WESTPORT – Business owners and residents are opposing a parking lot redesign that would eliminate dozens of spots downtown, citing fears of increased traffic congestion and fewer shoppers to the area.
As a part of a plan to improve accessibility, safety and aesthetics in downtown Westport downtown, town officials have created a reconfiguration of the Parker Harding Plaza parking lot, which services businesses like coffee shop GG & Joe, Rye Ridge Deli and J. Crew.
But a proposed reduction in parking spaces in exchange for a new boardwalk along the nearby Saugatuck River brought business owners and residents to a Thursday Downtown Plan Implementation Committee meeting, where they protested the removal of 50 parking spots and a well-used road.
Members of the committee – who are charged with implementing a 2015 Downtown Master Plan to improve access to the riverfront – commented on the sudden interest in the project after two years of planning and design.
“Attendance has increased much more at this stage … which is better late than never,” committee Chair Randy Herbertson said.
As of Friday, an online petition opposing the parking lot changes had over 740 signatures. But at the meeting, Hebertson pointed to the committee’s various attempts at public outreach prior to the design phase.
He said the committee held 10 group interviews with stakeholders and sent two public surveys to over 10,000 residents and about 250 business owners; they found the vast majority of the roughly 1,600 survey respondents preferred the plan with the least amount of parking.
But Patrick Jean, co-owner of nearby restaurant Nomade Westport, questioned the parking reduction, given the daily troubles his customers face with the busy Parker Harding lot.
“Every week, people are calling me for lunch. They’re canceling reservations,” Jean said. “They can’t park.”
Nomade Westport sits across from the parking lot. The restaurant has its own smaller lot in the back of the building, but in recent years, Jean said, business has been “booming” and his customers quickly fill that back lot.
Gina Porcello, co-owner of GG & Joe, questioned the committee’s interpretation of the survey responses. While the majority of respondents may have prioritized additional green space and river access, she said, the survey did not clarify that the plaza would lose parking as a result.
“Do you want more green space? Sure,” Porcello said. “I don’t think it was clear at what price that green space was going to cost.”
Additionally, she said, the 1,600 respondents that Herbertson referenced did not answer all of the survey questions. For the question, “How important is parking located in the Parker Harding lot?” only about a fourth of the total respondents provided input, Porcello said. Of those who responded, she said only 21 percent said parking was not important.
“A lot of the questions, 400-something people answered the questions,” Porcello said. “That’s not a good representation of what people actually think.”
Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich said the parking lot behind Parker Harding Plaza currently has 214 spaces. Between 25 to 30 of the spots do not meet typical parking space width standards, he explained, forcing larger vehicles to park over the lines. Additionally, he said the aisle widths between parking are nonconforming, making it “rather dangerous” to back out.
Ratkiewich acknowledged the lot was losing parking spaces, but said the majority of those to be removed are not functional.
“Back in 1998, we knew this was a dysfunctional lot,” he said, referencing a 1998 study of the parking lot. “And I’ve been here since 89. It’s been dysfunctional ever since I got here.”
Ratkiewich added that the one-way cut-through – the sole point of access to the lot with an entrance at Main Street and exit onto Route 1 – which the committee planned to replace with a boardwalk was also dysfunctional. Under the new plan, two-way traffic would flow down the center of the lot.
“There’s a safety issue with the cut-through road because people do about 35, 40 miles an hour,” Ratkiewich said.
But meeting attendees immediately disagreed with the director.
“No way,” one attendee said, shaking his head. “You can’t even drive 20 [mph].”
Resident James Walsh, who lives down the street from Parker Harding Plaza, also argued the cut-through removal would result in a “balloon effect,” pushing traffic from Main Street into nearby residential neighborhoods.
“There are kids that play on Gorham Avenue. There are kids that play on Evergreen,” Walsh said. “I don’t see a lot of kids playing in the parking lot.”
He thanked the committee for its work, but warned of potential danger to Westport residents.
“You’ve done a tremendous job at bringing vitality downtown, increasing the merchants,” Walsh said. “But at the same time, this is one of these things that can have a very, very detrimental impact.”
Representative Town Meeting member Nancy Kail also expressed concern about the cut-through removal.
“I am petrified of the removal of that cut-through road because we all experience the worsening traffic conditions across town every day,” she said.
However, a traffic study by Langan – an engineering firm hired by the town – found the proposed plan could “slightly reduce” traffic to the parking lot by eliminating congestion on the cut-through and removing spaces. The reduction in parking traffic, Langan engineers said, could help reduce congestion throughout the entire downtown area.
In order to begin construction on the parking lot this year, Herbertson said the design needs to be approved by about 10 more town boards and committees, which will provide additional opportunities for public feedback and revisions.
In a Thursday statement to CT Examiner, Westport First Selectwoman Jen Tooker acknowledged issues with the current Parker Harding lot.
“Parker Harding is a critical part of our downtown infrastructure. However, in its current state, the parking lot is substandard, inefficient and lacks cohesiveness,” Tooker said. “It also runs along the Saugatuck River, one of Westport’s greatest, and underutilized, assets.”
Regarding residents’ concerns about public outreach, Tooker emphasized an ongoing need for community engagement but backed committee efforts.
“We want to make sure all stakeholders are heard, and all decisions are made transparently,” she said. “The Downtown Plan Implementation Committee has done an excellent job in running a monthslong process that has included multiple chances for public feedback in various formats, including public meetings, charettes and online surveys. I am confident that all Westporters want downtown to be a popular and inviting destination for residents and visitors alike.”