It was a common refrain all summer, from former Westporters who returned to visit parents, attend high school reunions or just passed through: “What happened to Main Street?!”
They saw the butcher-papered storefronts. They noticed empty signs where national chains once stood. They found plenty of parking, but not much life.
Behind those grim facades though, another story is emerging.
Frequent flooding has taken a toll on downtown businesses. Chico’s, for example — and Sunglass Hut, across the street — were closed for at least 6 months after Hurricane Sandy. Both are now gone.
Main Street, a bit after the worst flooding from Hurricane Irene. This photo was taken exactly 7 years ago today: August 28, 2011.
High-tech gates offer a solution. Basements are filled with special concrete. Foundations are poured. The gates are stored off-site. But — with just a couple of days’ notice of impending bad weather — they can be trucked over, and clicked into place on both the Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza sides of buildings.
When the storm passes, the gates are removed.
It’s a new approach, resulting in fortress-like properties. A similar project is underway in Lower Manhattan, following Sandy’s destruction there. Closer to home, David Waldman flood-proofed Bedford Square as it was built.
But it’s expensive and labor-intensive. It takes several months for the concrete and foundation work to be done. And that’s after the long permitting process, involving a number of town bodies.
Plus, every Main Street landlord needs to be part of the project. If one store is not protected, water pours into adjacent properties through the walls.
But it’s a solution that landlords and merchants have worked on for months. Skip Lane — a 1979 Staples High School graduate who remembers downtown’s mom-and-pop days — is now a retail director for commercial real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield. He works with Empire State Realty Trust, an enormous firm that owns the Empire State Building, along with a substantial portion of Main Street.
They’re in the midst of flood-proofing the now-empty stretch, from the former Chico’s to the old Ann Taylor.
Stores on Main Street frequently flood. This is the scene at Parker Harding Plaza. (Photo/Chip Stephens)
It’s not easy. Though they’re Empire’s buildings, for example, the town owns the sidewalks that are part of the project. Many other municipal obstacles slow the work too.
But it’s important. As Lane notes, landlords have gotten hammered for the vacancies on — and vacant look of — Main Street.
Lane says that commitments have already been made for key retailers to fill the former Nike, Allen Edmonds and Ann Taylor stores. Peloton is moving in to the old Sperry spot — and they’re flood-proofing too.
“Main Street is not as bad as it looks,” Lane adds. “But with all the construction, it will probably look that way for another 9 months.”
Meanwhile, downtown shoppers should not miss some real gems. Shops like Savvy + Grace and The Brownstone are open, thriving, and vivid reminders of the days when downtown pulsed with fun, unique (and locally owned) options.
Let’s hope they’re flooded soon.
Savvy + Grace is on Main Street, underneath Tavern on Main. It’s one bright spot in Westport’s downtown retail scene.