Businesses thinking of starting in or relocating here can “Choose Westport.” That’s the town-sponsored website, with information on commercial space, demographics, lifestyle and more. The goal is to attract retailers, small firms and financial services.
But Westporters are pleased with the redesign of the Baldwin parking lot. The Elm Street area has been redesigned, regraded and repaved. It works much better now.
Baldwin parking lot looking northwest, after renovation. (Photo/Dan Woog)
That’s just a taste of what’s to come though, parking-wise. Two bigger projects are in the works. They could significantly alter the way we perceive and use downtown lots — and, perhaps the way we perceive and use downtown itself.
Improvements to Parker Harding Plaza (behind Main Street), the Taylor lot (by Jesup Green and the Library) and the Imperial Avenue lot (Farmers’ Market, Remarkable Theater) have been discussed for decades — probably since Parker Harding was built on landfill in the 1950s.
Aerial view of downtown in 1949, before Parker Harding Plaza was built. The river came up to the backs of stores on the west side of Main Street.
Prior to that, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the backs of stores on the west side of Main Street (and pipes discharged sewage directly into it). The new lot may have added much-needed parking, but it created a sea of asphalt that turned the important and attractive river into a downtown afterthought.
A master plan of downtown improvements in 2015, designed by outside consultants, was complicated. Some ideas were feasible; others were not. The Downtown Plan Improvement Committee got mired in small details; then it got mired in COVID.
Randy Herbertson — the former director of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association — took over last year.
The parking lots are one of 5 pillars to the downtown plan, he says. The others ae pedestrian access, maintenance, sustainability and technology upgrades.
Parking now dominates the east bank of the Saugatuck River. Only a sliver of grass and a few benches provides access to anyone wishing to enjoy the view.
But parking may be the most visible. And if it’s improved, it drives the others.
The Parker Harding and Taylor lots are “aged, decrepit and in disrepair,” Herbertson says. “They’re not even optimized for parking and traffic. They don’t take advantage of the river. And they flood.”
The goal is to reclaim river access at both lots. Moving and reconfiguring parking — without losing spaces — could make room for a playground and expanded Riverwalk near Jesup Green, and allow for a more permanent Farmers’ Market and Remarkable Theater off Imperial Avenue. Electric vehicle charging stations would be included too.
The hope is for bids to be solicited early next year. Work on Parker Harder would be first, beginning in summer.
The biggest obstacle, Herbertson says, may be funding. The town is considering several capital projects, including Long Lots and Coleytown Elementary Schools, and Longshore.
But, he notes, “the central business district affects everyone in town.” He sees opportunities for private investment in parts of the improvement plan — for example, an improved Riverwalk with native plantings and art installations, or a possible pedestrian bridge from Parker Harding to the west bank of the river.
This screenshot from the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee shows the Parker Harding lot, and its proximity to the Saugatuck River.
As Langan (an engineering and environmental consulting firm) and Connect the Dots (a community engagement firm) work with the DPIC to design the “Reconnecting the Riverfront” master plan, they plan a public charette September 29 (7 p.m., Westport Library). It’s a chance for residents to offer ideas and input.
A survey will be live soon too. Watch “06880” for the link.
(For more information, including early “inspirational ideas,” click here for the Downtown Plan Improvement Committee website.)
(“06880” covers all of Westport, from downtown to the beach and woods. To support this hyper-local blog, please click here.)
Last month, Randy Herbertson chaired his last meeting of the Westport Downtown Association. After 6 years he moves into the same role for the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, an official town body.
Among the key activities of the DMA — whose mission is to “enhance the downtown experience for shoppers, diners and other visitors, with the goal of building business and economic vitality for our community” — Herbertson cites:
Trash collection and general outdoor maintenance not covered by local government. The town paid for the reconfiguration of Parker Harding Plaza, including installation of compactors with recycling. The DMA took over weeding and bed maintenance, with reimbursement from the town. Coming in 2022: “Baldwin and Church Lane.”
Beautification activation, including season outdoor décor. This includes a revitalized and upgraded banner program with non-profit partners; upgraded summer planting, including baskets, planters and barrels; street string lighting throughout downtown, and new holiday decorations, with street posts, barrels and a tree tour.
Main Street planters
Communication and collaboration with merchants and residents. Progress includes a website with robust merchant listings, commerce and event features; 250% membership growth, with bi-weekly digital and physical communication merchant support advertising and social media; consistent consumer communication via a database of 16,000, and exponential social media growth; long-term in-kind and paid media partnerships and relationships.
Sponsorship and oversight of events that reflect the varied interests of consumes, complements the district profile, and drives consumer traffic. The WDA revamped their event calendar to discontinue events that were not traffic drivers or financially manageable; added new events like Westoberfest, Fashionably Westport, and Health & Fitness Day; revitalized the Westport Fine Arts Festival by returning it to Main Street and beyond; enhanced Sidewalk Sales with street closures, additional dates and more support; closed Church Lane and added entertainment, and grew sponsorship revenue by 200%.
Collaboration with other Westport organizations having interests and responsibilities for downtown. This includes the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce, non-profits, local and state governments such as the Board of Selectwomen, Planning & Zoning, Police and Fire Departments, and Westport Weston Health District.
The Fine Arts Festival returned to Main Street and environs.
Herbertson also cites partnerships with town and key constituencies “through the darkest days of the pandemic,” and the establishment of the WDA as a full non-profit 501(c)3.
He notes progress in areas like burying cables throughout the district; rebuilding Elm Street and Church Lane; the new Sigrid Schultz parking lot, and 2 upcoming projects: rebuilding the Baldwin lot (this spring) and revamping Main Street (this summer).
Starting in 2023, Herbertson says, “even more dramatic updates” will begin. A new design and build RFP will go out soon to address Parker Harding, Jesup Green and the Imperial Avenue parking lot.
The Downtown Plan Implementation Committee met this morning. They discussed:
The Baldwin parking lot upgrade. It’s in the final approval stages, including the Representative Town Meeting next month. The goal is for work to begin early next year.
“Streetscaping” also goes before the RTM in September.
“Wayfinding” (signage and orientation) is progressing. There is a possibility of using ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds.
Next steps — including a pedestrian bridge, and an “emerald necklace” were discussed
Also discussed: a very early idea for Jesup Green (reclaiming more green space near the river) …
… and potential docking on the water once the river is dredged. The committee recently received a budget earmark from the state for this work. The Army Corps of Engineers will conduct an environmental study this fall.
One more topic: the addition of the Imperial Avenue parking lot to the list of priorities. This may include a more permanent, multi-use structure for the Farmers’ Market (ideally also for parking during non-market use times), and an upgrade to encourage more day parkers to use the lot.
Chair Randy Herbertson cited “momentum” for downtown improvements.
In other Downtown Plan Implementation Committee news: The group has a new website. Click here for information about parking lots, pedestrian access, maintenance, sustainability and technology upgrades.
The Downtown Plan Implementation Committee looks at both sides of the river.
He’s hardly parachuting in. He and his wife Deborah have been here since 1998. But although they chose this town in part for its cultural offerings, for more than their first decade Herbertson was “that guy who saw Westport only in the dark.”
He owned a marketing and design firm in New York. She commuted too. It was only after he sold his business and opened The Visual Brand on Church Lane — and Deborah became creative director at Terrain — that he got involved in local affairs.
He went big. David Waldman encouraged him to join the Westport Downtown Merchants Association. He sat on the town website steering committee and the Westport Library board.
And Herbertson joined the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee.
The “plan” is the town’s Master Plan. Developed 7 years ago, it is now “a bit outdated,” Herbertson admits. But it’s a start.
The new chair hopes to prioritize the plan’s 4 or 5 major initiatives, by cost and complexity.
One key issue: Reimagining parking. First up, Herbertson says, is the Baldwin lot off Elm Street. That’s the easiest
Parker Harding Plaza is more complex. It involves rethinking green space, and the lot’s relationship to the Saugatuck River.
A slender ribbon of green separates the Saugatuck River from Parker Harding Plaza. (Photo/Amy Berkin)
Jesup Green is the most complex. The ultimate vision, Herbertson says, is to flip the current parking with the adjacent green space. That would emphasize and maximize river access, while adding perhaps a playground or skating rink.
The greening of downtown, including technology upgrades, could solarize much of the area. A stronger WiFI network would enhance music capabilities.
Herbertson’s committee will also figure out how to create “more stop-and-pause places. People want room to move freely outside, then stop and dwell.”
The DPIC head points to the COVID-induced closing of Church Lane as successful. It led to increased dining and shopping, Herbertson says. Now he wants to build on that success.
Another issue: the best way to manage services like trash pickup and recycling.
“A good downtown is the heart and soul of a community,” Herbertson says. “It’s great to see that ours is becoming that again.” New businesses — restaurants, book stores and more — are opening up. Some are start-ups; others have relocated from elsewhere in town.
Among the new businesses downtown: Capuli restaurant.
During his time as president, the Westport Downtown Merchants Association reinvigorated the Fine Arts Festival. They added special events for different populations — a fashion show, beer fest and more — and advocated for enhanced public/private partnerships. Cables were buried; sidewalks and curbs added.
Herbertson calls his roles with the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee and Downtown Merchants Association “synergistic.” The DPIC is an advisory body, he notes; the town controls all rules and regulations.
But, he notes, “everything the DPIC touches is something the WDMA is involved in.”
He also sees synergy with other initiatives in town — for example, the revitalization of Saugatuck.
“COVID taught us the importance of the retail community, as part of our town as a whole,” he says. “Whatever happens in one place affects the rest.”
So what does Herbertson’s idea downtown look like?
“Highly walkable,” he says.”Real strong integration of natural resources, especially the waterfront. Every space filled with a selection of things that are unique an good for the town, where people can stop and pause.
“And something for all ages.”
Downtown Westport. (Photo/John Videler for VIdeler Photography)
Randy Herbertson replaces Dewey Loselle as chair of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee. Loselle — former chief operations for the chair — resigned recently, after many years in the post.
Herbertson is president of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association. He owns The Visual Brand, a design agency on Church Lane.
The DPIC is responsible for carrying out the Downtown Master Plan. Under Loselle, the group implemented streetscape improvements on Elm Street, new sidewalks and lights on Main Street, Veterans Green sidewalks and more.
1st Selectman Jim Marpe — who appointed Herbertson to the post — thanked Loselle for his long service.
Neighbors watched warily all winter, as activity began on 12 acres of land bordered by Clapboard Hill Road, Morningside Drive South and Turkey Hill Road South.
Stakes with pink strips appeared in the ground, and a new gravel path was built from Clapboard Hill.
Is one of the town’s last large tracts of private property being developed?
Plans are underway for several new homes. There are wetlands issues, and the Conservation Commission required those borders to be withdrawn. The permitting process with other town boards is still in the early stages too.
Meanwhile, another home nearby is being built on a separate property.
I usually avoid posting links to listicle stories: “50 Best Suburbs For Seniors!” “Top 500 Schools in America!”
They’re clickbait. Their methodology is dubious at best, and manipulable for their own demographics. Besides, if Staples High School is #1 in one poll, then #2 in the next, taxpayers get all their knickers in a twist.
But Coastal Living’s “Best Beach Towns: Dreamy Places to Live” issue is worth noting — if only for the writeup. It’s the way the world (or at least that portion of it that reads Coastal Living) sees us:
“You can’t imagine the volume of COVID refugees,” says Shari Lebowitz, citing the cheering sight of new families with baby strollers and slow-waling toddlers along the tidy sidewalks of this leafy enclave on Long Island Sound.”
The magazine says that Lebowitz — owner of Bespoke Designs — moved here for “a cultured little town that supported entrepreneurs. Westport, driven by small waterways with open space for wildlife, also has a charming stretch of tawny beach that serves as the town’s outdoor living room all summer long. (Dogs and their happy owners take over in the off season.)”
MoCA Westport is a “small contemporary art museum that punches well above its weight with arts education, performances, and world-class exhibitions.”
Lebowitz gets the last word: “I can make coffee and drive down to drink it on the beach every morning before work. What more could I want?” (Hat tips: Lisa Gold, Tom Feeley)
What better way to mark the 1-year anniversary of the COVID lockdown than with a horror show?
This Sunday (March 14, 6 p.m.), a worldwide audience can fire up the computer and listen to “Dracula.” Staples Players presents the 4th in their winter radio shows via livestream, at www.wsptfm.org.
Following 6 previous radio shows this pandemic year, “Dracula” promises to be another smash. It’s a great drama. Cast and crew have been hard at work perfecting timing, sound effects, and (of course) their Transylvanian accents.
Jamie Mann, David Corro and Violet Cooper have key roles. David Roth and Kerry Roth co-produce the show; Don Rickenback is music director, and Geno Heiter oversees the audio.
NOTE: If you missed the original broadcasts of 2 previous Players radio shows — “Little Women” and “Sorry, Wrong Number” — they’ll be on the WWPT-FM livestream the following Sunday, March 21 (6 p.m. and 7:10 p.m., respectively).
The cast and crew of “Dracula.” (Photo/Kerry Long)
Last night — for perhaps the first time in Wrecker swim team history — 3 siblings swam on the same relay team.
Justin (senior), Jason (sophomore) and Jared (freshman) Lessing joined Daniel Rosenkranz. The foursome placed 2nd in the 200 freestyle relay at the Senior Day meet against Danbury. Staples’ other relay team won that race; both helped the Wreckers to take the entire meet.
Coach Todd Gordon fulfilled the Lessings’ longtime dream of swimming on a high school relay squad together. He’s a former swimmer and pitcher at Harvard University. Justin plays both sports at Staples too. This was his first meet of the year, after suffering tendinitis in his pitching arm.
From left: Jason Lessing, Jared Lessing, Daniel Rosenkranz and Justin Lessing. Daniel and Justin are co-captains.
More Staples news: Congratulations to Students of the Month Moses Beary, Marley Brown, Gianna Amatuzzi, Camryn Zukowski, Sophie Hekmat, Quinn McMahon and Maggie Montoya.
The awardees — nominated by teachers — are students who help make Staples High School a welcoming place for peers and teachers. Principal Stafford Thomas calls them “the ‘glue’ of community: the type of kind, cheerful, hard-working, trustworthy students who keep the high school together.”
State Senator Will Haskell is the new chair of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee. He previously chaired the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.
“For the last 2 years, I’ve kept a Metro-North timetable from 1970 on my desk in the Senate,” the 2014 Staples High School graduate says.
“Over the last 5 decades those trains have gotten slower, not faster. It’s time to reverse that trend by investing in green infrastructure, creating good-paying jobs and helping our constituents get where they need to go.”
State Senator Will Haskell, with a Metro-North train.
Randy Herbertson is president of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association. He writes:
Jacqui Bidgood has been an on-and-off resident of Westport for over 15 years, and WDMA events director for 4. Under her very capable management we have hosted many well-attended events, from the Fine Arts Festival to Westoberfest and Fashionably Westport. All have contributed to the relevance of our downtown district.
Additionally Jacqui has spearheaded the selection and management of our beautiful summer baskets, working with local growers, as well as our 2020 barrel program. Both further enhanced the public and private beautification of the area.
Jacqui Bidgood, with Fine Arts Festival volunteers.
When the pandemic struck and our big events could no longer happen, Jacqui rose to the challenge to show our community the DMA could mount safe events that would continue to attract local residents (and our many new transplants) to our stores and restaurants, in a much-needed time.
In barely 6 weeks, Jacqui will have made three diverse events happen: Fitness & Wellness Day, Fall Fashion Day (replacing the traditional sidewalk sale), and Family Pumpkinfest (replacing the Halloween parade).
All this took many hours of planning, close collaboration with town officials, and tireless effort to secure sponsors that enable these events to run well — and for free.
Her great attention to detail, tenacity and creative problem solving have turned all these ideas into welcome reality.
Randy is right. These events did not just happen. They happened in large part thanks to this week’s Unsung Hero, Jacqui Bidgood.
If you drive through Norwalk on I-95, it’s impossible to miss.
A 700,000-square-foot mall is rising inches off Exit 15.
Artist’s rendering of the SoNo Collection mall.
It won’t open until October 2019. But — with its size, its freshness, and its retailers like Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s — the SoNo Collection seems to pose a direct threat to Westport’s Main Street.
Matt Mandell disagrees.
The executive of the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce told the Fairfield County Business Journal, “We offer an open-air experience instead of an enclosed mall. People come to Westport for a change of pace.”
“They are focusing on mid-tier to aspirational retailers, and only 6% devoted to food service which will most likely be fast-service casual (chains like Olive Garden).”
That will “further accentuate our opportunity to provide a more upscale, specialty, open-air and experiential shopping, dining and living district that will complement this offering.”
Main Street is open air — not enclosed.
But, Herbertson says, to attract new merchants and downtown residents — and continue drawing investments like Bedford Square, the new Elm Street property, Belden Place, the former Save the Children complex, and the building that’s replacing Bobby Q — “we need to prioritize stronger cooperation and co-investment between our town and commercial interests.”
It’s already started, he says, through a constructive meeting he attended with First Selectman Jim Marpe and his team, Mandell, and area developers, landlords and merchants.
Meanwhile, the clock ticks down toward October 2019.
(Click here for the full Fairfield County Business Journal story. Hat tip: Scott Smith)
You may have noticed the signage downtown. Perhaps you saw the hanging baskets, the holiday snowflakes or the Christmas tree near Starbucks.
All are part of recent initiatives by the Westport Downtown Merchants Association. Since welcoming new president Randy Herbertson this summer — and installing a fresh team including a marketing manager and events coordinator — the sometimes active, occasionally moribund, often ill-defined group has worked hard to make its mark on Main Street and nearby.
“We’re here to be the merchants’ advocate,” Herbertson — whose fulltime gig is running a Church Street multimidia design and promotion firm, The Visual Brand — says.
“We’re taking ourselves up a notch.”
The WDMA has addressed nagging issues like the Parker Harding dumpster — long a pig sty — with new enclosures and daily maintenance.
The organization has spoken with the Public Works and Parks & Recreation departments to ensure clear lines of responsibility for downtown upkeep.
Merchants are responsible for keeping their sidewalks clean. The WMDA is making sure they do it well.
Some of that sounds mundane. But small stuff pays off big time, in areas like public perception.
The WDMA has vowed to protect the new sidewalks. Each merchant is in charge of keeping them clean, but “everyone has different standards,” Herbertson notes. His group is working on a collaborative plan.
The Downtown Merchants Association may be best known for event sponsorship. Moving forward, Herbertson says, “We’ll try to focus on what matters most to merchants.”
The popular carriage rides, Santa visits and singing groups will continue this holiday season, for example. But the WMDA will offer gift wrapping and craft activities for children.
Plus this: valet parking.
It began on Friday, and continues every Saturday and Sunday through Christmas (plus Friday, December 23). The valet station is at the corner of Main and Elm Streets. Cost is $5 per car (plus optional tip).
Last year, horse-drawn carriages clomped throughout downtown.
The Fine Arts Festival may be relocated. The Blues, Views & BBQ Fest will be “better than ever,” Herbertson says.
A Fashion and Beauty Week is in the works. 80% of downtown merchants are involved in those fields, he explains.
The WMDA has just launched a new website. It offers more information on stores promotions and hours, along with a robust calendar.
Meanwhile, the merchants’ group is already looking ahead to next year. In 2017, Herbertson promises, the new trees on and around Main Street will be mature enough to decorate.
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