Robert Augustyn, his wife Katie and son Will moved to Westport in 1996. He has coached Little League, and volunteered with the Westport Library, Food Rescue US and Bridgeport First Serve.
He has spent most of his professional career as a dealer of rare maps, books and prints. In 2019 he opened Robert Augustyn Rare Maps & Prints here, which has deepened his interest in Westport’s history. He has spoken widely on the subject of early maps to groups like the Rotary Clubs, and is the author of the award-winning Manhattan in Maps.
In 1960, Westport did the unthinkable and purchased a failing private country club in a weak economy for just about $2 million — roughly $20 million today. Sheer insanity!
Yet it happened. And today we enjoy as public amenities what private country club members pay many thousands of dollars to partake in.
The audacity of this acquisition drew national acclaim. It’s a great story of a few visionaries, and a bipartisan effort leading to sudden and overwhelming enthusiasm in the town.
What magnificent courage! Without it our beloved Longshore would have become Longshore Estates or some such, and Westport would have been set on a path to become another sequestered haven only for the very rich, where most of the town’s most beautiful areas would be irrevocably privatized.
The town’s purchase of Longshore in 1960 prevented it from becoming an 180-home residential development.
We are, I believe, at another such point in our town’s history in facing the question of what to do with the Parker Harding parking lot, our Saugatuck River frontage, and in a larger sense, the character of our downtown.
In debating this, I believe we have left off the table the bold, brave, Longshore-like option.
There has been much well-meaning discussion in recent years regarding the need for greater community connection and public spaces that foster interpersonal interaction. Having a more pedestrian-friendly downtown that invites lingering, that is more pedestrian friendly, more village-like, has been offered as an answer to the above needs.
Parker Harding Plaza (Drone photo/John Videler for Videler Photography)
None of the recent plans for our downtown really address this generally felt desire for a downtown with a more community feel.
Also, there is nothing in these plans that would meaningfully enhance enjoyment of the river, especially as long as there is a clogged parking lot adjacent to it; nothing in them that would encourage anyone to linger longer in downtown for the sheer pleasure of the experience.
Most would agree the Parker Harding lot is unsightly and unpleasant to navigate to say the least, and that it all but obliterates enjoyment of our riverfront, which could and should be the true focus in the re-making our downtown.
The current plan with the added greenery and trees, I believe, would hardly change at all the felt, on-the-ground experience of being in our downtown.
What would? True transformation, I believe, could only be realized by completely eliminating the Parker Harding lot, and building out another layer of retail space from the existing retails spaces. The rest would be a spacious promenade all the way to the river.
A good portion of the new retail space would be occupied by restaurants that would extend seating into the promenade, as found in many European port or riverside cities. COVID taught us that restaurants can offer outdoor seating virtually year-round, as is now commonly seen in New York.
Riverfront in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana.
I believe this configuration would also draw a much wider range of retailers than we currently have, and that the promenade can host kiosks for well-selected specialty retailers.
Also, there would be ample room for a bandshell or its modern equivalent, carefully curated food trucks, and whatever else might be added to a welcoming and fascinating space.
Overall, the goal of this approach is both modest and profound: to create a beautiful space where time can be spent pleasantly, where people would want to linger and slowing take in their surroundings. I believe much good can come of this simple end — both in terms of community connection and commercial vigor.
What about parking?
This would be the other audacious part. Build a parking garage in the conveniently located, very large Elm Street parking area. The first — of many I’m sure — objections would be that it would be an eyesore.
I answer that by saying I’m sure that Westport, with its devotion to the arts, can find a way to make this an appealing structure, by challenging local artists to help make it so.
Cost actually should not be a great obstacle. Searching online regarding the cost of such a structure, I came up with a back-of-an-envelope calculation of $10 million for 300 to 500 cars.
Another possibility resulting from the presence of of a parking garage would be the option to ban parking on Main Street and convert it to a 2-way road to compensate for the loss the Parker Harding cut-through.
It is often difficult to be aware of when a community is standing at a crossroads regarding its future. But as we contemplate the future of our downtown, let us at least be honest with ourselves.
Proposed project in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
There is a choice to be made here that will influence subsequent generations. It is this: Do we want our downtown to remain a not particularly pleasant place to quickly shop, dine and leave?
And in the case of the Parker Harding lot and the cut-through road along the riverfront, a decidedly unpleasant experience to be gotten through with hardly a glance at river?
Again, we must be really honest here: the current proposals for the Parker Harding lot would not substantively change this.
Or do we want our riverfront to become a true destination for both our own community and those from outside of it, where one would actually want to leisurely congregate, de-compress, stroll and mingle, take in the lovely, tidal Saugatuck River, and provide for us and future generations a soul-nourishing experience?
To put it another way: Are we content to essentially leave things as they are regarding the Parking Harding lot and our downtown, which would be the case if some version of the current plan is adopted, or do we want to do the hard, brave thing that would truly transform our downtown?
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