New Update On Old Positano

As beach weather nears — and we head into our 2nd summer without an Old Mill Beach restaurant — many Westporters wonder what’s up with the old Positano property.

It was purchased in 2014 by Gibby Cohen and his family. They live nearby — on land where they could build a 15,000-square foot house — but they did not need or want one that big. The Cohens figured 3,000 square feet would be fine.

The Positano plot — diagonally across from Elvira’s; for many years the site of Cafe de la Plage, briefly the Beach House, and long before all that Joe’s Store — was perfect.

The "Positano property," at Old Mill Beach diagonally across from Elvira's.

The “Positano property,” at Old Mill Beach diagonally across from Elvira’s.

The Cohens soon realized, however, that many neighborhood residents — on Hillspoint, Compo Hill and surrounding streets — wanted a restaurant there. It brought life to the area. And the existing building provided scenic views, which a new structure might block.

The Cohens were happy to acquiesce. They’re not interested in running a restaurant themselves. But they’re quite open to selling (or, worst case, leasing) their property to a restaurateur.

At least one neighbor objects. Ellen Van Dorsten — who opposed Positano’s application for patio dining in 2012, and helped lead opposition to saving Allen’s Clam House before that — is suing the Cohens. She hopes to prevent a new restaurant on the Positano lot. The suit will be heard in November.

The controversial terrace at the old Positano.

The controversial terrace at the old Positano.

Van Dorsten was not the only resident opposed to the 2012 patio petition, for 4 tables seating 16 diners. Other neighbors also protested. The restaurant owners cite the lack of outdoor seating as one factor that forced them to relocate. Their new restaurant is next to Westport Country Playhouse.

Now, however, neighborhood sentiment seems to be coalescing around a restaurant — rather than a new-construction home — on the property.

This seems like an ideal opportunity for a well-known, highly respected restaurateur to open a new, seafood-oriented place, in a building with a historic past and neighborhood support.

Joey’s by the Shore Clam House, anyone?

NOTE: Gibby Cohen declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. Requests for comment from Ellen Van Dorsten — by phone and email — were not returned.

Long before Cafe de la Plage and Positano's, this property was the site of Joe's Store. This was the scene in 1954, during Hurricane Carol.

Long before Cafe de la Plage and Positano’s, the property was the site of Joe’s Store. This was the scene in 1954, during Hurricane Carol.

37 responses to “New Update On Old Positano

  1. Dan: No way in the world a 15.000 sq ft house, or anything like a 15,000 sq ft house could go on that site….1,500 maybe.

    • Bobbie Herman

      Dan — I believe the 15,000 SF house is the size permitted on the site where the Cohens currently reside.

      • Correct. Dan Katz did not read closely enough. The Cohens could build 15,000 square feet on their PRESENT site. They bought the Positano property because they did not need such a big house.

  2. Michael Calise

    The site is .13 acres in a Residence B zone. the current two story structure is 3,575 square feet and is non-conforming as to coverage and size. Its possible that it could be converted to a residence with required zoning variances. Maximum build out .for new construction on the site is 1,698 square feet in two stories.

  3. The suit is not going to be heard till Nov? Wow, by then the neighborhood is going to be crying for anything on that site.

  4. Sorry, Dan.
    Read the article too fast.

  5. The neighbors hated the traffic nightmare caused by the restaurant. Everyone knows that. And the town did not approve of an expansion of their dining because of the lack of parking. So no restaurant is likely to be viable. Sounds like the Cohens are looking for someone to take this property off their hands.

  6. Seems to me, zoning laws are being used here in a way not originally intended: to regulate a pre-existing business location to death.

    Not allowing a waterfront restaurant to add a small 16 seat patio is pretty churlish by any measure of common sense.

    Complaints about traffic/parking are lame, when you consider that this stretch of road once serviced a total of three eating and drinking establishments: Allen’s Clam House, Cafe De La Plage (predecessor to Positano) and a sketchy but colorful bar a bit further up Hillspoint by the railroad bridge –
    the name of which escapes me.

    Part of Westport’s part charm was the handful of local restaurants in residential neighborhoods away from downtown and the Post Road – Red Barn, Three Bears, etc. Today they’re all gone.

    • Are you thinking of the Penguin — the 1920s-era jazz club/speakeasy that was the first air-conditioned club between New York and Boston? Today’s its the site of the Edgewater Commons condos.

      • Ah yes, The Penguin. Did you ever do a piece about it?

        • I’ve mentioned it a few times (use the “search” function on the right side of the “06880” home page). I did a longer piece several years ago in the Westport News. It was a fascinating place.

  7. Michelle Benner

    Clam shack please? Or some sort of low key cafe & souvenir shop with ties to the Westport Historical Society, celebrating the legacy of Compo Beach, our artists, and our waterfront? Or just the cafe sans shop, with a thriving local catering business in the off season? It would be so nice to have something like this here, especially near Elvira’s. The area already has traffic due to residential congestion and summer population; can’t we tolerate a little more for such a valuable community amenity?
    Great examples of low key dining or positive community beach transformations include West Shore Seafood in Bantam, CT and Crystal Cove Beach in Newport Beach, CA

  8. Allen’s restaurant had its own good sized parking lot. And it was not economically viable in the end. Splash had plenty of parking at Longshore and it could not make it. The old Positano’s only has a couple of spaces, so it’s a wonder it lasted as long as it did. Without adequate parking, a restaurant on this flood-prone site makes no sense.

    • Elise, not sure I agree with logic here. Allen’s closed up shop AND had plenty of parking, but Positano’s shut down BECAUSE of insufficient parking?

      From what I remember, the Positano property was a restaurant for many years with that same amount of parking. Yes it’s insufficient, but there are other options: e.g. the Old Mill lot (former Allen’s lot) is next door and the lot opposite the Compo guard house is about a 5 minute walk. Both are available to anyone with beach sticker year ’round and from Nov. 1 through April 30 without a sticker required.

      Truth is, there are plenty of pre-existing commercial properties with insufficient parking: consider Tarry Lodge and Starbucks for example

      If we shut down all the non-conforming commercial properties in town we’d have a lot fewer businesses, and we’d live and work in a more boring place.

    • Elise, I think its more a function of stagnancy than parking or lack thereof. .Allen’s and Splash (and the Red Barn) are good examples of owners who didn’t adapt to the ever changing tastes of people. Owners need to update their spaces and change their menus to survive in a competitive market.

      Peter Blau makes a very good point about creating viable mixed use environments that make our neighborhoods a community rather than rows upon rows of big houses and fences. Now do we need a “professionally” attended haunt (often whispered) like the Penquin.. no but we are losing many of those venues which make our town charming and unique. Many don’t know there was an Italian Restaurant and Bar on Sturges Highway on the Fairfield side, though it was considered Westport.

      Enough said, Jerry said it all.

      • Mr. Cohen can still run a restaurant, with the original permitted seating that Positano’s had, if he regains clear title to the property. (By the way, Cafe de la Plage was charming and did not operate with expanded seating or with valet parking.) Mr. Cohen spent a great deal of money buying this property, likely with the expectation that he could get variances that the Town has denied before. That’s always a risky bet.

  9. It’s not clear to me: what is the basis of the lawsuit? If the Cohens want to run it as a restaurant, aren’t they allowed to do that as a previously established non-conforming use? Also, if a new restaurant is not operating by the end of December, will that non-conforming use be no longer valid because two years will have gone by?

    PS–mid-October will mark the 50th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah and the reception at Cage de la Plage. Maybe the case will get moved up on the calendar so I can have the perfect place to celebrate the anniversary.

  10. Jerry MacDaid

    You can sort of see where this is going.

    1) We really don’t like all the late night traffic and parking problems…wish that restaurant would go away.

    2) Here’s our chance, they need outdoor dining to stay viable. Let’s block that.

    3) Oh, restaurant went out of business…too bad. Maybe building will go the way of Allen’s and just go away. Won’t that be an improvement to the neighborhood.

    4) Damn, someone bought the property and is going to build a house there. Didn’t think about that. Probably will be really tall since it will have to be FEMA compliant. Not sure we really want a monster house where we thought we’d get some open space.

    5) Hmmm. Kinda quiet down here. Maybe restaurant wasn’t so bad. Of course, like Positano’s no one will be able to make it work because of the restrictions we’ll place on it so it will never really happen but if we make noise, at least the house won’t get built and maybe we’ll get our open space.

    6) Damn, looks like the restaurant idea may be getting some traction. I know, let’s sue to block it.

    7) After we kill the restaurant, we’ll sue about the house too. We’ll get our empty lot eventually.

    Frankly, if I were the Cohens, I might be tempted drop a dime to Garden Properties and offer them the lot for an affordable housing development. 7 or 8 story elevator building over 1 story parking garage underneath. 2-3 affordable units on lower levels, spectacular waterfront “market rate” units above. With close to 100% ground cover, I’d imagine they could be pretty good sized units.

    It would be amusing to watch the losing fight over that. If nothing else, the Cohen’s might get a helluva buyout price to keep that from happening.

  11. Linda Grabill Parker

    How well I remember this hurricane, and Joe’s store – I lived on Sterling Drive

    • Anywhere near my sister’s in-laws, the van der Veens? They lived on Sterling, but I’m not sure how early. Herre and Marie used to visit when I lived on the Mill Pond. My sister and her husband Steve and family rented Burr Allen’s house before they moved a bit further down Hillspoint onto Lamplight Lane. But that was later, in the 70s. Oh, and my brother lived at The Penguin! I guess we represented that area pretty well!

  12. What a sorry place we are in because one person protested the minor, well thought out expansion of a charming restaurant that wanted to remain where it was and sought a way to make it viable.

    I’ve lived up the block from Positano’s for 12 years. THE TRAFFIC WAS NOT TERRIBLE; they had valet parking and handled the cars very well. Adding 4 — yes 4 – outdoor tables, and changing doors to comply w/ egress issues (think I am saying that almost right: fire laws, etc.) When they wanted these few consessions, the entire neighborhood was invited to the restaurant and Mel Barr explained what was involved.

    Confused as to why the town denied permission for the changes when Ms. Van Dorsten protested. What about the many, many neighbors who didn’t protest? And did the town look ahead and think about what would become of the property if a restaurant wasn’t viable? A monster mansion, cutting off views and changing the composition of the neighborhood?

    We year round property owners have Elvira’s and we had Positano’s.

    And some of you think it would be a plus to have another Joey’s here? Sell fast food and tee shirts and WESTPORT mugs? Endangering Elvira’s, the only place with charm left to us. Hoards of summer people to this quiet little piece of Paradise?

    Now that the town broke it because they listened to a minority and didn’t think about the consequences, I don’t know how it can be fixed.

    • Michelle Benner

      Who has said anything about another Joey’s, more fast food, t-shirts, mugs and endangering Elvira’s? I don’t think anyone is saying that, thinking that or wanting that here.(?)

      I miss Positano’s and having a restaurant there. We live up the road on Hillspoint and loved going especially in the winter. It’s such a special spot to have a restaurant, tucked away in our extended neighborhood and on the beach. It really is too bad this is going into litigation, after the Cohens have been so community minded and flexibly thinking about the property they own.

  13. I grew up in Westchester and came to Westport when I was younger with my parents to dine at Café de la Plage for all of our special days… It is how I came to know and love Westport. Now I live up the Compo Hill and wish that a restaurant like Café de la Plage was still at the bottom of the hill. This is a beach community and Compo Hill is a great neighborhood, one that I want my girls to have wonderful memories – in the NEIGHBORHOOD… not just inside a house. I hope that we can all support the idea of a revised Café de la Plage or a new Clam House for all the neighbors to enjoy and really be a COMMUNITY… We definitely don’t need another house that covers the maximum amount of the property…

  14. Ms. Benner: YOU said CLAM SHACK and SOUVENIRS — I saw crowds of people hanging out and lots of litter…..

  15. ….or JUST A CAFE which would cut into Elvira’s business…and what does a catering business add to the ambiance of m neighborhood? We have to be very thoughtful as to how we get out of this situation because we don’t want to make it worse.

    • Michelle Benner

      Right, but you misinterpreted what I said. Clam shack doesn’t have to mean fast food and souveneirs don’t have to be cheap or for littering tourists. They can be high quality items that appeal to westport residents, such as paintings by local artists. The reason I mentioned catering is because I suspect a restaurant in that location would struggle a bit in the off season and it would be a nice way to keep it afloat. It doesn’t have to compete with Elvira’s at all, especially if it’s a seafood focus. If done well and thoughtfully, it would add to the community atmosphere and possibly draw more business to Elvira’s. I agree about being very thoughtful, and I also think it’s important to stay open minded.

  16. Nicholas Moore Eisenberger

    I only moved to Westport two-plus years ago, but on my very first tour of the town, I drove past Positano’s and thought how charming it was that there was waterfront dining integrated into the Mill Cove area neighborhood. I also immediately thought about how much BETTER it could be if it were updated… with more open water views, some outdoor seating, and an updated, seafood-focused menu. If you have ever been to Sag Harbor, Shelter Island, or pretty much anywhere on the coast of the Mediterranean, the model of a neighborhood-friendly, high-quality, open air, fresh seafood restaurant is not only common, but what makes part of their enduring charm. We live in Coastal New England, so the model and feel should be local to here, focused for example on the Oysters that are now growing abundantly in the Mill Cove (in contrast to several decades ago) and the other seafood that is abundant along our coast. My mouth waters just thinking about it. I understand that neighbors have questions; I would too. I would want to make sure it is well thought out, nicely designed, and well managed. But it seems like a restaurant has been a part of the fabric of this neighborhood and this town on that spot for decades. I hope the town, the local community, and some local entrepreneurs can come together to make something happen before too much more time passes. I am happy to raise my hand to help.

  17. Andrea Moore

    As a born and bred Westporter, I miss some of the old waterfront restaurant options. Westport is lacking places to eat, drink and enjoy the beautiful shoreline. We have plenty of waterfront houses – we don’t need any more. This location is the only chance to have another place for Westporters to enjoy the water, and I would love the see the town and neighborhood work to find a way to make it happen.

  18. don l bergmann

    I live just up the hill from the former Positano and know most of the “players”. The Cohens are lovely people and are sensitive to the neighborhood and the many legitimate and sometimes conflicting interests. Many have been working with the Cohen’s for a restaurant but, right now, the lawsuit seems to be the crucial obstacle. No one is playing games, most in our neighborhood appear to want a restaurant, yet legitimate zoning issues exist with regard to an expansion for outdoor seating or any other change to this “grandfathered” restaurant use in a residence zone. We may all have to wait until the litigation is resolved. That is of course most unfortunate for many, yet most unfortunate for the Cohens.
    Don Bergmann.

  19. Sally Kellogg Deegan

    “Some things never change!” For the record, before Cafe de la Plage, it was known as “Leo Williams” in the 40’s. I don’t remember “Joe’s Store.”

  20. Playing the born-and-bred Westporter card here. The Old Mill neighborhood was always an interesting and active neighborhood. Allen’s, Cafe De La Plage, “Grubs”, and the people who lived up the hill and by the Pond were a distinct neighborhood. Hearing , “I live at Old Mill” meant something good. Lots of characters. I didn’t grow up there, but I went to nursery school at Dietza’s(sp) two houses from Elvira’s on Hillspoint (and thank God for Elvira’s). Every August the bridges at the mill gates were packed with dozens of kids snapper fishing and jumping off the bridges. We’d buy candy bars and soda from Kenny(Grubs) – never anything that wasn’t packaged. At night our parents would dine at Allen’s or Cafe De La Plage. It was great.

    The Cohens seems willing and well-intentioned to work with the community to find a positive outcome for the property. There are many smart and savvy restaurateurs who can take advantage of the tremendous views/ambience, economics, and idiosyncrasies of the site to create an establishment that will benefit the neighborhood and town as other establishments in the neighborhood have done through the last 3 generations. Neighborhood character drives great memories. Old Mill had, and still can have, the great mix that children will remember fondly 40 years from now.

  21. Terry Brannigan

    OK, I’m the only one on this string qualified to make a final ruling. Heavy lies the crown, but it is my responsibility 🙂

    I was born on Old Mill Cove, Shopped almoat exclusively at Kenny Montgomery’s (Grubs), kept a boat moored in front of the Cafe (before the stones from the construction of the Nayala Farm office park were “donated” to build a jetty at Sherwood Island that caused the sand to silt into Old Mill beach and render it almost useles), my childhood friend’s grandmother owned the Penguine where I delivered the Norwalk Hour and I spent 7 of my best years at Allen’s in front of the broiler working alond side my high school buddies. (BTW: what happened to Allen’s was unconscionable). I swam and crabbed in the Mill Pond and my father donated some of the land to the state that is Sherwood Island, If we were in gangs as kids, Old Mill would have been our turf!

    As the self appointed expert on such matters, here is my official ruling on the topic… Stop ripping the soul out of this town. Stop over managing everything that should be fun. If the occasional kid jumps off the Old Mill Pond locks, don’t haul them in and put up a fence. Let people cut accross you lawn, let a high school put up lights and host night games. Try to enjoy the sound of kids having fun and the cheers of proud parents. Stop offering your opinion about the choices of others and your educated opinion for why a business that was important to the owners failed. It is the Cohens’ choice. They bought the place and so could have any one of us… WIth that, came the right to do what they want to with it as long as they are not breaking any laws. It was a resturant for years and if it is zoned for another restaurant, and it’s a good location, then someone will buy / lease it and the market will speak. If the Cohens chose to build a house, don’t be mad. If you chose to buy a house near a lot that could eventually be used for that purpose and now you are upset, well… I actually like the traffic, foot, bicycle, motorcycle and even the cars because I always see people I know. I like driving by Elvira’s and waving to my friends or their kids sitting at the picnic tables. It should be up to the owners to decide what they want to do with the property they bought. If you disagree maybe they will sell it to you and you can choose to do with it what you please with the awesome location. I don’t know them but they sound like reasonable and considerate people. Not somone looking to lay off a bad investment on someone else.

    My official ruling is that It’s their choice but man, I hope it ends up a restaurant with outside tables!

  22. We we don’t need another McMansion in this location. Hope the town has the foresight to work with the next restauranteur on a small outdoor seating area if it gets to that point. We were big fans of Positanos, Cafe de la Plage, Allens and having waterfront dining choices in that area of town.

  23. David J. Loffredo

    The right restaurant could work there, someone call Bill Taibe…

    We tried Positanos a half dozen times over the years because Westport waterfront dining is so limited and thought it was horrible – kind of like Bertucci’s by the Sea. The building itself didn’t take advantage of the location, in fact at the times we sat near a “waterfront window” we stared into the parking lot.

    Splash ran out of steam because the didn’t change their menu for a decade. Great location and apparently quite the divorcee pickup joint, but the food was stale and unless you were out on the deck the inside was dated, reminded me of some fancy seafood joint in the city stuck in the ’80’s.

    Something decent there could work, blow out the back wall and open up the views, limit outside dining to something like 9pm so the neighbors can enjoy their peace and quiet.

    There’s a path if you look hard enough for it.

  24. Elaine Marino

    Chief Call referred to the area as “a nightmare for traffic and parking during the warmer months.”

    “The Police Department, which generally supports most requests, has some problems with this one.

    First, there is an increase in capacity in seating. Although the application states that it will be a very modest increase there is nothing that will prevent that modest number from going higher. As it is now there is no parking for the capacity they currently have. The Old Mill/Compo Hill area is a nightmare for traffic and parking during the warmer months, which is the time frame this extra capacity is requested for. We receive many, many complaints from neighbors regarding illegally parked vehicles, no counting the times our officers come up on them without a complaint.

    As we have cut our staffing we have not been able to continue the same level of service to this area as we once did, and that has only made the illegal parking problem worse – no enforcement equals more abuse of the existing parking restrictions. I foresee this doing little more than adding to a problem that already exists. Since I am sure the question will arise, the answer to any requests for the number of times we respond to that area on traffic and parking complaints is not one we will be able to provide in any great detail as they are not always (or often) logged. While these problems are certainly not all attributable to the restaurant, it is a factor.”

    I don’t live near the beach, so the traffic & parking issues in Old Mill are not a direct concern. However, if this means that our police officers are spending more time on traffic & parking issues than they should be, it is a direct concern. The Fire Department undoubtedly wants to minimize the potential for increased traffic/illegally parked cars in the Old Mill area as well. Poor, inadequate or disregarded rules regarding traffic & parking can affect the safety of our community, so I hope this issue is given the highest priority.

  25. I agree with everything Terry Brannigan said. Good story Dan.