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Friday, December 07, 2012

P&Z Hears Second Floor Retail Pitch

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By James Lomuscio

A proposed text amendment that would allow second floor retail stores in downtown Westport got mixed reviews at a Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) public hearing tonight. Two members liked the fact that it would encourage mom-and-pop stores to return to Main Street while another argued its passage would exacerbate parking problems.

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The P&Z considered an application that would allow second floor retail at 7 Main St. and other buildings. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

With only one member of the public having spoken, P&Z Chairwoman Catherine Walsh left the hearing open until the commission’s Dec. 20 meeting.

Architect William Achilles submitted text amendment 654 on behalf of the owners of 7 Main St., current home of LOFT. He noted that the change would affect 13 properties in the downtown’s Business Center District (BCD), seven of them on Post Road East, five on Main Street and one on Bay Street.

Current zoning regulations, while allowing second floor apartments, restaurants and retail food stores, prohibit BCD retailers from operating above the first floor. The exceptions are 10 properties on Main Street that either pre-exist the current zoning regulation or have secured variances over the years.

Mel Barr, a Westport planning consultant working for Achilles, argued that the change “would contribute to the vitality of the downtown,” by bringing in more mom-and-pop stores that could afford the lower rent on the second floor.

He also stressed that the proposal is consistent with the 2007 Town Plan of Conservation and Development, and that it would in now way call for the expansion of properties or the elimination of existing apartments.

Planning and Zoning Director Laurence Bradley pointed out that the amendment “has the potential for 13 properties, a total of 77,000 square feet,” which would require an additional 120 parking spaces.

“Seventy-seven thousand square feet, that’s all I have to say,” said Chip Stephens, showing his disapproval of the proposed amendment.

WestportNow.com Image
P&Z members Chip Stephens and Catherine Walsh, commission chair, study an applicant’s submission tonight. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

That amount of square footage was later challenged by P&Z member Ronald Corwin, who pointed out that if mom-and-pop stores took up space in just Main Street properties, the number would drop considerably, possibly as low as 12,000 square feet.

“I think it’s interesting and it’s incremental, allowing some businesses that could not afford it to come to Main Street,” Corwin said. “This strikes me as just the right thing we want to do.”

Corwin added that while “it is not likely to happen no matter what” for Main Street to be transformed back to the small buiness center of yesteryear, “this creates the potential for that to happen.”

When P&Z member Howard Lathrop questioned how second floor retailers could get around handicapped access laws, Achilles said businesses with 3,300 square feet would be exempt under the statutes.

Before opening up the discussion to the public, Stephens said he found it “irksome” where parking and handicapped concerns “have been minimized.”

The only member of the public to speak was Gloria Gouveia, a Westport land use consultant, who said she supported “the spirit of the amendment.”

“But I think it would be better if it were limited to Main Street only,” Gouveia said, noting that the amendment would bring the existing 10 second floor retail establishments “into compliance with the zoning regulations,” an aim of the P&Z.

“It would be consistent with the natural ebb and flow of Main Street for the past 50 years,” she added, choreographing how Main Street has evolved over the years, citing the once three-story Sloan’s furniture store, the two-story Klein’s, the Sport Mart and Westport Hardware.

“I think the amendment would be a tidy way of bringing the area into compliance,” Gouveia added.

Posted 12/07 at 04:23 AM

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