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Dewey Does Downtown

Bedford Square. The library. Westport Arts Center. The Levitt. The new movie theater. National Hall. Save the Children.

Those projects — costing $200 million or so — are all in the pipeline. Some are more advanced than others. But even if just some come to fruition, the look and feel of downtown is about to change dramatically.

Hard to believe that Westport has never accepted a detailed, operational plan for downtown development.

Or even commissioned its own traffic study.

After being sworn in as 1st selectman in November, Jim Marpe formed a Downtown Steering Committee. Adding members from various sectors — architects, elected officials, members of the Planning and Zoning Department, the Public Works director, representatives of the Historic District Commission and Downtown Merchants Association, plus a downtown resident — he gave them the charge: Pick up where the Downtown 2020 group ended.

Downtown Westport comprises a very small section of town. But its impact — economic, aesthetic and psychic — is huge.

“We have diverse views and opinions,” says the committee’s new chairman, Dewey Loselle. “We’re not stacked in any one particular way. I think that gives us legitimacy in everyone’s eyes, and a means to move ahead.”

The committee has already contracted with the RBA consulting group. As they analyze their traffic and parking study — all previous ones have been conducted by developers — they’ll examine all sides of the issue. Does downtown Westport have enough parking? Too much? Is it in the right places? Should we charge for spots?

That analysis will lead to design questions. If we move parking away from the river, for example — opening up green space — does that mean we should deck the Baldwin lot?

The committee will then look at how downtown can become “more vital,  functional, aesthetically pleasing and pedestrian-friendly,” Loselle says.

They’ll also study streetscape issues: sidewalks, lights, public spaces. And, of course, traffic patterns and flooding.

Mitigating frequent flooding is an important concern for the Downtown Steering Committee.

The goal is to have a draft plan ready in 6 to 8 months. Then comes the real debate: how to get everything done. What are the priorities? Who will take charge? Where will the funds come from?

All meetings will be open to the public. Important design workshops are also planned, where Westporters can look at different lighting fixtures, facades and sidewalk motifs, and provide input.

And there will be charrettes — open sessions where participants brainstorm collaboratively in small groups. (Parks & Rec sponsored a very successful charrette in November, as part of its Compo Beach study.)

Dewey Loselle

“We want everyone to participate — not just the same people you see all the time,” Loselle says.

“They’re great citizens and volunteers. But we’re interested in people who are not always engaged in the town, because they have young kids or are very busy. They’re the ones who will be here for many more years. They’ll really be impacted by this. We need to hear their voices too.”

With “high citizen participation and acceptance,” Loselle says — including collaboration with 2 other entities, the Downtown Planning Subcommittee of the P&Z, and the Historic District Commission’s Village District Steering Committee — “I’m very excited that we can make this succeed.”

In fact, this may be downtown Westport’s last chance at success.

“We have a real opportunity here,” the chairman notes. “If we can’t get a master plan done now, we probably won’t for a long time to come.”

He pauses.

“We can guide what’s going on. Or we can let it happen to us.”

The iconic view of downtown Westport. All Westporters are invited to enhance the area, for years to come.

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