Reconnecting The Riverfront: Parker Harding, Taylor Lot Plans Move Forward

It took a while.

But Westporters are pleased with the redesign of the Baldwin parking lot. The Elm Street area has been redesigned, regraded and repaved. It works much better now.

Baldwin parking lot looking northwest, after renovation. (Photo/Dan Woog)

That’s just a taste of what’s to come though, parking-wise. Two bigger projects are in the works. They could significantly alter the way we perceive and use downtown lots — and, perhaps the way we perceive and use downtown itself.

Improvements to Parker Harding Plaza (behind Main Street), the Taylor lot (by Jesup Green and the Library) and the Imperial Avenue lot (Farmers’ Market, Remarkable Theater) have been discussed for decades — probably since Parker Harding was built on landfill in the 1950s.

Aerial view of downtown in 1949, before Parker Harding Plaza was built. The river came up to the backs of stores on the west side of Main Street.

Prior to that, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the backs of stores on the west side of Main Street (and pipes discharged sewage directly into it). The new lot may have added much-needed parking, but it created a sea of asphalt that turned the important and attractive river into a downtown afterthought.

A master plan of downtown improvements in 2015, designed by outside consultants, was complicated. Some ideas were feasible; others were not. The Downtown Plan Improvement Committee got mired in small details; then it got mired in COVID.

Randy Herbertson — the former director of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association — took over last year.

The parking lots are one of 5 pillars to the downtown plan, he says. The others ae pedestrian access, maintenance, sustainability and technology upgrades.

Parking now dominates the east bank of the Saugatuck River. Only a sliver of grass and a few benches provides access to anyone wishing to enjoy the view.

But parking may be the most visible. And if it’s improved, it drives the others.

The Parker Harding and Taylor lots are “aged, decrepit and in disrepair,” Herbertson says. “They’re not even optimized for parking and traffic. They don’t take advantage of the river. And they flood.”

The goal is to reclaim river access at both lots. Moving and reconfiguring parking — without losing spaces — could make room for a playground and expanded Riverwalk near Jesup Green, and allow for a more permanent Farmers’ Market and Remarkable Theater off Imperial Avenue. Electric vehicle charging stations would be included too.

(Photo/Chip Stephens)

The hope is for bids to be solicited early next year. Work on Parker Harder would be first, beginning in summer.

The biggest obstacle, Herbertson says, may be funding. The town is considering several capital projects, including  Long Lots and Coleytown Elementary Schools, and Longshore.

But, he notes, “the central business district affects everyone in town.” He sees opportunities for private investment in parts of the improvement plan — for example, an improved Riverwalk with native plantings and art installations, or a possible pedestrian bridge from Parker Harding to the west bank of the river.

This screenshot from the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee shows the Parker Harding lot, and its proximity to the Saugatuck River.

As Langan (an engineering and environmental consulting firm) and Connect the Dots (a community engagement firm) work with the DPIC to design the “Reconnecting the Riverfront” master plan, they plan a public charette September 29 (7 p.m., Westport Library). It’s a chance for residents to offer ideas and input.

A survey will be live soon too. Watch “06880” for the link.

(For more information, including early “inspirational ideas,” click here for the Downtown Plan Improvement Committee website.)

(“06880” covers all of Westport, from downtown to the beach and woods. To support this hyper-local blog, please click here.) 

6 responses to “Reconnecting The Riverfront: Parker Harding, Taylor Lot Plans Move Forward

  1. Unfortunately, improvements to the Baldwin lot are an untimely impediment to reclaiming the riverfront at Parker-Harding because they eliminate the option of relocation to Baldwin of the parking which will be lost by opening up the riverfront at Parker-Harding. The obvious solution would have been to construct a modest (2 or 3 story) parking structure at Baldwin – which would be obscured from view by the liner buildings recently constructed on Elm Street. I would think that the downtown merchants would be in favor of that option which relocates the parking which is important to them at a comparable distance to that which will be lost.

  2. I’m afraid the fate of the Saugatuck riverfront was decided decades ago when the office building developers were allowed to wall it off from the public. Now that the offices are no longer in demand, the owners rush to convert them to apartments despite the lack of land for outdoor amenities — play areas, gardens, pools — provided in similarly priced multifamily developments elsewhere. So we now have two Westports: the still lovely residential area where nature coexists with living, and the commercial districts where it does not,

  3. It is gratifying to see the evolution of thinking and planning for downtown. As has been often observed, these concepts are not new. The Coalition for Westport is almost ten years old. In one of its early draft Platform Points dated 8/28/2013 it proposed to:

    “Recapture the downtown waterfront for pedestrians, parks, recreation, retail and restaurants. (Note: The Commission approves “uses” for land. In this case, they could approve uses other then parking. What to do with the cars? Pass an amendment that would allow a multilevel parking facility on Baldwin parking lot – surrounded by retail, recreation and residential uses.)

    Emphasize the waterfront for recreation use. Are there not enough retail and restaurants? Downtown waterfront with a piazza feel – benches, tables, street theater, art, tai chi, occasional fair etc. Give voters something they can visualize and makes them smile.

    Capturing the waterfront also pertains to Jessup Green and by Riverside Park. Waterfront is a strong theme. ”

    The Coalition has consistently advocated for these and many other creative solutions in order to maintain Westport’s dynamic character as well as its historic character. Kudos to all those who are trying to support these types of ideas. Let’s not continue to kick the can down the road. It’s time to add traction to the talk.

  4. One lovely riverfront downtown I recently visited is Frederick Maryland, The commercial structures are situated so the public has continuous access to the river, for outdoor restaurant dining as well as public park attendees. I don’t think you’ll find any spot like this in Westport’s riverfront, Even outdoor dining is limited to a few walled off spaces only accessible via a commercial building.

  5. I hope the more permanent Remarkable Theater is an actual brick & mortar and not a drive in. That screen is such an eye sore during the farmers market and also while boating up the Saugatuck. You have the majestic Levitt Pavilion sails…and then right next to it, a black mass.

    What about an inflatable screen by the beach. Seems like a much better solution and location. Especially since they just show old movies…not sure why we need a permanent screen showing something you can pull up on Netflix.

  6. I always thought, that when I make the right turn from Main into the Parker Harding lot, that this is the most beautiful drive in Westport, almost right along the river’s edge, with just a few trees and a patch o’green between me and the river. This is the most spectacular way to bring the river into our every day lives, because we all drive. Driving right along the river or parking at the store I am going to. This drive and this lot is what made Westport in the 60’s and early 70’s, back when Westport and downtown was the coolest place. When you step out of your car, one is immersed in a world of the river. It would be very easy for ‘out of towners’ to misunderstand how downtown works. I hope they keep the drive along the river. I walk along the river every day since the 70’s, so I understand the value of a river walk. But it is the river drive that is transformational. All they need to do is the maintenance downtown. It was pathetic that I had to do the weeding along the river for years. Same with Baron’s South, if it was maintained it would be the beautiful spot.