Tag Archives: Downtown Westport

Downtown: This Is Our Embarcadero Moment

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked San Francisco. Twelve people were killed. Fires raged. And the Embarcadero Freeway was severely damaged.

Built in the 1950s to connect the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges — but never completed — the enormous double-deck highway instead cut the city off from its waterfront.

The Embarcadero Freeway. The Ferry Building is center left, with the clock.

For years, there had been talk of removing or redesigning the freeway. The earthquake provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do so.

Opposition was intense. But when the highway was demolished, a couple of things happened. More than 100 acres of land was redeveloped into a spectacular new public plaza and waterfront promenade. The area sprang to life.

The Embarcadero today. The Ferry Building is its centerpiece, but the entire area pulses with activity.

The 1898 Ferry Building became a vibrant gathering spot for local farmers, artisan producers, and independent food businesses. Commercial real estate boomed. Housing increased dramatically. The entire city benefited.

Today, Westport has our Embarcadero moment.

On March 3 — less than 2 weeks before our world changed forever — I posted a long story on “06880.”

Headlined “Main Street at an Inflection Point: An ‘06880’ Call to Action,” it noted that despite what we like to think, Main Street is no longer our “main street.” It’s just a short stretch of commercial buildings, many of them vacant.

But boy, I wrote, does it have potential. I continued:

The problem is, “potential” implies re-imagining the future. And re-designing the present.

We can’t simply tweak the Post Road. We need to (almost) blow it up, and start again.

The possibilities are endless.

Main Street could be a car-less, pedestrian-friendly piazza/ promenade lined with trees, tables and benches; upscale and family restaurants and cafes, including outside dining (with space heaters for winter); food carts and artists’ kiosks; independent businesses like a general store, bookstore and ice cream shop (joining the special Savvy + Grace-type places already there).

Look at the river. Look at Main Street. Imagine the possibilities. (Drone photo by John Videler/Videler Photography)

It could be filled with cultural and arts events; food festivals, and something at Christmas; music on weekends, plus waterfront access, with paddleboat and kayak rentals. In the winter, we could flood part of it for a skating rink.

And more: The Farmers’ Market could relocate there. We could add offices for non-profits, and co-working spaces. Apartments could be build on 2nd and 3rd floors.

Downtown, I said, was at an inflection point. Just as 70 yeas ago the area was re-imagined when landfill created Parker Harding Plaza, we needed a new downtown.

And change could not be incremental. It must be “big, bright and bold.”

The story drew 86 comments. This being Westport, they ranged all over the place: from why it couldn’t work, to lesser tweaks, to offers to help make it a reality ASAP.

What united us all was a common goal: to make downtown vibrant and alive, while looking ahead.

Had we looked behind, we would have seen the coronavirus galloping toward us. But now that it has, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake downtown, the right way.

Remember I said we should “(almost) blow it up, and start again”?

Now we really can.

I’m envisioning an even more dramatic reimagining than the one just 3 months — aka many light-years — ago.

Despite its horrors, the pandemic has taught us a few important lessons. Even when the danger passes, our lives will be vastly different from before. The way we work, eat, shop and spend our leisure time has changed, in ways we don’t yet fully understand. And although we have done certain things certain ways for longer than any of us have been alive, we learn very quickly how to do them in completely new ways.

Main Street, not long ago. (Photo/Sharon Fiarman)

Even during the shutdown, renovation continued on a few Main Street buildings. But we all know: Retail is altered forever. The big chains that forced out locally owned shops have swiftly contracted. Some are already bankrupt. More will follow. Betting that a new women’s clothing store, “lifestyle brand” or sunglasses shop will save Main Street is like believing that drinking bleach will kill a virus.

So to the vision I proposed on March 3 — a promenade filled with restaurants and cafes, food carts and artists’ kiosks; a general store, book store, and ice cream shop; cultural and arts events; the Farmers’ Market, offices, non-profits, apartments — I’d like to add a few more: a parking garage, with athletic fields on top. Fire pits. That elusive movie theater. Maybe even that long-discussed bridge over the river to the west bank.

And now I have an even more dramatic idea.

Let’s build it all the right way, at the right place: alongside the river.

It’s time to reclaim the river. San Antonio’s done it; so has Providence. This is our chance to actually, spiritually, emotionally — and physically — create an entirely new downtown.

Waterfire draws huge crowds to downtown Providence. It — and a reimagined waterfront — helped revitalize the city.

Let’s get rid of Parker Harding Plaza. Let’s tear down most of the buildings on Main Street. Let’s redesign everything from the Post Road to Avery Place, from scratch.

A proposal like this demands a lot from everyone. We’ll need the cooperation of property owners. That’s not easy in the best of times. But paradoxically, this might be the best time. What REIT in its right mind wants to hold on to a building whose tenant relies on a February 2020 retail model — with no other businesses to replace them in sight?

We’ll need the cooperation of town officials. Again, that’s not as far-fetched as it seems. Where once it took weeks to approve an awning or agree on sidewalk paving standards, the past few days have seen lightning-quick action on outdoor dining applications and new town regulations.

“We’re all in this together” can be a meaningless phrase. These days, local government, civic groups, merchants and restaurant owners have shown it can be a reality.

We’ll need the cooperation too of Westporters. Our downtown transformation won’t happen overnight. We’ll be building a house while also living in it. But if the past 3 months have shown us anything, it’s that our homes — our residences, and our home community — are vital to everything we do.

Look at that huge parking lot by the river. And the long line of boxy stores behind it. (Drone photo/Brandon Malin)

So that’s my plan. It’s a way to re-imagine, renovate and recharge Westport, for generations to come.

It’s a way to put hundreds of people — construction workers first, then employees — to work. It’s a way to draw countless others downtown, to be entertained, eat, enjoy themselves, and live.

Let’s not let this slip away. We can’t content ourselves dreaming that some day — hopefully soon — Americans will begin shopping in stores again, the same way they did before. And remember: On March 3, we weren’t exactly doing that either.

Magical thinking like that leads us right down the path of the guys who said, a couple of years ago, “Hey! Let’s build a mall in Norwalk, right next to Exit 16. What could possibly go wrong?!”

This is the start of the post-pandemic world. This is the time for truly bold, really creative, way-forward thinking.

This is our Embarcadero moment.

Pics Of The Day #1103

On a normal Friday morning, Westport’s business district would have been bustling.

Today was not a normal Friday morning. Neither was any day this week, or last. And it won’t be normal next week either.

Alert — and saddened — Molly Alger took a lonely tour through town this morning. Here’s what she saw.

Post Road East, looking west

Compo Shopping Center

Playhouse Square

Another view of Post Road East

Church Lane

Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge

Taylor parking lot

Main Street

Main Street, further north

Brooks Corner

Baldwin parking lot

190 Main Street

North Main Street (Photos/Molly Alger)

But then — a few hours later — skies cleared. The sun came out. And all over town, people smiled.

Saugatuck River (Photo by Chris Tait; hat tip Stephen Kempson)

Kowalsky Farm and Frost Point, Greens Farms (Photo/Nico Eisenberger)

Sherwood Mill Pond (Photo/William Ritter)

Friday Flashback #170

This aerial fascinating photo of downtown Westport in the 1930s was posted to Facebook by Bill Stanton.

The view is toward the east (top).

Among the intriguing sights:

  • At the bottom is National Hall. Just to its north sits a substantial-looking building that must have been torn down long ago. Today it’s the site of Bartaco.
  • The bridge across the Saugatuck River is much narrower than the current span. The river itself is wider than at present. Parker Harding Plaza has not yet been built. Water laps up against the back of buildings on the west side of Main Street.
  • The Westport Public Library (now a pop-up art gallery, at 1 Main Street) is the large building just to the left of the eastern end of the bridge.
  • Look closely (top center). You can see the gas station that is now Vineyard Vines.

What else do you notice? Click “Comments” below.

David Waldman: Westport Has Positive Stories. Let’s Promote Them!

David Waldman is a major presence in downtown Westport. Most recently he developed Bedford Square. His current project is a retail/residential complex on the site of the former Save the Children headquarters, on Wilton Road.

A few minutes ago, he sent an open letter to some of the town’s media, politicians and civic leaders. He wrote:

I put you all on the same email because Westport needs your help.

For the life of me I cannot figure out why no one appreciates all the incredible things downtown Westport has going for it: its beautiful architecture and history, incredible businesses and retail stores, world class restaurants. cultural venues and events, the Levitt, library, river, Farmers’ Market, and more.

None of the above seems to have translated into a real (and appropriate) sense of pride and excitement from the residents of Westport.

(Photo/John Videler)

All I seem to hear everywhere and all I seem to read in every publication, blog and news story, is a negative sentiment about downtown, retail and Westport.

Things like:

It’s too hard to get downtown.
Traffic is an issue and we need to address the intersections which are creating the traffic.

There are no mom-and-pop shops.
I am always amazed when I hear this since downtown is filled with many incredible mom-and-pops and small independent stores.

One of Westport’s mom-and-pop stores.

The landlords ruined the street by raising the rents.
I guess no one in Westport knows what supply and demand is.

It floods. 
It does, but it is always quickly re-opened, and measures are being taken by landlords to address and help mitigate these issues. That said, the town has a tremendous amount of infrastructure needs which cannot be pushed down the road again and again.

It is hard to park. 
This too has been improved with the new Elm Street lot and the combination of the Achorn’s lot with Baldwin.

It lost its charm.
I could not disagree more.

(Photo/Betsy P. Kahn)

Amazon killed it.
Amazon changed the way people shop but it in no way killed downtown.  Downtown, like all great shopping and dining areas, has begun to change with the times. In the end you cannot eat, live and play in the internet. You can’t go to a library or arts festival in the internet.

The mall will be the last nail in the coffin.
Not everyone wants to shop in a mall. And if the mall is successful, it could be a benefit for downtown.

I miss the movie theaters. 
The Westport Cinema Initiative and other groups continue to try and make this happen.

It’s dirty.
Measures are being taken to solve this going forward through unified maintenance, new pedestrian amenities, unified garbage areas and porter service.

All of this negative commentary has led, in my opinion, to a sense of self-pity from our residents that our downtown is somehow second-rate and not worthy of praise or admiration. I hear this all too often from all too many people. If it keeps happening, the town will continue to lose it luster.

Parker Harding Plaza (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

So, what can we collectively do promote Westport in a more positive way?

In the end we need to start making the stories about the great things that are happening and the great things that will happen downtown. We need our residents to stop feeling bad about their downtown and start seeing just how vibrant and incredible it is.

How it provides a sense of community, how it provides a commercial revenue base which allows us to continue to maintain our lifestyles while keeping taxes lower. Stories about positive developments, incredible events, new stores,  new businesses and the individuals who run them.

We need to change the narrative so the residents of Westport again realize just how incredible their downtown is, and how important it is for the health of our great Town.

You all have control over the narrative.

Thank you for listening. I hope this will begin to start a more productive conversation. Westport never needed a PR person more in its history than it needs now. Westport has to take a more active role in promoting downtown.

Night Light Flight

Last night, alert “06880” reader Alan Hamilton sent his quadcopter soaring over Westport.

He captured this spectacular view of downtown, looking south along the Saugatuck River to the Sound:

Westport from air - Alan Hamilton quadcopter - December 5, 2015

Here’s another angle, pointing north. Our new landmark — the crane over Bedford Square — is in the distance. The library and Riverwalk are on the right:

Westport from air 2 - Alan Hamilton quadcopter - December 5, 2015

Click on or hover over to enlarge. Enjoy these views that — till now — only Santa, his elves and reindeer have seen.

Downtown’ s Hidden Oasis

Downtown Westport will be a shopping zoo this weekend.

But there’s serenity there too — like the spot Betsy P. Kahn captured earlier this week:

Downtown view 2 - Betsy P Kahn

As the holidays approach, it’s easy to get stressed.

Amid all the craziness, take a deep breath.

Find a spot like the one above.

Appreciate all the beauty and joy that surrounds us, every day.

Then — refreshed — head back into the fray.

Lou Gagliano’s Goal: Perfect “2020” Vision

I met Lou Gagliano — chairman of the Downtown 2020 Committee — at the Parker Harding Starbucks.

Everything you need to know about Lou’s challenge — to help make downtown Westport “more vital, livable and pedestrian-friendly,” in part by recapturing the Saugatuck River and making it a center of everything that goes on on both its east and west banks — is captured in that paragraph above.

Starbucks epitomizes all that is wrong with the way we’ve allowed downtown to develop — and it has nothing to do with corporate vs. mom-and-pop.

The seats Lou and I sat in are tucked into the far corner, facing a dismal stretch of the Post Road. I stared at a store selling workout gear; Lou looked at Klaff’s.

This is what coffee drinkers could see from Starbucks — if only the seats faced the river, and the parking lot was not in the way.

Starbucks’ prime real estate should be the windows facing the river. That’s where the seating should be. Maybe the architects were bottom-of-the-class interns. Maybe they just didn’t realize the river was there, because in between the coffee shop and water sits a parking lot, plus a tiny plot of grass with one half-assed bench.

If Lou’s committee is to succeed, it will have to come overcome half a century’s worth of town attitudes. Ever since Parker Harding Plaza was built — as landfill in the 1950s — we’ve viewed the river as an impediment to development, not an asset to be cherished and valued.

The Saugatuck River cuts off stores and businesses on Post Road East from those on Post Road West, Riverside Avenue and Wilton Road. It’s forced us to create big parking lots on one side, and rue the lack of parking on the other. We haven’t given much thought to what the butt end of Main Street stores look like — the answer, I realized as I parked by Starbucks, is “really, really ugly” — because we haven’t given much thought to the river a few yards away.

The Downtown 2020 Committee — appointed by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, whose members include business executives, planners, architects and marketers — has a difficult task.

(“2020” was chosen not only for its realistic target date, but because it stands for “excellent vision.”)

East is east, and west is west. In downtown Westport today, they seldom meet. (Photo/Wikipedia)

Working with stakeholders — Westporters, landlords, merchants, the library, Senior Center, Young Woman’s League, Westport Cinema Initiative and many others — it hopes to reposition vehicular and pedestrian traffic, while tying together retails, restaurants, housing and services, all while several important projects (the redevelopment of Church Lane and soon-to-be-former YMCA building, along with the construction of a movie theater, for example) move from theory to reality.

Downtown 2020 will address everything from the streetscape (with “sidewalks that are really unwalkable,” Lou says) to signage, garbage collection and public bathrooms.

Right now, only a ribbon of greenery — and concrete — separates Parker Harding Plaza from the river.

They’ll do it without soliciting taxpayer money — Lou favors the establishment of an economic development commission — and with the understanding that the Board of Finance, Planning and Zoning Commission and RTM all will have their say too.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Lou insists. He means that 2 ways: Westport has examined similar issues in the past, from previous town plans to innovative ideas suggested last spring by Coleytown Middle School 8th graders.

And it’s not like no one’s ever recaptured a river before. Both Providence, Rhode Island and San Antonio, Texas have revitalized their downtowns by taking advantage of a resource that was there, under their noses, all the time.

San Antonio, Texas has done a fantastic job recapturing its river.

The timetable is tight. Lou estimates there’s a short window — 12 to 15 months — when much of the consensus must be reached. If not, he says, some of the projects already planned (like Church Lane and the cinema) will go forward on their own, without coordination into a coherent downtown whole.

“We can’t do this retroactively, or change one little corner at a time,” Lou says. “We have to look at the town’s 2 major intersections — the river and the Post Road; integrate all 4 corners, and figure out how it all fits in with the surrounding areas.”

There is nothing off the table, Lou notes — except for taxpayer money. “We won’t spend any of that,” he promises.

It’s an exciting vision. Lou has assembled a dynamic, energetic and broad-based committee to mold it, direct it and move it forward.

Hopefully, one day a few years from now — even before 2020 — that “vision” will mean a view from Starbucks that focuses less on the Post Road, and more on an ever-changing river that brings all of downtown together.

(The Downtown 2020 Committee’s next meeting is next Tuesday [March 27, 8:30 a.m., Town Hall Room 309]. The public is invited to attend. For more information on the committee, email ljgags@aol.com).

Downtown Westport has a lot to offer. The Downtown 2020 Committee hopes to tie many disparate elements together.

A Slice Of Success

If the battle for Westport’s heart was a prizefight, today Saugatuck knocked downtown out of the ring.

Or — to put it another, perhaps more maritime way — the original business center of Westport blew the long-time reigning champ out of the water.

The 1st annual Slice of Saugatuck Festival — the brainchild of area resident Matthew Mandell, with the collaboration of dozens of restaurants and stores — drew thousands of residents to that pizza slice-shaped, still semi-Italian, and fairly funky neighborhood.

EMTs eat well, thanks to the Saugatuck Rowing Club's Boathouse chef.

Free food (and beer, wine and margaritas) were a main attraction.  But there was much more:  music, kayaking, hairstyling, fire truck sitting, fly fishing, tae kwan do, people-watching…

In other words:  fun.

Down Under offered free kayaking, on a gorgeous afternoon.

I’m a native Westporter.  I’ve always loved Saugatuck.  But until today — when I strolled its very stroll-able streets, and wandered its alleys and shortcuts — I didn’t really think about how much is packed into that small space.

The range of restaurants — from the Black Duck to the Boathouse; Mansion to Mario’s; Rizzuto’s to Tarry Lodge and Viva’s — is remarkable.  There’s room for Saugatuck Grain and Grape, plus Saugatuck Wine & Spirits.

And — as the 2nd phase of redevelopment begins — there’s even room to grow.

Of course, new projects are planned for downtown too.  From the Church Lane restaurant/retail complex to National Hall across the river — and, at some point, whatever replaces the Y — new restaurants and businesses could bring refreshing energy to that much-maligned area of town.

Riverside Avenue or Main Street?  The real fight may just have begun.

Music was a key element of Slice of Saugatuck. This duo performed outside Rizzuto's Restaurant.

Outdoor tables were a prime attraction at Tutti's.

Near Mario's, this bench bore a sign: "Yankee's Fans. Bullpen bench from the original Yankee Stadium. $7,500. See Fred."

The line was long outside Tarry Lodge. Great appetizers served by roving waiters eased the wait.

About That Downtown Movie Theater…

The weather this week has suddenly turned cool.  But tonight’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting could presage hot times to come.

“Hot” as in “turning Westport into a hot spot.”

Or “hot” as in “people are outraged.”

This evening at Town Hall (7 p.m.), the P&Z considers “text amendment 637.”  The bureaucratic-sounding term is a proposal for a “Theater Overlay Zone.”

That‘s policy-talk for a new zoning concept.  It would remove setback and height restrictions, permitting buildings up to 6 stories in downtown Westport.

It would also increase the square footage of certain commercial buildings, from the current 10,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet.

Any new theater downtown will not look like the old Fine Arts (now Restoration Hardware).

A driving force behind the proposal is the desire for a movie theater downtown. The amendment would not require additional parking if the theater is located within 500 feet of a municipal parking lot with at least 3 spaces.  Parker Harding Plaza, the Baldwin lot (behind Williams-Sonoma) and the Imperial Avenue lot all qualify.

The text amendment pleases Westporters who say a movie theater would revitalize downtown.

It displeases Westporters — including some circulating a petition against it — who say a 6-story building would destroy that same downtown.

So far, the text amendment/zoning issue has not gotten much press.

After tonight — no matter what the weather outside — Westport’s political temperature will rise.

Unfinished Business

Last May, “06880” reported on the demolition and reconstruction of the vest-pocket park at the corner of the Post Road and Main Street.  Back in the day, that was the Westport Library’s park — and word on the street was, it would be a park in perpetuity, no matter who owned the land.

Here’s a scene from that day:

It’s amazing how swiftly these things move.  Look how much progress this complex project has made in just 3 months:

At this rate, the target date for completion of November, 2019 will easily be reached.

Just in time for the 50th reunion of some of the Staples students shown in the park in this classic (and classically misspelled) Westport News photo:

Meanwhile, just a few feet away from the park renovation, there’s another downtown item that needs attending:

Last September, the major Post Road/Main Street crosswalk was eliminated.  The idea was to force pedestrians to use the narrower (and presumably safer) crosswalk several yards away, just past Taylor Place.

A side benefit:  There would be 2 lanes of traffic, not 1, heading west on the Post Road, presumably unclogging at least a bit the bottleneck in front of Tiffany’s.

As the photo above shows, we’re still waiting for the crosswalk to be completely eliminated.

And for the vehicle lanes to be striped.