In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked San Francisco. Twelve people were killed. Fires raged. And the Embarcadero Freeway was severely damaged.
Built in the 1950s to connect the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges — but never completed — the enormous double-deck highway instead cut the city off from its waterfront.
For years, there had been talk of removing or redesigning the freeway. The earthquake provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do so.
Opposition was intense. But when the highway was demolished, a couple of things happened. More than 100 acres of land was redeveloped into a spectacular new public plaza and waterfront promenade. The area sprang to life.
The 1898 Ferry Building became a vibrant gathering spot for local farmers, artisan producers, and independent food businesses. Commercial real estate boomed. Housing increased dramatically. The entire city benefited.
Today, Westport has our Embarcadero moment.
On March 3 — less than 2 weeks before our world changed forever — I posted a long story on “06880.”
Headlined “Main Street at an Inflection Point: An ‘06880’ Call to Action,” it noted that despite what we like to think, Main Street is no longer our “main street.” It’s just a short stretch of commercial buildings, many of them vacant.
But boy, I wrote, does it have potential. I continued:
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, I said, was at an inflection point. Just as 70 yeas ago the area was re-imagined when landfill created Parker Harding Plaza, we needed a new downtown.
And change could not be incremental. It must be “big, bright and bold.”
The story drew 86 comments. This being Westport, they ranged all over the place: from why it couldn’t work, to lesser tweaks, to offers to help make it a reality ASAP.
What united us all was a common goal: to make downtown vibrant and alive, while looking ahead.
Had we looked behind, we would have seen the coronavirus galloping toward us. But now that it has, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake downtown, the right way.
Remember I said we should “(almost) blow it up, and start again”?
Now we really can.
I’m envisioning an even more dramatic reimagining than the one just 3 months — aka many light-years — ago.
Despite its horrors, the pandemic has taught us a few important lessons. Even when the danger passes, our lives will be vastly different from before. The way we work, eat, shop and spend our leisure time has changed, in ways we don’t yet fully understand. And although we have done certain things certain ways for longer than any of us have been alive, we learn very quickly how to do them in completely new ways.
Even during the shutdown, renovation continued on a few Main Street buildings. But we all know: Retail is altered forever. The big chains that forced out locally owned shops have swiftly contracted. Some are already bankrupt. More will follow. Betting that a new women’s clothing store, “lifestyle brand” or sunglasses shop will save Main Street is like believing that drinking bleach will kill a virus.
So to the vision I proposed on March 3 — a promenade filled with restaurants and cafes, food carts and artists’ kiosks; a general store, book store, and ice cream shop; cultural and arts events; the Farmers’ Market, offices, non-profits, apartments — I’d like to add a few more: a parking garage, with athletic fields on top. Fire pits. That elusive movie theater. Maybe even that long-discussed bridge over the river to the west bank.
And now I have an even more dramatic idea.
Let’s build it all the right way, at the right place: alongside the river.
It’s time to reclaim the river. San Antonio’s done it; so has Providence. This is our chance to actually, spiritually, emotionally — and physically — create an entirely new downtown.
Let’s get rid of Parker Harding Plaza. Let’s tear down most of the buildings on Main Street. Let’s redesign everything from the Post Road to Avery Place, from scratch.
A proposal like this demands a lot from everyone. We’ll need the cooperation of property owners. That’s not easy in the best of times. But paradoxically, this might be the best time. What REIT in its right mind wants to hold on to a building whose tenant relies on a February 2020 retail model — with no other businesses to replace them in sight?
We’ll need the cooperation of town officials. Again, that’s not as far-fetched as it seems. Where once it took weeks to approve an awning or agree on sidewalk paving standards, the past few days have seen lightning-quick action on outdoor dining applications and new town regulations.
“We’re all in this together” can be a meaningless phrase. These days, local government, civic groups, merchants and restaurant owners have shown it can be a reality.
We’ll need the cooperation too of Westporters. Our downtown transformation won’t happen overnight. We’ll be building a house while also living in it. But if the past 3 months have shown us anything, it’s that our homes — our residences, and our home community — are vital to everything we do.
So that’s my plan. It’s a way to re-imagine, renovate and recharge Westport, for generations to come.
It’s a way to put hundreds of people — construction workers first, then employees — to work. It’s a way to draw countless others downtown, to be entertained, eat, enjoy themselves, and live.
Let’s not let this slip away. We can’t content ourselves dreaming that some day — hopefully soon — Americans will begin shopping in stores again, the same way they did before. And remember: On March 3, we weren’t exactly doing that either.
Magical thinking like that leads us right down the path of the guys who said, a couple of years ago, “Hey! Let’s build a mall in Norwalk, right next to Exit 16. What could possibly go wrong?!”
This is the start of the post-pandemic world. This is the time for truly bold, really creative, way-forward thinking.
This is our Embarcadero moment.