By James Lomuscio
Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) tonight voted 6 to 0 with 1 abstention to give a positive report on a planned Elm Street land swap that would net the town nine additional parking spaces downtown.
This building housing the Villa Del Sol Restaurant at 35 Elm St. would be razed and swapped for part of the town-owned parking lot across the street. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
The positive report is the first step allowing developer David Waldman to put up a $7 million building on a piece of the town’s Baldwin Parking Lot at 36 Elm St. in exchange for property he has an option to buy at 35 Elm St. across the street.
Waldman, principal of David Adam Realty who is heading the nearby Bedford Square Pproject, also owns the historic Kemper Gunn House relocated to the town lot three years ago.
Frist Selectman Jim Marpe has been supporting the land swap and two weeks ago requested a positive P&Z endorsement. Marpe has been bullish on the plan since the town would gain nine parking space in the parking-stressed downtown.
Two weeks ago, the P&Z took a straw vote with commissioner Chip Stephens being the only dissenter.
At the time Stephens said he felt uncomfortable that the town was pushing for the swap, and that the onus should be on the developer. He also questioned the value of exchange to Westport residents, saying that it would only benefit out-of-town shoppers.
Tonight, Stephens softened his tone, abstaining instead, saying, “I’m not going to fight this as hard as I thought I would.”
He did, however, suggest that the Board of Finance, which has to approve the transaction, give a close look at the exchange to assure the town would benefit from the deal.
The proposal includes Waldman buying the Villa Del Sol building and property totaling .15449 acres at 36 Elm St., on which he has an option, for $6 million, including buying out the restaurant’s lease. He then plans to raze the building, making the area it into a parking lot.
The new lot would be traded for a .15395-acre town parcel across the road at 35 Elm St. There, Waldman plans to construct a two-story building for retail and residential tenants, with one of the apartments being affordable.
Other commissioners agreed with Stephens that the report should include due diligence from the finance board, including the requirement of appraisals for both properties.
“It’s a positive report with caveats,” said commissioner Jack Whittle.
At the previous P&Z meeting Sept. 15, Tax Assessor Paul Friia said the new 35 Elm St. building’s market value would be approximately $7 million netting $82,600 in annual tax revenue.
That is a net gain of $38,000 from the current restaurant building valued at $3.7 million, he said, and currently generates $44,600 a year.
Still, commissioners tonight demanded the Board of Finance further scrutinize the project on Elm Street, which is considered the final stretch in what has been dubbed the downtown’s golden triangle.
P&Z Chairwoman Catherine Walsh stressed the need for Elm Street’s renovation.
“I think this is a great project,” she said.