Westport At The Crossroads

Fred Cantor is an alert “06880” reader — and a talented researcher with an eye for intriguing stories about Westport’s past.

The other day, he sent 4 clippings from the New York Times. All were from 50 years ago. Westport was in the midst of a historic transformation, Fred said, as the town’s population rocketed skyward.

On February 2, 1964, 1st Selectman Herb Baldwin announced the formation of a Development Commission. The aim was to attract light industry, thus broadening the tax base.

“The move grew out of a recent fiscal seminar where concern was voiced over the town’s high bonded indebtedness, principally due to school construction,” the Times reported. The debt was approximately $12 million.

On June 26, the Planning and Zoning Commission tightened restrictions against new apartment buildings — despite acknowledging the need for apartments serving “older people and young married couples.” The previous day, the Zoning Board of Appeals denied an application for construction of a 48-unit apartment on the site of the Tennex factory on Riverside Avenue.

Many of today's familiar Riverside Avenue buildings were once factories.

Many of today’s familiar Riverside Avenue buildings were once factories.

On October 4, 1964, the Times said that a group of Greens Farms property owners were  “aroused by a proposal to build a department store, a supermarket and a parking lot for 617 cars in their midst, two miles east of the town’s center.” The centerpiece would be an Arnold Constable store.

Opponents cited a traffic hazard for students at nearby Green’s Farms Elementary School, and destruction of the “rustic charm” of the area. One person said, “We don’t want to turn Westport into another Rye or New Rochelle.”

Proponents countered it would add “sorely needed town revenue. They say the chief reason the town has sunk into debt over the last 20 years is that it has resisted business growth.”

The 7 1/2-acre property — bounded by South Morningside Drive and Church Street — would add between $40,000 and $52,430 a year in taxes.

Years after it was proposed, a shopping center was built near Greens Farms Elementary School.

Years after it was proposed, a shopping center was built near Greens Farms Elementary School.

Two months later, the P&Z proposed action to reverse the “hodgepodge” and “visual mayhem” — town officials’ words — of the Post Road. Fifteen properties along busy Route 1 would need special permits for development. New zones would be limited by “natural boundaries, such as topography, existing streets or similar barriers.”

Included was the Greens Farms tract. It took a number of years, but the shopping center — anchored today by Barnes & Noble — eventually was built.

Half a century later, some things haven’t changed. Westporters still debate property taxes and affordable housing.

But we no longer argue about shopping centers. They’re here, they’re there, they’re everywhere.

There’s nowhere left to put a new one.

11 responses to “Westport At The Crossroads

  1. Downtown is a mall. Just like Stamford and Trumbull. And Post Rd is worse than ever.

  2. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

  3. Luisa Francoeur

    The photo in the middle of your story causes me to think about another issue: the electric lines which are front and center in the photo. Talk about visual blight ! Why can’t they be put underground?

  4. Matthew Mandell

    Bravo to the P&Z of yesteryear who saw the issues coming and protected our town. Business has thrived here and continue to, but just as importantly we have kept the scale reasonable. Years later, in the 80s, the P&Z seeing that big box stores were coming put cap of 10,000sf on buildings, right move.

    Westport can move forward, but within reason. We will find in the coming charettes about downtown that the residents like our town, our scale and our character and that again 50 years later will be seeking basically the same thing. And believe me businesses want to be here, they just need to fit into our scheme and do.

  5. It seems that many people in Westport go through life looking backward because that is where they think they will find the future,

  6. Back to the future. Yes, an interesting premise.
    Change is very hard to deal with. History should never change.

  7. There are all sorts of interesting restrictions on Commercial Real Estate. No more drive through restaurants for some reason. No more car dealers, or car related anything unless you’re in the certain half mile that is designated as such or if it’s grandfathered in. The set backs were changed on undeveloped property slashing their values, .. and considering it was only one or two pieces, that was sort of silly. But I don’t know..would I have liked more huge buildings in town like the one that ate Westport on Wright Street? (boy, would I love to know how THAT happened.. but more power to them.. they made a bundle) Westport still has my favorite commercial building anywhere.. the glass one in front of Birchwood Country Club on the corner of Kings Highway South the Post Road. It’s masterful design with glassed walls and it absolutely disappears into the landscape. The designer of that 30 plus year old building deserves an award!. But I wonder why there aren’t more like it? There should be a law!!