Railroad Place Redevelopment: Still Stalled

The opening of Harvest restaurant — in the former Mario’s space — has brought renewed attention to Railroad Place.

It’s also reminded people of the long-rumored Railroad Place project — a redevelopment plan for a larger area that shares the name of the small but significant street on the westbound side of the railroad station.

With Saugatuck Center completed and thriving — Riverside Avenue is now a hot spot filled with new restaurants, a butcher shop, gourmet food store, sweet shop, paddle rental store, 27 apartments and more — Westporters have waited for the next phase.

It’s unrelated — who’s-who-wise — to the Gault family’s Saugatuck Center work. But it’s been rumored for years, as a natural next step.

Negotiations have proceeded, in fits and starts, since 2011. In 2012, LandTech — the highly regarded engineering and planning firm headquartered on Riverside Avenue — drew up an RFP for the families who have owned the property for nearly 100 years, to seek developers.

It involved all the land bordered by Railroad Place, Charles Street and Riverside Avenue, as well as the private parking lot adjacent to Luciano Park.

All the land, that is, except the Mario’s/Harvest building, and the grim, out-of-character office building at 21 Charles Street. They have their own owners. All the rest of the property in the plan is owned by 2 families.

An aerial view of the proposed Railroad Place development. Charles Street (including the office building is at left); the train tracks run diagonally across the top. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

An aerial view of the proposed Railroad Place development. Charles Street (including the office building) is at left; the train tracks run diagonally across the top. Luciano Park is at the bottom. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

LandTech’s proposal — in collaboration with Westport architect Peter Wormser — envisions an entirely new look for the 3-acre space.

Steps next to Harvest will lead to a bluestone plaza, similar to the one between the Whelk and Saugatuck Sweets that draws musicians, sunbathers and people-watchers.

A view from the westbound train platform across Railroad Place.

A view from the westbound train platform across Railroad Place.

Surrounding the plaza will be a mix of retail stores and apartments. There’s room for a small movie theater and boutique hotel.

A closeup of the rendering above. Mario's is, of course, now Harvest restaurant.

A closeup of the rendering above. Mario’s is, of course, now Harvest restaurant.

Nearby, planners envision an enclosed, year-round green market.

Two levels of underground parking would accommodate 480 cars.

It’s not a done deal, of course. The 4-story development would need a zone change, to embrace Transit-Oriented Development (programs to link transportation centers with surrounding neighborhoods). The floor area ration would require a text amendment.

The view across Riverside Avenue, from Tutti's. The buildings in the artist's rendering would replace the current cleaners and adjacent buildings.

The view across Riverside Avenue, from Tutti’s. The buildings in the artist’s rendering would replace the current cleaners and adjacent buildings. The Charles Street office building is on the far right.

The project has moved very slowly, in part because of land valuation questions. No developer has yet signed on.

But Railroad Place — the property — is an unpolished gem, waiting to shine. Bordered by existing businesses and a train station — with a major highway nearby — it’s ripe for development.

Stores and shops in the proposed Railroad Place development.

Stores and shops in the proposed Railroad Place development.

Exciting plans have been available for several years. They’ve been shopped around, creating excitement among everyone who’s seen them.

The 2 families that own most of Railroad Place have not yet agreed on the next steps. When — that is, if — they do, the future of one of Westport’s most intriguing, often-underutilized sections of town could be very, very cool.

34 responses to “Railroad Place Redevelopment: Still Stalled

  1. Anyone know what the characters on the “grim office building” at 21 Charles signify?

    • Virginia R. Clark

      Ginny Hamil Clark

    • Virginia R. Clark

      The characters on the front of the building were sculpted by Sam Weiner a noted sculptor from Westport (New York City?) The meaning of the sculpture is “Ascension of Man’s Soul” (if this is incorrect, my apologies) The sculpture is bronze, and it should be saved by a historian(s) in town as it was I think commissioned for the building (new then) in the 60’s. Does Sam Weiner’s son still live in Westport?

  2. who are the owners? Chris Woods

  3. Matthew Mandell

    Interesting enough, last night the RTM at the request of the Town approved the ability for the Town to seek a grant from the state to study Saugatuck for transit oriented development. So we are about to study Saugautuck the way we did downtown.

    This is good and bad. Good in that maybe we find better ways to do things, including the RR place project noted above. Bad, in that who knows what will come of this. TOD is about urbanism and density, If we are to protect the fragile place that is Saugatuck, then we all need to be on our toes when do this study and ensure we do.

    • I saw an interesting comment by the Mayor of Norwalk the other day describing their development path as “urbanizing” Norwalk. – Chris Woods

  4. As long as Governor Malloy has not given up on his plan to use eminent domain to seize land within 1/4 mile of a train station, why would anyone invest in Saugatuck? His plans may be a long shot, but why take the risk? I would not invest anything in CT until there is a new regime in Hartford.

    • Matthew Mandell

      Michael, yikes we agree……. Not that you should not invest in Saugatuck but the Transit Corridor Legislation is scary. While the Bill was defeated, that concept still lingers and why I have reservations about the study money coming from the Office of Policy and Management, the same place where the Bill basically came from. So let’s both keep our eyes wide open on this.

      Have you heard about Value Added Capture??? The concept is if there is State improvement in transit areas, and I believe money from the state for improvement could be part of that, increases property values around such improvement, the state captures the differential taxes on the increase assessment. YIKES!!! Just a concept, but some brain in that came up with that.

  5. Matthew Mandell

    Now as to RR Place. The above plan is just one concept. There are others. And while much of it is cool, there is one big missing part, where is the historic preservation?

    Any development of RR must include preservation for the streetscape, this rendition does not. Homage does not count. There must be adaptive reuse and integration of the buildings along RR Place. Did you know that Desi’s store is Westport’s first Post Office. I am not saying keep them as they are, but use them and preserve the frontage. There is a photo in one of the owners of the property’s office that shows RR Place with a wooden walkway similar to what you’d see in a Western.

    Do we want people to step of the train and see what every other town has done with kitschy faux houses, or something special that brings our past forward.

    If you go to Amsterdam and walk down a street, you could feel as though you were in the 1700s, but once through the door its the 21st century. We can achieve this here. Takes effort, but isn’t Saugatuck worth it?

  6. Joyce Barnhart

    A good place for apartments offering affordable and senior housing.

  7. As a Saugatuck resident, I am excited by the prospect of this development. I happen to like the rendering and do not think we have to maintain the old, worn-out buildings. We could have said the same thing about the Gault development, but what was built is new, modern and fits perfectly with the small town of Saugatuck. This is not Amsterdam.

    • John–you hit the ‘nail on the head’. A great potential project will eventually get tied up at P&Z so people like Matt can delay and work to keep the old look. Forget progress, forget designing something that looks like CT today and make it all work for progress, but lets hold on to something that make some feel good.

      This project has so much merit the town should run fast to try and get it going. The opportunity for people to travel by train to a fun area in our town, Westport, for dinner, for the arts, for music, for shops, is fantastic. Maybe even give people a 5% discount if they show they traveled by train. People could come from Stamford, New Haven and in between by train, spend their money in Westport, and not tie up the highways. Want to do something to help transportation, complete this project.

      A great place for the young to live, who might travel to NYC for work. They would have a fun place to live and easy transportation. Safe and fun and it is Westport with its beaches and the Levitt. Maybe even try and get some senior living for WESTPORTERS!! Forget the state requirements, make it available to Westporters who will get the benefit of transportation and leave their big homes.

      This project is exactly what Westport and other towns should be proposing. Keep the state out of it, drive it by our town leadership. And please do not tie it up wanting some old piece of wood.

      Saugatuck proved what honest and rational design can lead to—it is pleasant–it looks like CT–and it brings value to the business owners who can rely on construction and technology they will need to make their businesses productive.

      PS–there is plenty of buildings in Amsterdam that have been changed and now look like very futuristic– buildings of glass and steel. I suggest we follow the lead that was accomplished in Saugatuck already.

      • Bart; meddlers must meddle. This project will be delayed as the usual suspects hold forth on the usual topics. In the end, if Malloy has his way, he will build office buildings in Saugatuck, the objections of the meddlers notwithstanding. In addition, if the DOT, in its efforts to spend $100 billion, decides the Cribari Bridge must be replaced with a larger bridge, what of Saugatuck’s character will be left to save? Finally, if the nitwits in Hartford reestablish tolls, on 95 and the Merritt, while the DOT puts in its new “improved” bridge, and traffic on 95 is tied up for years while the DOT stumbles and bumbles it way through the renovation of the 95 bridge over the Saugatuck, Saugatuck will not be the nice cozy character filled place of anyone’s dreams.

        • Matthew Mandell

          That’s where the meddlers come in. Historic designation for the bridge, scenic road for 136. Historic District for Bridge St. All things to hopefully prevent the DOT from putting in a new bigger bridge and allowing trucks to bypass 95.

          • Matt; I wish you and all those who seek to preserve the Cribari Bridge the best of luck.

            • Thanks, as always, for your kind wishes, Mike. We’re going to win this – and if, for some strange reason we don’t, the other side will certainly know it was in a fight.

    • Be careful what you wish for John. If anything like the density deathstar proposed above comes to pass you will find yourself “excited” in a whole new way. Saugatuck is a fragile area that deserves a more intelligent approach than what appears to be on tap. The problem with these TOD type projects and others like them is that they are fundamentally about increasing density – Westchester style. TOD loves to blather on about “creating a sense of place” – as if the present environment is just some former brownfield waiting for the experts to show up. My sense is that local stakeholders have a firmer grasp of what this tiny neighborhood needs than a group of outsider eggheads who invariably arrive with a Chinese menu of tired design tropes that one sees everywhere. No thanks.

  8. Matthew Mandell

    Shame on you Bart. Shame…… You have missed the point so entirely. Adaptive reuse and preservation don’t stop progress they embrace it without losing our past, our character and our uniqueness. Things that drive commerce and curiosity, the things you always advocate for. That giant block should be redeveloped, but with the RR STREETSCAPE preserved. Is that so much of a burden? Maybe in exchange for other enhancements. And to throw me under the bus as you did…. sad…..

    There is a mall coming just down the road, it will suck the life out of our town unless we are smart. We need to find ways to be the anti mall, Uniqueness is the key, offer what they don’t. Offer Westport, not a cookie cutter fake neighborhood that looks like every other wannabee town….. We have the goods they don’t, let’s not throw that away.

    FYI – the new Saugatuck Center didn’t have an open plaza over looking the water in its first design. The very thing people flock to and enjoy. The system can work to make things better, just need some folks to step up and say hey, wait a sec.

    • Bart Shuldman

      Oh Matt-stop. As head of the chamber of commerce your first allegiance should be to helping businesses grow. You and I have conversed in this very topic.

      I might have a different opinion then you as I see this project as a major win-win for Westport. We should do everything we can to help get it started. I am sure if it does the architects would be glad to look at what they can to keep to the surrounding look and feel. They always do. And if the design works, try and keep a relic.

      But I was surprised in your position that one of your first comments on 06880 was your opinion of the design. That is what hurts Westport. If as the head of commerce in Westport, it would have been nice to hear your 110% support for such a good project.

      Matt-I still like you. I don’t think shame was necessary. I also think Mr Dodigs comments were ‘right on’.

      • Matthew Mandell

        Commerce will expand with our offering a unique experience, one that will draw people to it. Wiping out the block and rebuilding it is not pro commerce per se and in doing so destroys our advantage.

    • Elisabeth Keane

      Mall? Really? Where?

      • Bart Shuldman

        There has been work and interest to build a mall at Exit 16 off I-95. If it was to happen it would significantly challenge our local stores and the increase in traffic huge.

        Another great reason to support development at the train station whereby people can use mass transportation.

        Maybe Matt has further comment about the project. There appears to be lots of effort against the building of the mall.

  9. Well said Matt. Saugatuck has many interesting historic elements that need to be conserved and/or repurposed in concert with new development. That’s where you get the interest and the animal spirits. If the lame crackertown scheme depicted above is rolled out we might as well just change the name to Celebration.

  10. It’s reasonable to assume the Black Duck and the marina property will be gone in 2 years as well. – Chris Woods

    • Nathan Gottlieb

      Why would the Black Duck and the marina property (All Seasons Marine Works-my business) be gone so quickly? This redevelopment doesn’t seem to move quickly anywhere.

  11. Not yet a criticism but how much development does Westport want to encourage? We a relatively new to town, 16 years. Love what is left of the old and relish the current. Too much more than already is planned may be too transforming in my view.

  12. David Loffredo

    Saugatuck is desperate for a master plan, the traffic flow is crazy at times, and there’s so much underutilized and decaying space screaming for development – Minute Man Cleaners, the ugly building, the old bank, Jasmines, all vacant or underutilized.

    I wonder if there’s a way to trade some of the brownfield train parking lots for some sort of structure? Or maybe re-locate Luciano Field so it’s the first thing you see when you come off the highway?

    Saugatuck should be more SONO and less downtown sleepy mall-filled Westport. Bars, restaurants, movies, stay out late, sleep in a condo/apartment above the excitement or hop the train and go back where you came from.

    Maybe the development will be contagious and extend up Saugatuck Ave and Franklin St and evolve that tired triangle of run down rentals into something more useful? That’s a great place for connected townhomes, high density, perfect for affordable housing.

    • Bart Shuldman

      David-you are so right. Just think if Westport gave a tax break if we build some condos just for people 55 and over who commit to no children as many have in places like NJ. They will sell their homes and when they move into these new condos will add very little incremental cost to Westport. What a great way to keep them in Westport, live near transportation and enjoy the benefits.

      When the head of the Chamber of Commerce is worried about the facade of old ugly buildings, it tells us what planning or lack of, is about in Westport.

      This is a project that our town leaders should come out and drive. Work to get all
      Parties together and develop some
      Bad properties (Jasmine) and at the same time growing our tax base and adding a wonderful aspect to Westport.

      The Whelk and other successful establishments have proved it can work. The apartments that were built by Gault-beautiful. And they added some that were affordable. It’s an exciting start.

    • David, if you haven’t yet, you might want to check out Westport’s “Downtown Plan”. I’ll just leave it at that.

  13. It’s a nice idea to have a master plan… The state clearly has one, and in preparation for the widening of I-95, it seems to involve making all ancillary roads along the I-95 corridor accessible to tractor tailor trucks. (How else to reroute traffic during the decades of construction?) http://connecticut.news12.com/news/residents-rally-against-roadway-repair-in-norwalk-1.11422170
    What’s happening in Norwalk will soon happen here.

  14. In case you didn’t follow the link… Norwalk residents don’t want the state to lower the roadway to allow 18 wheelers to get to Rt 136 from East Ave. the 18 wheelers could then take Rt 136 to Saugatuck.

    • Nathan Gottlieb

      Rt 136 on Saugatuck Ave and at Ferry Lane/Railroad Place have very low railroad bridges stopping tractor trailers.

  15. don l bergmann

    Lots of comments, lots of seeming disagreements. My sense is that something will occur and that, in general, most in Westport do not want tall buildings. What is tall, good people can disagree, but two stories generally seems right to me, though a differing height line, i.e. some two, some three, might work so long as overall density is addressed. Sorry for talking about design, but we always need to remember what are the key design elements that make people feel good as they walk about Town.
    Don Bergmann