to recuse himself from expressing a negative opinion of the project prior to getting elected. He recused himself for a known bias that was in part a basis for his candidacy. Evidently, zoning in Westport is not a process that enables electoral transparency

          How many times will candidate Whittle have to recuse himself for his statements on this blog this weekend if he were to be elected?

          • The recusal you refer to was premised on the commisioner having signed a petition relative to the Y going to Mahackeno (which I equate to nothing more than having an opinion on a matter, but was suggested to demonstrate an alignment with a petitioning group) and given the likely litigation recusal was urged. As for a candidate having expressed his thoughts on the wisest course of action in an area of great concern, I don’t see that as causing recusal from such items if they come before me later on. I am for wise comprehensive planning, and against bending (or rewriting) the rules for special interests. If you don’t know what someone stands for how can you be expected to vote for him and his fellows?

  14. I’d say John’s point above, regarding coordination of a real comprehensive plan for downtown, is great, and what I was also getting at with my movie theater-building height example. Re-jiggering the requirements in the downtown zone under the guise of “we need a theater” is a sorry approach to a PLAN for downtown revitalization, and one that will take us backwards in terms of character.

    The parking issue – and I would certainly include the parking garage and automobile congestion topics there – is one that must be taken up and cosidered comprehensively as well – not just “we need even more parking downtown, so we must have a double (triple?) deck parking garage”, but considered in tandem with other items such as redployment of the Parker-Harding riverfront space, as well as traffic concerns.

    As for anonymous comments here, I have a rule (sometimes broken) against responding to such on these town forums, I’d suggest the only reason someone would not identify themselves in such a civic discourse is likely due to the unproductive motivations of the poster.

  15. So it’s still all about the Y. I thought so

  16. Here’s how the “debate” is shaping up:
    Westport Democrats:
    – Pro nursing home on Barron’s South
    – Pro multi-story parking garage downtown
    – Pro increasing building height downtown (!?! – learned about this today)

    Westport Republicans:
    – for a comprehensive solution

    If I could buy air rights futures for downtown Westport right now, I’m pretty sure I would make a killing.

    • ‘A comprehensive solution’? Buzz words! Tell me what you propose so we can compare it to what — according to your claim — the majority of the P&Z (including Republicans on some issues) want. Get specific. No posturing, please.

  17. Sounds like a lot of us have figured it out; the landlords downtown killed the mom and pops ie eddie bauer, Tiffany , or the restaurant Ship who has the bigger checkbook? GREED!!! As a property and business owner in Westport, I also pose the question; is main street the only commercial district in town ? Tried of hearing big shot main street real estate fat cats complaining that no one goes downtown hey boys you did it to yourselves! I say we all just go to Saugatuck it’s the new downtown. Best thing about Saugakuck is Matthew Mandel cares about it, where’s Ron Corwin????

    • The new Saugatuck exists because the current (read, Democratic) P&Z provided the leadership and votes to approve the necessary regulation changes and site plans. Please, give credit where it’s due and not to those who simply exploit improvements for their own political gain.

      • Jack Whittle

        Cryptic – that’s the sort of post that makes me wonder who you are (and and what your motivations might be – please favor us with your identity). The current Saugatuck development activities were made possible by the GBD/s zone change, and that was in no way attributable to the current, nor Democratic, leadership of the P&Z – the effort on that was initiated in 2005, for one thing – well before the “current (read Democratic) P&Z” was even close to being in office.

        So yes, let’s give [accurate, rather than false] credit where credit is due.

        • Hey Saugatuck rocks because of hardworking business owners. We don’t go hat in hand to the town to bail us out when times are tuff… I guess we all inherited some of that old saugatuck work ethic. Not a political discussion last time I checked Matthew Mandell Is a democrat I’m a republican and Jack I think you have a great vision if your running I would love to support you.

      • If Cryptic is a democratic member of the P&Z (or a candidate), he/she should go on the record with their identity and their views. Mr. Whittle has offered his views on the record – which despite lacking any substance is very much appreciated in an online forum.

  18. If Mr. Whittle is correct — and I have no reason to presume that he isn’t — then in 2005, the P&Z was then —as it is now — under the leadership of Democrats. I hope his campaign will be more accurate than his comments.

    • Jack Whittle

      Cryptic – You said “current (read, Democratic) P&Z provided the leadership” – sorry to call you out on facts, but the CURRENT (democrat-ticket) P&Z (that’s Corwin et al.) was elected in Nov. 2006. It is in my nature to be accurate, and chose my words carefully.

      • It’s DemocratIC, not democrat (look at the wording in the archived election results) and it was 2005, not 2006… so much for both fairness and accuracy


  19. Nothing liking a refreshing discussion of the issues.

  20. This tiresome. Here is a link to the Westport DemocratIC Town Committee – consult the link on Ron Corwin – can I assume THEY have his start date on the P&Z (2006) correct?

    • Wrong again…all newly elected official took the oath of office in Nov. 2005. You can have your own opinion, but not your own facts.

  21. I read this blog b/c I was told there was a good dialogue on downtown development. It devolved into political crap we just witnessed on a national scale only on a very small time basis. Not worth my time and does not bode well for downtown If your interested in a real solution for the town party is not the focus. I will say this, without a plan, a master plan that works, why bother. Regardless of what your working on you need a plan otherwise it’s just piecemeal.

    • Things seem to be moving pretty fast at the P&Z. They already have a plan – that’s why they keep re-writing the rules. Too bad the plan sucks.