Special “morning ice in Westport” edition!
Special “morning ice in Westport” edition!
Westport does not have a nickname. But if we did, we might be called “The Land of Lawsuits.”
Westporters like to sue. The town won a lawsuit to prohibit construction of a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island (yay!). Neighbors lost a suit to prohibit construction of the Compo Beach playground (yay!).
Neighbors also threatened to prohibit Positano restaurant from putting a few tables on an outdoor patio near Old Mill Beach. As a result, the restaurant moved. A private home now rises in its place (boo!).
Lost in the mists of time is another lawsuit. In 1985, 64 residents of Bridge Street and nearby roads sued to prevent the conversion of what was then Saugatuck Elementary School into multi-unit housing.
Three years later, a settlement was reached. The agreement limited the project to 36 owner-occupied, age-restricted units.
Today, The Saugatuck is a true success story. One of Westport’s most affordable residences lies a short walk from thriving Saugatuck Center and train station, and not much further from Compo Beach.
The attractively renovated red brick building graces Bridge Street between South Compo and Imperial Avenue.
Residents have formed a tight-knit, active community. It’s hard to imagine the neighborhood without it, in fact.
None of that could have been predicted in 1984. Westport’s school population was declining. Burr Farms Elementary was torn down. Hillspoint Elementary turned into daycare. Bedford El became Town Hall. Greens Farms Elementary School housed the Westport Arts Center.
When the lawsuit was settled, plans were drawn up to convert the school that generations of Saugatuck residents attended. It dated back to the early 20th century, when the original wooden building was called the Bridge Street School.
It took several years, but 17 1-bedroom and 19 2-bedroom apartments were built in what were once classrooms, the library and auditorium. Because Saugatuck had been a classic elementary school, each unit features large windows and high ceilings.
Those surroundings are familiar to at least one current resident — and several others in the past. They attended Saugatuck El as kids. Living there now is very different — but also quite familiar.
Joe Veno has lived in The Saugatuck for more than 20 years. As a youngster, he walked to the school from his Franklin Street home. He played basketball in the playground — now a parking lot — and baseball in what is now a quiet back yard.
The Saugatuck is a cooperative. The Town of Westport owns the land, and holds a 99-year lease on the property. But the Cooperative owns the building.
Members must be at last 62 years old (at least one, in the case of married couples), able to live independently, and their income must be below the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority’s guidelines for homeowners at 80% of area median income. Importantly, there are no limits or restrictions on assets.
To ensure affordability, the resale price is linked to the average increase in income for individuals living in the area.
Three units are currently for sale. A 2-bedroom, 1 bath apartment is listed at $222,282; 2 1-bedroom units have listing prices of $179,800 and $168,300. (Inquiries can be directed to the property manager: 203-226-1570.)
Those are far below other Westport prices, because of the original affordable housing prices implemented in the 1990s, and the strict resale cap/formula that limits how high prices can climb.
A cooperative’s rules are are more stringent than in a condo, particularly in areas like rentals. Saugatuck units must be their owner’s primary residence.
One of the great perks of The Saugatuck is Shaun Cullen, a part-time super.
Residents include longtime Westporters who have downsized, and no longer want the responsibilities of a home and yard.
Other residents have moved to The Saugatuck from elsewhere, to be close to their children and grandchildren in Westport.
Most Saugatuck residents are retired, from careers including Wall Street, Madison Avenue, refuse collection and tile installation. At least 2 — an accountant and a contractor — are currently working.
The vibe is friendly. Neighbors chat easily, in the community room, mail room and hallways.
The cooperative is governed by an executive board. They and other residents organize a variety of activities: movie nights, supper at the beach, a jazz keyboardist and Labor Day picnic.
It’s hard to imagine Westport today without the Compo Beach playground — or to visualize the town, had a nuclear power plant been built on Cockenoe.
It’s just as hard to imagine what Bridge Street would be like without The Saugatuck. How great that the neighbors who sued more than 30 years ago cooperated in a settlement that led to a co-op.
FUN FACTS: 1) During the Depression, the WPA commissioned Westport artist Robert Lambdin to paint a 7-foot high, 20-foot long mural: “Pageant of Juvenile Literature.” For years, it hung just inside the main entrance to Saugatuck Elementary School.
In 1992, when the town finally began to convert the old Saugatuck El to senior housing, the mural was slated for demolition.
A group of art-lovers — including Mollie Donovan, Eve Potts and Judy Gault Sterling — set out to save the work. Within a month they raised $40,000. That was enough to remove the mural, conserve it, and reinstall it at its new home: The Westport Library.
It stayed there for more than 2 decades. When the transformation project was announced, and a suitable spot could not be found for the work, Westport arts curator Kathy Motes Bennewitz and members of the Westport Public Art Collection searched for a large wall, with plenty of foot traffic.
They — with architect Scott Springer — found it, at Staples High School. Now, the enormous, eye-catching mural hangs proudly near the auditorium lobby, just a few feet from the Staples library.
2) When Saugatuck was an elementary school, Pete Seeger — at the time, blacklisted as a folk singer — performed on its auditorium stage.
The weather was great in 1989, when during one glorious late April weekend hundreds of volunteers — including many from the Westport Young Woman’s League — constructed the Compo Beach playground.
The weather will not be great this evening, when veterans of that wonderful project (and anyone else who worked on subsequent maintenance days, plus their kids, and all other Westporters who enjoy a good party) planned to celebrate the playground’s 30th anniversary.
So the event is postponed to tomorrow (Saturday, April 27). All are invited to South Beach (the area nearest the cannons).
It’s BYO food and drinks.
And don’t forget that old souvenir t-shirt you’ve held on to for all these years.
If you moved to Westport after 1989, you’ve enjoyed the Compo Beach playground without a second thought.
It’s fun, creative, intricate — everything parents want for their kids.
Plus the water, Joey’s and bathrooms are all a few steps away.
If you were here that fateful year though, you know that the playground did not just magically appear.
It was designed by children (with help from famed playground architect Robert Leathers).
It was built by 1,500 volunteers, of all ages. They hauled wheelbarrows, cut wood, hammered nails and poured cement. It was a true town undertaking.
Yet none of it would have happened without a huge legal battle.
(Of course whether you moved to Westport in 1959, 1989 or 2019, you know this is a litigious town.)
Playground opponents — no, that’s not an oxymoron — feared a ruined beach vista. They worried the swings and ladders would be a magnet for out-of-towners, or taken over by beer-drinking, pot-smoking, sex-having teenagers.
The playground controversy brought the first — and only — death threat of 1st selectman Marty Hauhuth’s tenure.
Anti-playground activists obtained a court injunction. (They were not playing around.)
As soon as it was lifted, construction began. It was a magical weekend.
The playground quickly became one of Westport’s prime attractions. It did not ruin the view; it enhanced it. And the only problem now is that on beautiful days, too many people use it.
It also became apparent that the playground not only did not ruin property values; it enhanced them.
Opponents changed their views. I know, because a year or two after it was built, I saw one of the most vocal critics romping there with what I assumed were his grandchildren. (If they weren’t, that’s a whole other issue.)
Which brings us to this Friday (April 26). The 30th anniversary of construction of the Compo Beach playground will take place just to the right of the cannons. (Not the playground? Hmmmm…)
It starts at 6:30 p.m. All Westporters are invited to this BYO picnic. If you were there in 1989, you’ve got a special invitation: Haul out an old t-shirt. Bring a commemorative hammer.
And everyone: Don’t forget beer and wine.
Which is why — now that I think about it — the party is just to the right of the cannons, not the playground.
(Pass the word far and wide. Remember: Bring your own food and drink. Questions? Email email@example.com.)
To solve last week’s photo challenge, you needed a kid.
Karen Kim, Susan Schmidt and Victor Belyaev have all spent time at the Compo Beach playground. That’s how they nailed the unusual image. Click here for Amy Schneider’s crop circle-like photo.
How about this week’s puzzle? If you know where you’d find this, click “Comments” below.
Rick Benson, Jack Fanning, Drew Murphy and Rod Smith met in 1988. All had toddlers. They — the adults, that is — helped plan and build the Compo Beach playground.
It was dangerous work. Not the physical labor — just getting it approved was tough. There was significant opposition: It will ruin the vista! Teenagers will hang out there, drinking and having sex! It will attract out-of-towners!
But they — and others — persisted. Today the beach playground is one of our town’s great attractions.
The men have remained friends ever since. This year, they decided to do something even scarier than building that playground.
They would run with the bulls at Pamplona.
If you’ve been living under a rock all these years — or hanging out at a playground — and never heard of that bizarre ritual, it’s this:
Every year, for 9 days during the Feast of Saint Fermin, over 1,000 people join 6 bulls (and 6 herding steers) in the narrow, winding medieval streets of the Spanish town.
The men — and the runners are nearly all male (go figure) — try not to get gored or (yes) killed in the 2-minute race to a large bull ring. Once inside, there’s even more chasing — and being chased by — the bulls.
What could be more fun?!
The Westporters were joined by others: Benson’s son RB, Fanning’s son Mikey and Smith’s son Tyler; Joey Laurita and his cousin Bryan.
All have Westport connections.
They spent 3 days in Pamplona. They watched one day from the balcony of La Perla — the same hotel where Ernest Hemingway stayed, when he wrote “The Sun Also Rises.” The 1926 novel lifted an obscure Spanish ritual into a worldwide phenomenon.
All ran at least one day with the bulls.
“It’s not as scary as it’s sometimes portrayed,” Rick Benson reports.
However, he notes, “Some people are definitely less cautious than we were.”
The craziest folks are in front of the bulls, or near their horns. The Westport contingent ran alongside the 1,500-pound animals.
Which is why they’re back home today, able to tell this great tale.
(PS: Rick Benson does not know what everyone else’s next adventure is. But this fall, he heads to Africa. He’s spent the past months raising funds with Rotary Clubs throughout the state. In Kenya, he’ll help oversee a $135,000 school renovation. In Nigeria, it’s a $120,000 water sanitation project. Both are a long way from Pamplona — and the Compo Beach playground.)