Category Archives: Saugatuck

“Main To Train Study” Wants You

If you’re a normal Westporter, you’re probably all meeting-ed out.

So I’m presenting this without editorial comment.

The town of Westport hosts a public information meeting next Monday (March 25, 7:30 p.m., Town Hall room 201). The subject is the “Westport Main to Train Study.”

That’s the project to identify improvements to vehicle, bike and pedestrian safety and circulation on the Post Road and Riverside Avenue. The idea is to create better connections between downtown and the train station, and “promote non-motorized transportation choices.”

The meeting — the 3rd of 5 planned during the study — is open to residents, business owners, commuters and “other local stakeholders who are concerned about transportation in Westport.”

For more information the Westport Main to Train Study, click here.

Post Road East and Riverside Avenue. The “Main to Train” study includes the often-gridlocked intersection.

[OPINION] Larry Weisman: Westport Needs Form Based Zoning

Larry Weisman, his wife (author/journalist Mary-Lou) and their children moved to Westport in 1966. A partner in the Bridgeport law firm of Cohen & Wolf, he’d just finished a stint with the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, defending SNCC workers in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In 1969, Weisman and Manny Margolis won a First Amendment case in the US Supreme Court. They represented Westporter Timothy Breen, a Staples High School graduate who had lost his student deferment after protesting the Vietnam War.

Larry Weisman

In 1979 Weisman moved his practice to Westport, concentrating on zoning law. He has represented the Gorham Island developer, the Gault Saugatuck project, the Westport Library, Aspetuck Town Trust, Compo Beach playground effort, and many other significant projects. 

He is a member of the Coalition for Westport. Most recently, he co-chaired the board of Fairfield County Hospice House, which recently opened a county-wide facility.

Weisman has watched with interest — and alarm — as Westport has grappled with a host of zoning issues. In his mind, the entire foundation of our zoning regulations is wrong. Here’s his solution.

Form Based Codes (FBCs) are an innovative way to manage growth and shape development in a way that reflects a specific idea of what a town should look like. They are intended to promote a mix of uses tailored to the needs and desires of a community.

FBCs are not intended to change existing residential neighborhoods, but to bring new life to business and commercial areas and town centers.

Rather than simply regulating development and density as we do now, Form Based Codes concentrate on relationships between public and private spaces, and the way streets and buildings interact in form and scale to create attractive neighborhoods.

Form Based Zoning is more concerned with the appearance of buildings and their relationship to public spaces and surrounding streets than with the uses of those buildings. The intent of this approach is to improve the appearance of buildings and streetscapes, and avoid the unintended consequences of haphazard development by providing a coherent vision which takes variety and appearance into account.

Many Main Street stores share a common setback.

For example: I can imagine Main Street populated by a mixture of apartments and smaller stores serving residents’ needs, with varying setbacks along both sides of the street to create a more interesting streetscape. I would add cafes and a movie theater to create activity in the evenings and contribute to a sense of community. I imagine the westerly side of Parking Harding Plaza as a park with a playground and other amenities.

Your notion of what Main Street should be may differ from mine. But somewhere from the welter of ideas a consensus will emerge, and an FBC would facilitate its translation into reality.

FBCs have been used to good effect in Manchester, Connecticut, to revitalize an outmoded highway commercial center in the Broad Street area, and on Cape Cod’s Buzzards Bay and Eastham, to create village centers after being bypassed or divided by new highway construction.

An FBC requires a comprehensive plan for the area in question. It lays out streets and public spaces, and suggests a variety of building forms and how they relate to those spaces, promoting a mix of uses and emphasizing the over-all appearance and “character” of the area.

Although we talk endlessly about the “character” of Westport, it is abundantly clear that there is no agreement as to what that “character” is.

For those of us who have lived here for many years it may mean a longing for the past, while for newer arrivals it may mean what Westport looked like when they got here. But most of us recognize “character” when we see it, and we value it in places like Provincetown, Nantucket, the fishing villages of Maine, and the islands of the Caribbean where we vacation. “Character” is more a matter of appearance than anything else.

A summer evening in Provincetown.

But no matter how you define “character,” most of us would agree that our current way of doing things — by strict application and enforcement of an ever-expanding set of restrictive regulations — has produced some undesirable and unattractive results that adversely affect our quality of life.

An FBC requires that we reach consensus as to what we mean by the “character” of Westport, so we can create a comprehensive plan which designates different building forms based on that consensus about the desired appearance and physical character of each part of town. This requires a series of public meetings and surveys with widespread citizen participation. It’s a heavy lift to be sure, but I am confident that done properly, a widely held vision for the future will emerge from the welter of ideas on the subject.

The next step is to work toward the desired result by enacting regulations which are not based on uses or density considerations alone, and which do not value uniformity, but emphasize design considerations, massing of structures, and how they relate to and interact with surrounding streets and public spaces.

For example, in an FBC frontage requirements on the same street might differ for buildings devoted to similar uses to add interest and variety and to avoid the monotony of a wall of boutiques, as on Main Street at present.

There are any number of things that we could do to make the streetscape and the pedestrian experience more interesting, attractive, and interactive, but first we need to discard old notions of zoning by division into districts and strictly regulating use and density, and understand that zoning regulations should be used not only to impose limitations and restrictions, but as effective planning tools with built-in design parameters.

The plaza between Saugatuck Sweets and The Whelk is an excellent example of an innovative use of space.

We need to acknowledge that there is real value in encouraging creativity by relaxing restrictions and providing guidelines and incentives to build in accordance with the community’s vision of what a given area should look like and how it should function.

Westport has suffered too long from lack of planning and lack of a coherent vision for areas such as Main Street and Saugatuck Center. The P&Z, overburdened as it is by new applications and enforcement responsibilities, has demonstrated a disinclination to engage in meaningful long-term planning, as witness the wholly unimaginative and inadequate 2018 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), as well as the costly studies gathering dust on shelves in the Town Hall.

At the same time, our zoning regulations are sorely in need of comprehensive revision. They are a mix of restrictions on development — some necessary and some, such as parking requirements for medical uses, excessive — and ad hoc reactions to individual cases that have only limited application. They can be difficult to understand and are susceptible to differing interpretations, which leads to inconsistent application. It is my hope that we will one day undertake revision of the zoning regulations, and that when we do, that we give serious consideration to the merits of an FBC.

This is the right time to rethink our priorities, to reform our practices, and to create a coherent vision for our most important neighborhoods, preserving what is worth preserving, planning for orderly, attractive and livable growth and instilling “character” into our most visible and important neighborhoods. A Form Based approach will go a long way toward achieving those goals.

New Saugatuck Story Lab Is The “Write” Place

For nearly 10 years, a suite of offices sat empty on the top floor of 21 Charles Street — the building opposite Tarry Lodge. That’s odd. It’s just a few steps from the train station, there are great restaurants all around, and the view is spectacular.

But the space is now rented. There’s a story there. In fact, there are countless stories.

The new tenant is Fairfield County Story Lab. It’s the brainchild of Carol Dannhauser, a journalist and writing teacher who loves both the written word, and the people who write it.

Carol Dannhauser enjoys working on one of Story Lab’s inviting couches.  

After 30 years with (among others) the New Haven Register and New York Daily News — and a freelance career in books, magazines and documentaries — Dannhauser realized that although writing is a solitary act, writers need solidarity.

She had a nice home office. Yet she’d head to Panera or Starbucks to work. She liked the background buzz. But even with a cup of coffee, she could not sit there forever.

“I was looking for ‘my people,'” Dannhauser says. “There are great writing studios in Westport” — in fact, she’s co-founder of the Fairfield County Writers Studio, elsewhere in the Charles Street building — “but they’re all about teaching,  not actually writing. I wanted a place where people could write, connect and prosper.”

She knows this town is filled with real writers: novelists, playwrights, journalists, children’s book authors, poets — you name it. She figured, “If you build it, they will come.”

She did. And they did.

Working in one of the common areas …

Dannhauser, her husband, and her business partner Diane Salerno spent 5 months renovating the 2,5oo-square foot space. They worked from Dannhauser’s vision: Give writers every type of accommodation they could imagine.

And even some they couldn’t.

There are all kinds of configurations: rooms with desks. Sofas. A quiet room (NO TALKING ALLOWED!). A deadline room (for an extra $100 a week you can lock the door, and race to finish that book or TV project.)

The cafe/kitchen — a corner room with great lighting and a killer view — is stocked with cheese, cookies, coffee, tea and a microwave.

A community room is perfect for a book club meeting, or book launch party.

… and the community room.

There’s also an interview room, a phone room and storyboard room, where groups of creatives can plot ideas. Of course, free WiFi is everywhere.

An attorney offers pro bono advice once a month on issues like copyrights and royalties.

A grand opening recently drew 100 people, including best-selling authors and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe. Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce president Matthew Mandell was there too. He’s excited that Story Lab will draw folks to Saugatuck. And — because you can’t sit and write forever — they’ll get up, go outside, and patronize nearby shops and restaurants.

As well as Mystic Market. The new store in the old Blu Parrot/Arrow had opened just a few days earlier. The market welcomed their new neighbor with a huge plate of cookies.

It’s open from 4 a.m. to 1 a.m. Hey, even writers need to sleep.

(Story Lab memberships range from a day rate to every day for a year, with several options in between. For more information, click here.)

The quiet room is QUIET!

Pics Of The Day #696

The William F. Cribari Bridge …

… and I-95 (Photos/Tracy Porosoff)

Indulge, Shop — And Support Your Local Blog

Indulge by Mersene is one of my favorite local stores.

No, make that one of my favorite places anywhere in all of Westport.

The fun, funky shop on the corner of Riverside Avenue and Railroad Place — directly opposite the train station — is crammed with eclectic, intriguing, one-of-a-kind items. It’s the go-to place for any gift-giving occasion; for adding zing to your own home; for gift-wrapping that will make you the envy of any party, and for the sheer delight of chatting with Mersene herself. (Her sweet Southern accent is reason enough to stop by.)

Indulge by Mersene on Railroad Place is a very cool, funky — and thriving — local business.

Indulge by Mersene is also one of the best places in Westport to buy “06880”-themed goodies. Pillows, pendants, blankets — if you can put our zip code on it, Merene already did.

Which is why I am honored that Mersene has made this coming Friday and Saturday “06880” days. She’s celebrating the 10th anniversary of our blog by donating 20% of all sales both days to “06880.”

Mersene’s warm, welcoming store is a joy to visit any day.

But especially so this Friday and Saturday. Did I mention they’re open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.?

(Click here for Mersene’s website.)

One “06880”-themed item …

… while this pendant features a Westport navigation chart.

Pics Of The Day #684

Westport’s Department of Public Works was out early this morning, making sure town roads were safe for everyone. (Photo/Jimmy Izzo)

When the snow stopped, this was the scene, looking westbound at the Saugatuck train station (Photo/Max Stanger)

Westport’s Cartoon History: What A Laugh

Westport’s heritage as an artists’ colony is no laughing matter.

Except when it is.

In addition to attracting some of the most famous portrait artists and commercial illustrators in the country, Westport was a haven for cartoonists.

“Popeye,” “Little Orphan Annie,” “Superman” — they and many of America’s most famous comic strips and books were drawn right here.

Westporter Curt Swan drew the “Superman” comics for many years. This illustration is part of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection.

The mid-20th century was America’s  golden age of cartooning. Now it’s memorialized in a show at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich. “Masterpieces from the Museum of Cartoon Art” — the current exhibition — features more than 100 original works, including strips, newspaper panels, comic books and animation.

There’s an early editorial cartoon by Thomas Nast, a New Yorker gag by Peter Arno, and classic “Peanuts” and “Doonesbury” drawings. Special programs include a panel tribute to “The Golden Age of Cartooning in Connecticut” (Thursday, March 7).

Wherever you turn in the Bruce Museum show, it’s hard to escape Westport.

Curator Brian Walker — former director of the Museum of Cartoon Art, and son of Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”) — grew up in Greenwich. But he knows Westport well.

His father was part of a large group of cartoonist friends. Many lived here. This is where their professional meetings (and parties) took place.

Bud Sagendorf (“Popeye”), Curt Swan (“Superman”), Stan Drake (“The Heart of Juliet Jones,” “Blondie”), Mel Casson (“Boomer”), Leonard Starr (“Little Orphan Annie”), John Prentice (“Rip Kirby”), Jack Tippit (“Amy”), Bill Yates (King Features comic strip editor) are just a few of the important Westport cartoon names.

They came here, Brian Walker says, for several reasons.

Westport was close enough to New York City to go in when they had to. But Connecticut had no state income tax.

Cartoonists work alone, in their studios. But they liked having like-minded professionals nearby.

Bud Sagendorf, and his most well-known character.

Max’s Art Supplies on the Post Road welcomed cartoonists. They’d buy pens, pencils and paper — and hang around to talk.

The coffee shop and Mario’s — both directly across from the railroad station — drew them in too. They’d work right up to deadline, head to Saugatuck, hand their work to a courier to be delivered to a New York editor, then sit around and tell stories.

The Connecticut chapter of the National Cartoonists Society — the largest chapter in the country — met for years at Cobb’s Mill Inn and the Red Barn.

In the heyday of Westport’s cartoon era, they had a bowling league. An annual golf tournament too.

Over the years, the world of cartooning changed. Today, it’s all about “animation.”

That’s no joke. But for several decades — not that long ago — Westport was where much of America’s laughter began.

(Click here for more information on the Bruce Museum exhibit, “Masterpieces from the Museum of Cartoon Art.” Click here for more information on Brian Walker’s March 7 panel discussion. 

Rizzuto’s: Rock Of Saugatuck

For decades, Manero’s drew steak lovers to Riverside Avenue, at the foot of Bridge Street.

When it closed, a succession of other restaurants followed quickly. There was John Harvard’s, Conti’s, and probably a couple more I forget.

Rizzuto’s has been there for 10 years now. It’s a Westport favorite: warm, welcoming, lively, packed, always serving great Italian and seafood.

Rizzuto’s has survived an economic downturn, the rebuilding of Saugatuck, and the continuing debate about the Cribari Bridge.

It’s not going anywhere. In fact, owner Bill Rizzuto recently gave his place — the 3rd in his small chain — the strongest endorsement: He moved to Westport.

Like many restaurant owners, he has an intriguing back story. A Long Island native, he attended NYU for chemistry. To help pay for tuition, he worked at the midtown Hilton.

There, he fell in love with the hospitality industry.

Bill Rizzuto

The man who hired him offered Rizzuto a job in Las Vegas. At 26, he headed west.

He quickly worked his way to food and beverage manager at the MGM Grand — at the time, the 2nd largest hotel complex in the world.

Rizzuto sat at the casino with Frank Sinatra (“really friendly and generous”). He was in Dean Martin’s suite (“he changed a lot after his son died”). He met Rodney Dangerfield (“definitely funny”), Sammy Davis Jr. and Pee Wee Herman.

He managed 1,500 employees — some old enough to be his grandfather. He learned how to treat people respectfully, how to organize a business, and that there is “life west of New Jersey.”

But he wanted to run his own property. A friend was opening the Dolphin Hotel in Florida. “I went from adult Disney World to the real Disney World,” Rizzuto laughs.

He was handed 12 restaurants, a set of blueprints, and told, “Make it happen.”

It became “the most rewarding part of my career,” Rizzuto says.

Next came 15 years with Hyatt — “the greatest company ever.” He worked in New York, Greenwich and San Francisco.

Bill Rizzuto and his daughter welcomed former President Jimmy Carter to the Hyatt in San Francisco.

But Rizzuto — who had moved 10 times while growing up — did not want that for his young kids. One day, he says, “a brick fell on my head. I said to myself, ‘why are you working for the greatest company in the world, with a car and an expense account, when you can open your own restaurant?!'”

He relocated back East, and opened his first Rizzuto’s in … Bethel.

“I knew a lot about hospitality. I didn’t know jack about real estate,” Rizzuto says.

He earned $3,000 that first year. But he persevered. The Bethel location is now thriving.

In 2008, he opened his second restaurant in West Hartford. The recession took a toll — and opened up an opportunity here.

Rizzuto had always wanted to be in lower Fairfield County. In good times, nothing was available. Yet in 2009, commercial space opened up. Rizzuto examined plenty of properties. When he heard Conti’s was closing, he realized the site was perfect.

A rare shot: The Rizzuto’s bar without a crowd.

The restaurant was an instant hit. It’s survived so long, he says, because “we never tried to be who we were not. It’s good to learn from new trends, but you can’t over-adapt.”

Rizzuto’s recipe for success is “really good, fresh Italian food,” and offering diners a wide range of choices for preparation and sauces.

Over the years Rizzuto’s added more fish and vegetables — the owner is a Westport Farmer’s Market regular — plus an oyster bar. Four years ago they introduced a Lobster Shack. Twice a week, trucks deliver fresh lobsters straight from the Stonington wharf.

Along the way, Rizzuto fell in love with the town.

“Westport is a great place,” he says. “There’s a lot of affluence, but people wear blue jeans. They’re very down to earth, friendly and generous. They really enjoy their community. There’s a very welcoming feel.”

Last year, he moved his family here from West Hartford. That’s another great community, he says. But real estate taxes were “insane.”

He and his wife Lisa are “enthralled” by Westport. “We’ll go to the beach in a blizzard, and walk around.” Rizzuto is an avid fisherman, so the proximity to water is a joy.

Outdoor dining at Rizzuto’s.  The Lobster Shack is next door.

Saugatuck’s restaurant scene is far more crowded than 10 years ago. Rizzuto is not only unconcerned — he welcomes the competition.

“Trust me, it’s good,” he says. “More places make Saugatuck more of a destination. People like clusters.”

He gives big props to town officials, who “go out of their way to be helpful to restaurant, retail and other business establishments.”

And, he notes, “we have a huge parking lot. That helps.”

Bill Rizzuto is a hands-on restaurateur. “I love food and people. My favorite thing is hanging out in the kitchen, and walking through the dining room. It’s just like my old hospitality days.”

Of course, Westport is not Las Vegas. He’s not hanging out with the Rat Pack.

Somehow, this is even more fun.

(On Saturday, March 2 — from 6 p.m. till midnight — Bill Rizzuto gives back to the community. An “Ice Bar” bash, sponsored by Tito’s Homemade Vodka and featuring live music, is a fundraiser for the Levitt Pavilion. Admission is free.) 

Railroad Station Coffee Changes

Breno Donatti — owner of Winfield Street Coffee — asked “06880” to pass this message on to readers. As with everything Winfield- related, it’s crafted with love and care.

In January of 2016 Joe Bonaiuto, owner of Bonjo Coffee Roasters, contacted me about taking over his shop at 54 Railroad Place. He wanted to focus on his wholesale business, and didn’t think a retail store was advancing his company.

I thought the location was perfect for us. Our deli was just a mile away. and we could quickly expand our business by providing Westport commuters with hot coffee and breakfast sandwiches.

It was a quick negotiation. We signed the lease, got our health permit, and we were open within a couple of weeks.

Pouring coffee for commuters with love, the Winfield way.

It has been a tremendous 3 years. We have a lot to thank our Westport commuters and the community in general for. Being part of your daily lives has been a real pleasure.

But the real realization that being in this location brought to me, personally, is how much coffee could open doors for us. We partnered with Counter Culture Coffee a year after we opened at Railroad Place, and over the past 2 years have constantly developed our knowledge of coffee.

Coffee is really the way that we have found to show love for people. We realized that the more invested we become in our coffee craft, the better our guests respond.

Our company’s mission is to be a “community gathering coffee place where guests can find a warm smile, excellent coffee and creative food.” Being a “people-lover” is really the only requirement that we have when hiring at Winfield Street Coffee. That is why we placed the “warm smilefirst in our mission statement.

I am proud to say that from the Railroad Place store, we were able to open 2 more locations: 13 Post Road West in Westport, and 4 Veterans Plaza, Croton-on-Hudson. We hired another 11 “people-lovers.” In August we will open our newest location — 2000 square feet with a beautiful patio area — in Stamford.

The Post Road West Winfield Street Deli.

I hope we loved you well, Westport commuters and Saugatuck community.

This Thursday (February 28), we will close our doors. Unfortunately, we could not get an agreement with our landlord for a lease renewal.

Our neighbors — Romanacci Pizza — will take over. They will serve coffee in the morning.

I am glad to say that our biggest “people-lover” — head barista Venlich Aguilar — will be hired by Romanacci and remain at that location. She loves Westport commuters too much to go anywhere else.

When you need a little of our Winfield Street Coffee love, please come to our other location in town, on Post Road West next to the bridge. We are open 7 days a week. You can also visit us in Croton, or our soon-to-be announced Stamford location.

Thank you!

Winfield Street Coffee Saugatuck: Breno Donatti and the team

Desi’s Departs

Desi’s — the latest, long-time incarnation of the even longer-time “general store” at the corner of Riverside Avenue and Railroad Place — is closing.

The Lotto machine is gone. Shelves are not being restocked. An employee says the business is moving to Hartford. The last day is Friday.

Sure, it’s been a while since anyone bought a newspaper there. (Or anywhere.)

Cigarettes are a dying product too.

But there still has to be a market for candy, sodas and batteries, right?