Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Committee Hears Plans for a New Downtown
By James Lomuscio
With the goal of planning for change, “not stopping it,” the Long-Range Planning (LRP) Committee of Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) tonight heard the Downtown 2020 Committee’s need to hire a consultant in the wake of upcoming development projects and the Westport Arts Center’s (WAC) hopes to build a 10,000-square-foot building next to the library on Jesup Green.
The RTM Long-Range Planning Committee tonight heard from Westport Arts Center leaders about their desire to build a new home on Jesup Green. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Helen Klisser During for WestportNow.com
LRP Committee member Dewey Loselle also spoke about the overdue need for dredging of the silt-filled Saugatuck River, a $2 million project that will allow more recreational boat traffic downtown.
“I believe that Westport is at a crossroads,” said G. Kenneth Bernhard, speaking for Downtown 2020. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the town to speak up.”
Bernhard was talking about Downtown 2020’s charge to plan for streetscape, parking, traffic, public restrooms and making better use of the river views downtown in the midst of upcoming development.
Development projects on the horizon include: Bedford Square, replacing the Westport Weston Family Y, a movie theater on Main Street, redevelopment of National Hall, rebuilding the Westport Public Library and the Levitt Pavilion, possibly redevelopment of Save the Children, and the planned WAC move.
“It’s all going to happen in the next five years, and the town shouldn’t be a spectator in it,” Bernhard said, stressing the need for the study.“The only problem is it costs some money. Do you want to spend $150,000?”
Bernhard said that Downtown 2020 has held 30 meetings,“meeting with every organized group in town,” since it was formed almost a year ago by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. He said his group plans to have requests for proposals (RFPs) from consultants in by the end of March, after which the committee will go before the Board of Finance in April.
“We love our town, but it could be a lot better,” Bernhard stressed, pointing out that Parker Harding Plaza does not take advantage of its proximity of the river, has garbage dumpsters in view, “and we don’t have a town green.”
That last point seemed to give traction to the next discussion item, plans to construct a new Westport Arts Center next to the library on Jesup Green.
“The idea is for a home on Jesup Green for core activities, and for larger events we could avail ourselves to the library auditorium,” said Lance Lundberg, WAC’s board chairman. “The library would like to share a campus with us.
“We would like a long term, 99-year lease of the parcel,” he added.
Lundberg said that the current leased location on Riverside Avenue is “bursting at the seams,” with 11,000 people coming through its doors for about 200 events per year. The WAC, in town for more than 40 years, has presently “raised several million dollars,” he said, from three donors who want to see the new building.
“We’re 57 percent there,” Lundberg said.
Architect Henry Myerberg, principal of HMA2 Architects in New York City, the firm currently used by the library, said that Jesup Green would be the ideal spot since it is underutilized.
“We’d be creating a campus, and Jesup Green would be the quad,” he said, ‘like a liberal arts college for all ages.”
Myerberg said his design of the 10,000-square-foot building would not “encroach on Jesup Green but enhance it,” by reclaiming and greening the parking spaces along the river, replacing the spaces via an underground parking at the top of the hill.
LRP Committee member Allen Bomes asked why the WAC had to have a separate building instead of being a wing of the new library.
“We worry about our editorial and curatorial independence,” Lundberg said. “We thought we needed out own space.”
Arthur Ashman, an RTM member who also sits on the WAC board, said that the timing of the planned move to the green “couldn’t be better.”
“I’m amazed at the timing,” he said. “It’s rare that the town gets the chance to put it all together.”
Cunitz pointed out that the biggest obstacle the WAC will face will be with the Planning and Zoning Commission.
“I think it can be done,” said Joseloff, sitting in on the meeting. “The moon and the stars may align to make this happen, and I think it’s very exciting.”
Cunitz asked the WAC to come back to his committee with a more detailed conceptual plan “summarizing everything you discussed.”
“The role of the committee is to plan change, not to stop it,” he said. “We’re trying to facilitate this in anyway we can.”
Comments: Comment Policy
The work being done by the Downtown 2020 Committee is extremely important to the future of Westport. A comprehensive traffic study is absolutely essential, not only for the downtown, but also for the surrounding residential neighborhoods. This requires an investment. We cannot afford to do this piecemeal or wait until it is too late. We need to get it right and invest the money now. I support the efforts of the Downtown 2020 Committee.
I think up until now the Downtown 2020 Committee has been doing wonderful work.
But the idea of having the WAC build a 10,000 sq. foot building on Jesup Green horrifies me! That is our only “green space” downtown, and people sit on the grass in the spring to read and kids run around the statues and the Bon Odori Japanese dance festival (townspeople join in) is held there. And what about the bonfire on First Night and the Library Book Fair in the main tents and the many other town events that are held there?!
Would most of our TOWN-OWNED Jesup Green property be lost (not to mention those wonderful tall trees) if we somehow allow a non-profit that I love (Westport Arts Center, which is not owned by the town) to construct a building 3x its current size?
The news release in the Westport News said that town officials are enthusiastic! Does everyone want to lose our lovely town green? WAC’s representative says that it won’t encroach on Jesup Green because they will “green” over the parking spaces by the river. So the majestic trees and the Jesup Green hill will remain exactly the same? Hmmm. I hope we will hear more details soon.