Last month — when “06880” reported that Peter Nisenson flood-proofed, refurbished and saved 201 Main Street, the “little red house” on the Saugatuck River that had been slated for demolition — readers rejoiced.
Now Nisenson and his PEN Building Company are about to start work on another property. It’s a new structure — but it sits on one of the most visible corners in Westport.
For decades, 233 Hillspoint Road has been the site of commercial ventures, in the heart of the Old Mill residential neighborhood. First a grocery store, the 2-story building later housed restaurants, including Cafe de la Plage and Positano’s.
This morning, it became Westport’s latest teardown.
The view from Old Mill Beach, as the former Positano’s and Cafe de la Plage was demolished this morning. (Photo/Patricia McMahon)
Over the next year, Nisenson will build a new home there. He and the owner have spent a couple of years planning how best to utilize the awkward-shaped lot — while maintaining the neighborhood character, and views admired by all Westporters.
“It’s a very public property,” Nisenson notes. “It was important to create something that blends in.”
The new house will be pushed back from the road. A dense buffer zone with native plants will provide privacy in back for the owners. But it’s on a public beach. The property ends where the sand begins — so Old Mill will remain the same as it’s always been.
The sidewalk in front will remain too.
The former restaurant has been vacant for nearly 4 years. Neighbors — and everyone else who loves the beach area — hope that Nisenson’s new project will be as well received as his Little Red House.
Emma Morano died on Saturday, in Italy. The world’s oldest woman — and the last person on earth known to have lived in the 1800s — she was 117 years old.
Here in Westport, a demolition permit has been issued for 233 Hillspoint Road. The notice affixed to the side of the building puts its age at 117 years.
It too has a link to Italy: Most recently, it was the site of Positano. That restaurant closed at the end of 2014. It reopened several months later at its present location, next to the Westport Country Playhouse.
Positano was the last in a storied line of restaurants at 233 Hillspoint. Perhaps its most popular predecessor was Cafe de la Plage.
In between, it was (briefly) the Beach House:
“Beach House,” by Tony Marino.
In the mid-1900s, Westporters knew it as Leo Williams’ Old Mill Restaurant:
Leo Williams’ Old Mill Restaurant, in 1954. (Photo/Bridgeport Post)
Before that, it was both the Beach Food Mart, and Joe’s:
In its 117 years, #233 Hillspoint has seen a lot. The neighborhood has changed — many times. Old Mill Beach has thrived, eroded, and come back to life.
Of course, there were floods, like Hurricane Carol in 1954 …
… and SuperStorm Sandy 59 years later:
From these photos, it’s likely the property started out as a private home.
Once demolition as complete, that’s probably what it will become again.
The on-again, off-again, on-again saga of a restaurant near Old Mill Beach is off again.
This time, forever.
When Positano — the latest in a string of restaurants on Hillspoint Road — closed almost exactly 2 years ago, there was speculation the new owners wanted to tear it down, and build a big house right there on the sand.
There was also talk that some neighbors — fearing the loss of their shoreline view, and enjoying the funkiness of a restaurant in the midst of a residential area — were doing what they could to make sure a new restaurant took Positano’s place.
The “Positano property,” at Old Mill Beach diagonally across from Elvira’s.
That was somewhat ironic. When Positano applied for patio dining in 2012, neighborhood opposition scuttled the plan. Lack of outdoor seating was one factor leading to Positano’s closing, and its subsequent move to a new location next to the Westport Country Playhouse.
Though a number of residents worked for months to get another restaurant on the site, one neighbor continued to object. She sued.
Now comes news that the owner of the property — an LLC with an office in Nashville, Tennessee — has filed an affidavit with Westport’s Planning and Zoning Department. The owner acknowledges and affirms that “any and all commercial uses of the premises at 233 Hillspoint Road have been irrevocably abandoned and discontinued.”
In other words, any chances for a new restaurant — grandfathered in as a pre-existing condition — has been killed. Now, and in perpetuity.
Before it was Positano, 233 Hillspoint Road was several other restaurants (including, most notably, Cafe de la Plage). But before THAT it was a grocery store. Among its names: Beach Food Mart (above), and Joe’s.
So what happens next?
The property is back on the market. It’s listed as “A Generational Waterfront Opportunity.”
Potential buyers have a chance to “build and live directly on Compo Cove Beach’s [sic] most unique [sic] lot with spectacular Long Island Sound views.” The land “is now available for a luxury private home to be built.”
Buyers can enjoy “the most beautiful expansive water views, spectacular sunrises and sunsets” (those sunsets might be tough, since the listing notes it is an “east facing property”, and Compo Hill is a substantial obstruction to the west).
This photo from the real estate listing shows the current footprint of the former restaurant (center). The yellow line shows the property boundaries. Click on or hover over to enlarge.
The listing continues:
Enjoy the ever-changing tides and light, the shore birds, and the tranquility that exists with living right on the beach. With no neighbor to your right, it’s like having your own front row seat to the best Long Island Sound offers — sunbathing, swimming, fishing boating…
Seize this opportunity to create your own magnificent custom home for the first time ever on this site.
A mere $4,500,000.
But wait! There’s more!
Elvira’s — diagonally across Hillspoint from #233 — continues to be on the market too. There’s been no sale yet, but word on the soon-to-drastically-change street is that it may not remain a grocery store/ community center.
Friday’s “06880” post on the benefits and drawbacks of a restaurant in the residential Old Mill neighborhood noted that 4 years ago, area residents opposed Positano’s owners plan to add 4 tables of outdoor dining at the site.
Several commenters pointed out that before Positano, Cafe de la Plage enjoyed a long and storied run as a beachside dining spot. Sally Kellogg Deegan remembered a restaurant called Leo Williams in the 1940s.
She’s exactly right. But there’s a lot more to the tale than that. And it involves the same issue that Positano faced decades later: neighbors.
The Bridgeport Post of August 21, 1954 ran this headline: “‘Fed Up With Town,’ Says Restaurateur Leo Williams in Quitting Westport.”
The story begins:
Leo Williams’ restaurant, a landmark at Old Mill Beach since 1945, will change owners on or about October 1 as the result of a zoning feud between the proprietor and the town.
Ired by what he termed the ‘petty complaints of jealous neighbors,’ Williams and his partner, Fred Wittenberger, moved to Essex, where they purchased a colonial mansion.
In 1945, Williams had taken over the Old Mill restaurant. Officials granted permission to build a screened-in porch, on land that partly encroached on town property.
Leo Williams’ Old Mill Restaurant, in 1954. The screened-in porch can be seen on the right. (Photo/Bridgeport Post)
In 1954, he added a wooden fence in front of his adjacent Hillspoint Road home. Neighbors complained it was on Old Mill Beach property. Williams said the land was his.
After a survey, Westport’s selectmen ordered the fence removed. Williams refused. The case went to the Court of Common Pleas.
Leo Williams’ Hillspoint Road home, with its fence. (Photo/Bridgeport Post)
Williams then placed large boulders in front of his fence. He said he needed protection against tidal storms. The selectmen had the rocks removed, and billed Williams.
After Williams announced he was moving to Essex, neighbors told him to remove the porch. They said it belonged to him, not the restaurant. Williams countered that without the porch, no one would sublet the restaurant.
Comparing himself to Vivien Kellems — a longtime Westporter who left for Stonington following zoning battles over her cable grip manufacturing company — Williams said, “I’m getting out of Westport and the sooner the better. If the porch must be removed, I’ll take it with me to Essex. I’m fed up with the town and my nosy neighbors.”
As beach weather nears — and we head into our 2nd summer without an Old Mill Beach restaurant — many Westporters wonder what’s up with the old Positano property.
It was purchased in 2014 by Gibby Cohen and his family. They live nearby — on land where they could build a 15,000-square foot house — but they did not need or want one that big. The Cohens figured 3,000 square feet would be fine.
The Positano plot — diagonally across from Elvira’s; for many years the site of Cafe de la Plage, briefly the Beach House, and long before all that Joe’s Store — was perfect.
The “Positano property,” at Old Mill Beach diagonally across from Elvira’s.
The Cohens soon realized, however, that many neighborhood residents — on Hillspoint, Compo Hill and surrounding streets — wanted a restaurant there. It brought life to the area. And the existing building provided scenic views, which a new structure might block.
The Cohens were happy to acquiesce. They’re not interested in running a restaurant themselves. But they’re quite open to selling (or, worst case, leasing) their property to a restaurateur.
At least one neighbor objects. Ellen Van Dorsten — who opposed Positano’s application for patio dining in 2012, and helped lead opposition to saving Allen’s Clam House before that — is suing the Cohens. She hopes to prevent a new restaurant on the Positano lot. The suit will be heard in November.
The controversial terrace at the old Positano.
Van Dorsten was not the only resident opposed to the 2012 patio petition, for 4 tables seating 16 diners. Other neighbors also protested. The restaurant owners cite the lack of outdoor seating as one factor that forced them to relocate. Their new restaurant is next to Westport Country Playhouse.
Now, however, neighborhood sentiment seems to be coalescing around a restaurant — rather than a new-construction home — on the property.
This seems like an ideal opportunity for a well-known, highly respected restaurateur to open a new, seafood-oriented place, in a building with a historic past and neighborhood support.
Joey’s by the Shore Clam House, anyone?
NOTE: Gibby Cohen declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. Requests for comment from Ellen Van Dorsten — by phone and email — were not returned.
Long before Cafe de la Plage and Positano’s, the property was the site of Joe’s Store. This was the scene in 1954, during Hurricane Carol.
Peter Jones posted a fascinating photo on Facebook today (and David Pogue provided some touch-up magic to it):
It shows the corner of Compo Hill Road and Hillspoint, during Hurricane Carol in 1954.
What is today Positano’s was then called Joe’s Store.
Peter wrote: “Notice the waves hitting Old Mill Beach. After Hillspoint Road was washed out, the town rebuilt and enlarged the jetty at Schlaet’s Point and reinforced the embankment at Hillspoint Road with HUGE boulders, creating sort of a Stonehenge effect.”
Darlene Bora added: “My mom always told me the pillars had been cut down at the bottom of Compo Hill Road (she grew up on Sterling Drive). I never saw them before today.”
Joe’s Store was there in 1954. Cafe de la Plage was there in 1984. Positano’s is there in 2014.
Now though, there’s no telling what that corner will look like — in good weather, and bad — in 2015.
The terrace — sitting serenely on the Sound — has been there since 2000. The restaurant — catty-corner from Elvira’s, in the Old Mill section of town — has been there far longer. Old-timers remember it as Cafe de la Plage.
A no-brainer, right?
The patio is illegal. The owners never sought town approval. Outdoor dining is prohibited in residential areas.
And, oh yeah: Part of it was built on town land. Well, sand. Anyway: We own the beach.
The terrace at Positano’s juts into town-owned land.
Dozens of nearby residents oppose the request to place 4 tables on the patio, adding 10 seats to the restaurant for a total of 62. They cite “noise, commotion and congestion,” according to the Westport News, along with inadequate and illegal parking.
Yet at least one resident — 89-year-old Allen Raymond — thinks the proposal is fine.
A view of Positano’s from Hillspoint Road.
Positano’s land-use consultant, Mel Barr, claims that because the economy has driven business down 30 percent from a few years ago, the move to outdoor dining is a necessary “shot in the arm.”
Neighbors might respond it’s a kick in the teeth.
The P&Z did not vote on the application — officially, a lease of town property to the restaurant to allow use of the patio — and public comments are officially closed.
But that doesn’t mean “06880” readers can’t weigh in. Click on your preference in the poll below. Mangia — or not?
Click here to help support “06880” via credit card or PayPal. Any amount is welcome — and appreciated! Reader contributions keep this blog going. (Alternate methods: Please send a check to: Dan Woog, 301 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880. Or use Venmo: @DanWoog06880. Or Zelle: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!)