A recent “06880” post on the future of Main Street got readers thinking.
65 people commented. Thoughtfully, insightfully and civilly, they offered suggestions.
Your flood of reactions got me thinking.
As a native Westporter — someone who remembers the Remarkable Book Shop, Klein’s department store, the African Room, World Affairs Center, movie theaters, Mark’s Place music club, Oscar’s, Dorain’s Drug Store — I know the kind of life that can pulse on Main Street.
But I also realize that we can’t simply wish for that kind of street again. The world is far different today.
For a long time, I thought a few tweaks would bring downtown back to life. I nodded as stakeholders assured me that once the flood-proofing and renovation projects were done, and empty storefronts filled up again, all would be well again.
After reading the comments, and talking to a broad array of sharp, committed Westporters, I no longer believe that’s true.
Main Street is no longer — and perhaps never again will be — our “main street.” It’s simply a short stretch off the Post Road near the Saugatuck River. It’s lined with commercial buildings, connecting one side of town with another.
To think of it as our “main street” is to live in the 20th century — or even the 19th.
But boy, does it have potential.
The problem is, “potential” implies re-imagining the future. And re-designing the present.
We can’t simply tweak the Post Road. We need to (almost) blow it up, and start again.
The possibilities are endless.
Main Street could be a car-less, pedestrian-friendly piazza/promenade lined with trees, tables and benches; upscale and family restaurants and cafes, including outside dining (with space heaters for winter); food carts and artists’ kiosks; independent businesses like a general store, bookstore and ice cream shop (joining the special Savvy + Grace-type places already there).
It could be filled with cultural and arts events; food festivals, and something at Christmas; music on weekends, plus waterfront access, with paddleboat and kayak rentals. In the winter, we could flood part of it for a skating rink.
And more: The Farmers’ Market could relocate there. We could add offices for non-profits, and co-working spaces. Apartments could be build on 2nd and 3rd floors.
Downtown is at an inflection point.
The decisions we make now are as important as the ones we made 70 years ago. That’s when town officials decided — and citizens agreed — to fill in the Saugatuck River, behind the stores on the west side of Main Street.
The result — a parking lot named for selectman Emerson Parker and Daybreak Nursery owner Evan Harding — may have been the right idea then.
But today we need a new downtown. And the change can’t be incremental. It must be big, bright and bold.
Bigger, brighter and bolder, even, than Parker Harding Plaza was then.
The time for consultants is past. They, and the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, have generated some good ideas. Now we must seize the initiative.
Who is “we”?
All of us. Everyone in Westport. We all have a stake in a vibrant, exciting, innovative, walkable, livable, enjoyable downtown. A downtown that will draw us all in again — and many others, from around the area.
Our town already offers so much: excellent schools, the transformed library, beaches, Longshore, Levitt Pavilion, Senior Center, Playhouse, Wakeman Town Farm, YMCA, Earthplace and tons more.
We often take these jewels for granted. For too long, we’ve taken the idea that Main Street “must” be a shopping-only street for granted too.
I said it before: Downtown is at an inflection point. We have the opportunity to create something truly dynamic and visionary.
How do we do it?
Let’s start with a town meeting (of course, in the Library Forum). Let’s talk about the most exciting new Main Street we can imagine. Then let’s figure out how to make it happen.
Emerson Parker and Evan Harding were great civic volunteers. But look at their sorry legacy.
This is our chance to leave a legacy, for at least the next 70 years.
Who wants to step up and lead us forward?