[OPINION] Main Street Musings

Fred Cantor moved to Westport when he was 10. After Yale University and law school, he and his wife bought a 2nd home here. Then they moved permanently. They spent COVID in California, but are back now.

Fred is an astute observer of all things Westport. Today — looking backward and toward the future too — he trains his eye on downtown.

On Friday, the New York Times wrote about efforts in England to help keep alive and/or revitalize the nation’s “high streets” — the British equivalent of our Main Street — in towns around the country.

Among the ideas is the notion of short-term leases in certain instances — even just 3 months.

That got me thinking about one of the great mysteries of life (which perhaps “06880” readers who work in commercial real estate can answer): How come middle school students in Westport have no memory of any business operating out of the prime location where the Remarkable Book Shop was so successful for so many years?

How and why has that building remained vacant for so long?

The Remarkable Book Shop, back in the day. 

And is the concept of a short-term lease for perhaps a seasonal summer-related business, or another entity that would run from the beginning of October through Christmas feasible at that location? Or any retail site on Main Street?

On a related note: The Remarkable used to have display cases outside its store.  Even if the current owner of the building can’t find a suitable tenant for the space, is it worth it for the owner to consider renting to a business that wanted to operate a kiosk on its property? Are there other Main Street locations where a kiosk might make sense?

I have happily patronized the Strand Bookstore kiosk on 5th Avenue near Central Park South. Perhaps kiosks would add some street appeal to downtown.

Shopping at the Remarkable Book kiosks. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

Turning from England and New York to California: When we stayed not far from Laguna Beach, we enjoyed seeing how the town closed off the bottom portion of its Main Street equivalent — Forest Avenue — and turned it into a pedestrian mall. “The Promenade on Forest” featured temporary retail and dining decks, along with art displays.

I love what has happened here with Church Lane. And I know that Main Street has been closed off for an entire weekend for the annual Arts Festival.

I hope to hear from store proprietors on the lower half of Main Street whether they think it might be worthwhile to experiment with closing that section, perhaps for an entire week, to see if it successfully attracts more business.

At the same time, I would love to hear from local officials and residents who live near downtown whether such an experiment might be worth pursuing to evaluate the impact on traffic congestion near downtown.

This was Main Street, during the 2014 Art About Town festival.

Speaking of Laguna Beach: The town permitted installation right by City Hall of a fabulous artwork that generated a lot of interest.

Could Westport do something similar with Veterans Green on a regular basis? By that I mean perhaps scheduling periodic events such as small acoustic concerts?  Would that type of “happening” help make Main Street more of a destination?

I don’t claim to have any definitive answers. But I would have no objection if Main Street became something close to Yogi Berra’s famous observation: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

29 responses to “[OPINION] Main Street Musings

  1. I’d leave Veterans Green alone. It is a quiet, contemplative, green space dedicated to Westport veterans dating back more than 100 years. Best to keep it that way.
    Otherwise, I applaud Mr. Cantor’s creative ideas.

  2. Rozanne Gates

    Church Street in Burlington, Vermont is a perfect example of what Westport should be emulating. Great restaurants, cafes, shops (all local ) – and…a fabulous waterfront with walk paths and boats and it is just a great town. It all transformed when Bernie Sanders was the mayor of Burlington.

  3. Ciara Webster

    I think closing parts of town here and there for events such as art festivals and concerts is a splendid idea.

    But here and there being the operative word.
    Perhaps 3 or 4 such weekends as we just did for the art festival might be very rejuvenating.

    One of our hugest issues in town is parking and it definitely won’t work to attract more people to the area for shopping, dining etc, if we lose all the parking by closing streets off.

    I also believe that the closing off of church lane has been disastrous because of the multiple parking spots lost, and flow of traffic and most of all to businesses in the area most especially restaurants not on church lane who now find themselves ghost towns because of the excessive numbers of tables given on church to the 3 restaurants there.
    I think closing Main Street and church lane for a targeted weekend where something has been organized and planned would be fantastic.

    I believe that would be something residents of Westport and visitors to town would really enjoy.

    Let’s not forget we had a parking issue in downtown and a traffic issue precovid, and it’s has now become pretty intolerable with road closures.

    We also have the levitt pav a fabulous facility. Let’s think about trying to use that for some extra events.

    • Rozanne Gates

      I agree that the issue of parking needs to be seriously addressed. Who is in charge of that?

  4. Sal Liccione

    I think I town and rtm members of district 9 as I am I live on Church lane to be involved but jim Marpe does not want rtm members Downtown to be involved or Jen tiller who have private meetings with dma all the time it’s not fair to us who live here so I ask again to jim Marpe I was told I can’t be on depac because I am elected to rtm but there are others elected on this committee who don’t live downtown so I ask Randy and jim Marpe again thanks I ask all the voters to contact jim Marpe and Jen tooker

  5. Jack Backiel

    In Palm Beach, waterfront property is $50,000 dollars a linear foot. And in other towns, waterfront property is the most expensive. However, in Westport, a parking lot occupies downtown waterfront property. In my humble opinion, we got it backwards.

  6. Thank you Fred appreciate your thoughts and post. We have been under construction for the past 4 plus years downtown, between building renovations, new sidewalks, and utility work.

    The beautiful thing is all the new businesses that have opened up and many more coming that have signed leases and will open soon. I believe the number is over 30 new businesses in the last 2 plus years.

    The Marpe administration has done an exceptional job along with DTM President Randy Herbertson, in not only being creative with town events such as our Arts Festival, Church Street and other downtown events.

    We are coming out of Covid strong, downtown continues to evolve back to a destination place for not only our residents but visitors as well.

    Parking Harding, is interesting and the reason is the Saugatuck river used to go right up to the buildings. The parking lot is fill!!! Unfortunately not an easy fix as it will require proper planning, engineering, and lots of money to do a “major” project. This is just my opinion of course.

    In my 50 plus years in Westport I have NEVER had a problem with parking. Weekends ample parking at Town Hall, 1 Gorham Island, behind North Main Street office and doctors offices, and Imperial lot.

    If you are looking for Rock Star parking, just keep circling and you may get lucky. I will never buy into a parking problem with downtown Westport as a little walking is required in every town and city in the United States.

    As a member of the RTM I enjoy working with everyone, be it our Planning and Zoning Department, Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Marpe Administration, DMA, Chamber of Commerce, and others working towards one goal-

    Making our downtown the best experience we can for our residents, retailers, and guests.

  7. Ciara Webster

    We have an enormous and spiraling parking problem downtown. It was nice to see the efforts made by the town to help businesses to get through covid.

    No doubt about that but thankfully covid is looking like it is in our rear view mirror. And it will be a huge relief to many of us in town to see church lane reopened in the fall.

    An even playing field needs to be addressed and possibly church lane is the prime example. As well as the bar taco, OKO area.
    I’m not going to comment on Saugatuck as this post is about the downtown area. But that’s a whole other huge conversation.
    Needless to say there are indeed 30 new businesses potentially opening but this has zero to do with the DMA or the administration.

    It’s a factor of vacancies which existed. They were bound to eventually after a long span of being empty see reduced rents and get leases.
    That’s just always been a given.
    And yes these will bring more visitors and require more parking which we do not have.

    It’s wonderful to see the lease signs coming down and a relief for neighboring businesses which have suffered fewer visitors and people frequenting downtown so amen !

    If the church lane fiasco is not addressed and quickly we will see many new businesses who opened in the past few months all go out of business without a business impact study from the erection of tents, the doubling of seats at these restaurants and the huge mistake the town made towards it’s obvious favoritism on church lane..
    church has approx 200 extra seats on its street..
    no parking for them in fact parking removed by closing the street, and those 200 extra seats amount to the equivalent of opening a second spotted horse and a second pink sumo as well as 3 more manna toasts.
    It is very important to remember the old rule of thumb for what every added restaurant seat is worth. 25,000 a year per seat.
    Same number of diners and same number of parking spots.. while church lane is singing “manna “ from heaven for their doubling of seats, others are not so lucky. We do not want to become a 10 restaurant town.

    The town does not have the population nor visitors and most especially not the parking to allow this to continue, we are not Fairfield or Norwalk, unless we want to see other places go out of business who just opened their doors, not to mention some older places struggling to gain traction post covid.
    But an economic impact study will show very clearly the beneficiaries of all of this and the losers as a result. An economic impact as well as a parking study will show us how to try and make it a fair playing field.

    Amen as I said to covid being in the past and life getting back to a new lucrative norm for everyone not just the chosen few.

    I’m looking forward to opening a new restaurant where the iconic “tavern on main” was, in the fall and very optimistic that all of these uncertainties can be resolved meanwhile.

  8. Jack Backiel

    Jimmy, Thanks for your e-mail which was enlightening.(I’m going to assume you’re related to Butch too.) I do want to clarify one point. I should have stated oceanfront property in Palm Beach is $50,000 a linear foot, not waterfront. Actually it’s probably higher than $50,000 now. I have to admit I never was much of a downtown kind of guy in Westport. I used to go to the YMCA and the Westport Bank & Trust,, and the Fine Arts once in a while, but that was it.

  9. Arline Gertzoff

    Church Lane should only be closed on weekends Most of Main Street is closed by 6 pm so why reduce parking further ?People want close and convenient Lights should be strung in Saugatuck where bars and eateries stay open Yes we have wonderful high end stores on Main Street for a mostly affluent crowd Sales are the exception.
    so it goes in my hometown for 65 years

  10. Ciara Webster

    Absolutely Arlene. Well said.
    We are a town not just a couple of “ chosen” streets.
    The few beneficiaries of this incredibly poor foresight are going to bankrupt everyone else, while they laugh all the way to the bank, whilst inconveniencing is.
    It feels like Walmart or Home Depot restaurants have taken over.
    No chance for Saugatuck or post road if this is allowed to continue.
    And they are all part of Westport last I checked.
    It’s nice to know how many people are tiring of this.

  11. Ciara- We welcome your new restaurant!! I wish you the best of luck and look forward to coming in and celebrating your opening. Jack, yes related to Butch and all of the izzo’s!

    Hopefully with all our input and help we can create vibrant businesses on all sides of Main Street. The goal is to help all our businesses succeed.

  12. John D McCarthy

    love having Church lane closed and the restaurants outside. Hope it becomes permanent.

  13. Thankfully it becoming permanent is not on the cards. You must not own a business in town effected by this closure and setting up of 200 seats outside..
    there’s not another restaurant in Westport who supports it so it will not be ever closed not unless we get to close all the streets and just have seats for all out on the road.
    And the restaurants are not just seating outside. They are drawing a crowd by doing this and music and thanks to anti trust/competition it cannot continue.. plus They are on town property which is public property not theirs.
    They are also breaking the law by not having 20 porta potty’s on the street to handle the crowds.
    They are monopolizing the parking and not to mention all the health ordinances being broken..
    plus the food takes longer and is poor quality, cold and lousy.
    If you enjoy eating outside that’s great. You’ll be able to do so at many venues who have private outdoor eating not on public property, applied for correctly and not breaking normal regulations.
    Personally my opinion is that church lane looks a lot better without the sea of card tables but that’s just my opinion.

  14. Fred Cantor

    Thanks for everyone’s responses. One thing I can say that I hadn’t previously given any thought to: Ciara Webster’s posts re a lack of a level playing field downtown with respect to public property being used for the restaurants on Church Lane and the competitive advantage given to those restaurants. That is indeed a fascinating point.

  15. Totney Benson

    I too am loving the Church St set up now, and whenever we go there, we definitely do shop in all the shops there (which might not be otherwise the case). It adds a great deal of vibrancy and excitement to downtown, and now that new stores are coming in, a great opportunity to check those out as well!

  16. Jack Backiel

    Ciara, You make great points! What are the potential liability consequences to the town of Westport if they’re allowing people to eat on public property in the middle of a street?

  17. Jack Backiel

    I wonder if the restaurants that did not have the opportunity to set up tables in the middle of the street have legal standing against the town? That decision by the town to allow only a few restaurants to use public property to set up tables in the middle of the street could be looked upon as discriminatory. Are there any attorneys who would like to comment on my speculation?

  18. Thank you Fred and Jack for saying so.

  19. Jack Backiel

    Perhaps the rest of the restaurants in Westport, who weren’t afforded the opportunity to extend their businesses out into the public streets, should unite and hire an attorney? I’m just thinking out loud here, but somehow it really seems questionable to give certain restaurants permission to set up shop in town owned streets and not open that up to all restaurants! It smells like discrimination to me.

  20. Absolutely Jack. Thank you !! It’s blatant discrimination. I believe that there is a group exploring such an option if this situation remains.
    Everybody has a right to be treated with fairness.
    Time will tell.

  21. Jack Backiel

    Even if it ends today, damage may already have been done by weeks and weeks of possible unfairness. In my unprofessional opinion, a letter should have been sent out to EVERY restaurant in Westport affording them the opportunity to participate in ‘street closing dining.’ For example, on a rotating schedule, on certain days, all restaurants could somehow participate. I realize that would be extremely difficult to pull off, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been attempted. If we can land on Mars, we can figure out a way for all restaurants to participate.

  22. Dick Lowenstein

    Hey Fred, if you want a taste of the Strand’s kiosks, go to 33 Jesup Road, where the library-supported Westport Book Shop has two book-filled rolling carts, just like the ones you can still find at the Strand’s lower Broadway location.

    And speaking of Broadway, our Main Street reminds me a tiny bit of the Ladies Mile, the historic district in NYC, known as the shopping mecca mostly for women during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. That’s what Westport’s Main Street is largely about. Anyone remember when we had three book stores: Remarkable, Atticus, and Klein’s?

    • Yes, I do. And 3 hardware stores on Main Street: Welch’s, Hartmann’s & Westport Hardware

  23. I fear you are right about that Jack and your point is spot on, great financial damage has already been caused over last summer and fall til December, and now since April.
    I’m glad I wasn’t open yet on Main Street because if I had been I might already be bankrupt.

    It’s interesting how many people after it’s explained say “oh wow, I hadn’t thought about that” and understandably so. But once explained I have yet to hear anyone disagree that the situation was grossly unfair and incredibly self serving.

    It was done under the guise of helping the few out during covid, and mind you the biggest beneficiaries of the on street dining were the biggest beneficiaries of HUGE ppp money, some got as much as 1 million dollars in the first tranche.. enabling them to pocket all their earnings whilst using PPP money to pay for rent, staff, and utilities.
    they all had banner years but it was at a huge expense to the restaurants not afforded the same opportunities.. many of whom had lesser bank connections and received none of the same PPP

    It’s quite infuriating.

    We all open our businesses knowing very well the constraints of the location. We do our homework and we don’t expect unfair opportunities to be afforded to fellow businesses.

    If I open a restaurant and there are 10 others with a total of let’s say 400 seats in the neighborhood I don’t expect that number to go to 600…

    I will say I think Matthew Mandell and chamber of commerce worked very hard to help all the businesses they could. And I have no doubt that they tried their best to make things even, where they could. I believe they worked tirelessly to do what they could.

    It’s just unfortunate there are always the owners who will push the envelope
    With no regard for anyone but their own bank account.

    I have every faith that this is all being addressed and looked at for the future and one hopes there will be a fair solution.

    Thanks for commenting Jack. So glad to hear you feel the same way.

  24. Jack Backiel

    Without naming any names, I called an old friend of mine I’ve known since the 1960s, and asked him to read this post. He’s been an attorney for about 50 years.

  25. Ciara Webster

    We really do appreciate your mutual concern for fairness here.
    Thank you

  26. Elaine Marino

    I understand why Main Street retail stores would not support a pedestrian mall during business hours, but why can’t Main Street restaurants enjoy a pedestrian mall on Fridays and Saturdays between 6:00 pm and 10:00 pm during the summer, for example? Main Street will need cones with signs stating that cars must be moved off the street by 5:45 pm or they will be towed, but stores could help out with this by reminding customers. I hope that logistical issues such as this one and others can be addressed, so Westport can “give it a go.”

  27. Robert M. Gerrity

    And why has no one, NO One, answered the Great Remarkable Mystery? Unless Intrepid Investigator Dan has already done so in a earlier post? Who the hell owns it? Who has the trade rights to the name: “Remarkable Book Shop”? I bought a signed copy of The Lively Lady (Kenneth Roberts) there from the very 1st book shop owner, say 1958-1961, so I go back before it was Always Remarkable.