By James Lomuscio
A proposed text amendment that attorney Lawrence Weisman said would free up the town’s five design development districts (DDD) to make building, parking and environmental improvements received a ringing endorsement from Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe at tonight’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) meeting.
The reason’s for Marpe’s support—it would encourage an owner of one of the districts—Bridgewater Associates, an international, multi-billion-dollar hedge fund, Westport’s largest employer and third top taxpayer—to remain in town.
“I believe they deserve to improve this property and that their intent is long-term occupancy of that property,” said Marpe about Bridgewater’s headquarters on the Glendenning property on Weston Road.
“We know that they are being lured to Stamford, and yet in the conversations I’ve had with their senior executives they have a real interest in maintaining a significant commitment in Westport.
“They’ve invested in trying to understand what to do with their Glendenning property and quite significantly, and again, I think that’s a strong indicator of a long-term presence,” he added. “I believe a positive action by this Planning and Zoning Commission related to this property would be well received by Bridgewater.”
P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens reminded those who spoke that his commission was hearing a text amendment, not a specific site plan application for Bridegwater.
Matthew Mandell, a member of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), urged the P&Z to examine how the text amendment changes would affect other DDDs in town, including Nyala Farms Corporate Center and Gorham Island.
“You need to make sure the Green’s Farms Association (near Nyala Farms) is comfortable with this,” he said.
Weisman, who is representing Bridgewater, stressed that under the amendment the existing lot or building coverage will increase by no more than 20 percent.
He described restrictions placed on DDDs 34 years ago as archaic, preventing Bridgewater from making any changes that would improve its buildings and bring them up to safety and health codes.
For example, he said the buildings on Glendenning site have no elevators or sprinkler systems. He also said Bridgewater wants to see the parking lots relocated from being in the flood zones of the Saugatuck River.
“We want to move it away from the river, take one building down and build a smaller one and have an underground parking lot with a green roof,” Weisman said.
He said Bridgewater wanted to make the improvements as part of its corporate culture—including areas for mediation.
He noted that when the restrictions were placed on the DDDs in 1980, “we did not have the stringent regulations we have today.”
“What purpose would it be to freeze them in their present state,” Weisman said. ” …The courts would not sustain that.”
“This (text amendment) does no harm,” he added. ““I think it’s the right thing to do and the necessary thing to do.”
P&Z member Alan Hodge asked why there is public opposition to the change, especially as it related to Nyala Farms.
Weisman said that any opposition stems from a public misunderstanding, especially since Nyala Farms “is already at 20 percent.”
P&Z member Catherine Walsh suggested that the matter be continued, and Jack Whittle, P&Z vice chairman agreed, saying that the proposed amendment should be examined further to determine its impact on other sites.
In other matters, the P&Z heard text Amendment 669. Its focus is the relocation of the historic Kemper-Gunn House from Church Lane to the Baldwin Parking Lot to make way for the Bedford Square development replacing the Westport Weston Family Y.
Speaking on behalf of DC Kemper-Gunn, Karen Johnson stressed the need to ease restrictions in a Business Center District/Historic (BCD/H) regarding setbacks, floor area ratio (FAR), landscaping, screening and buffers, all of which she said would facilitate the relocation of historic buildings.
“Rather than to apply to the Zoning Board of Appeals and seek variances Larry’s (P&Z Director Laurence Bradley) suggestion was to propose a text amendment,” Johnson said.
She said that the easing of restrictions to preserve the historic Victorian home was consistent with the town’s 2007 Plan of Conservation and Development.
Francis Henkels, chairman of the Historic District Commission (HDC) noted that while his commission has not taken a position on the text amendment, it supports the move and preservation of Kemper-Gunn.
“Speaking personally, I think this makes complete sense,” he said. “One of the ways we can preserve historic structures is to move them.”
The P&Z took no action, but continued the hearing until the proposed text amendment is reworked to specify historic structure, not just structure, in a BCD/H zone. Johnson agreed.
“It’s a simple fix, and if you think it adds clarity, and we have to live with it for a long time, so sure,” she said.
The P&Z also continued a hearing on a controversial amendment it proposed that would limit buildings in the downtown BCD/H district to 10,000 feet and prohibit expansion into neighboring lots.
The amendment was vehemently opposed by Westport developer David Waldman. He said it would be highly detrimental to downtown businesses and property owners and would not encourage smaller, independent retailers to rent downtown as the commission desired.
Waldman also said the amendment would negatively impact his ability to attract tenants to the Bedford Square project in which he is a principal.
“I have a big problem with this amendment,” he said.
“I find it hard to believe that after you spent a year and a half discussing Bedford Square that you could sit here and contemplate changing the marketplace that our downtown currently has to restrict what you just recently approved.”
He pointed out that the Bedford Mansion portion of the Family Y is on three levels and has roughly 30,000 feet. “It has the opportunity to have a single tenant occupy that building,” he said.
“For you to sit here and dictate that a store should only be 10,000 feet I kind of want to think back if you had this regulation in place years ago and what you would be missing today.”
He cited Mitchells, Restoration Hardware store, Urban Outfitters, and Gap Inc.
“The concept that a smaller space on Main Street is going to allow an incubator or local shop to allow itself to locate there, I don’t understand because the smaller the space is on Main Street, the more as a landlord we get per foot,” Waldman said.