WESTPORT – Business owners opposed to new downtown parking limits pleaded with officials to delay their vote until several merchants returned from vacation, but the Board of Selectwomen implemented a three-hour restriction regardless.
Looking to improve customer turnover and access to businesses in the growing and busy downtown Westport, two of the three selectwomen voted to switch about 25 percent of the downtown parking spots from all-day parking to three-hour parking at their Wednesday meeting.
First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker said downtown parking has been an ongoing issue for the town, and the three-hour limit is an appropriate first step to improving traffic.
“We know it’s a problem because parking is not circulating and turning over appropriately,” Tooker said. “We have the ability to make that change now.”
But attendees argued that three-hour parking limits would negatively impact business for downtown merchants, and asked the board to delay the vote as many merchants are on vacation and could not attend the mid-August meeting.
Gina Porcello, co-owner of downtown coffee shop GG & Joe, told the selectwomen that between the parking limits and the redesign of the Parker Harding Plaza parking lot, the town has failed to properly consult downtown merchants on proposed parking changes.
“How come nobody’s reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, could you send out an email and see if 10 merchants would like to meet and discuss this?’” Porcello asked.
A week before the Wednesday meeting, the Westport Downtown Association emailed a survey to about 200 downtown merchants regarding the proposed parking limit enforcement. According to Maxxwell Crowley, president of the association, only 44 people completed the survey.
Porcello said the lack of responses was a clear indication that the association has no “foothold” with the merchants. Instead, she said, the town should have reached out to business owners directly.
“I probably could have sent [the survey] out to 60 people and gotten 60 responses,” Porcello said. “And those would be specific people that would be impacted or that have a real opinion because they’re specifically downtown.”
Both Tooker and Police Chief Foti Koskinas maintained that the Wednesday meeting was the appropriate time and manner to make the decision on parking limits.
“That’s how we do our work,” Tooker said. “This is a discussion, this is a public meeting, this is an agenda item that has been posted. It is open to the public.”
Koskinas explained that delaying the decision would mean turnover improvements would have to wait until after Thanksgiving and Christmas – two of the busiest times for downtown Westport.
The police chief assured Porcello that he personally spoke to many business owners about the parking limits, and questioned why more downtown merchants had not attended the meeting to advocate for the continuance of all-day parking.
“If you have 60 people you could have emailed, you should’ve emailed them, and 55 of them maybe should be here,” Koskinas told Porcello. “… This is how business operates. This is how the town operates. It’s a public meeting.”
But Ciara Webster, co-owner of downtown restaurant Nômade Westport, told CT Examiner on Wednesday she is opposed to three-hour parking limits and was unable to voice her opinion because she is currently on vacation.
The selectwomen first considered establishing two-hour parking limits during their meeting last month, but were met with suggestions for three-hour limits and paid parking from merchants like Patrick Jean, Webster’s business partner.
The board members delayed the vote until the Wednesday meeting. In the meantime, Webster said, merchants sent Tooker letters pleading with her to take up the matter at a later date so more owners could attend, but did not hear back.
“Nobody got a single response to say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but that’s just how I’m gonna do it.’ Nothing. Not even the dignity of an answer,” Webster said. “It is quite incredible how the town is being run, to be honest.”
Webster said Nômade Westport is the busiest restaurant on Main Street and would be significantly impacted by the parking restrictions.
While three hours may be enough time to shop or sit down for a meal, she explained, it is not enough time for customers to do both.
“If your meal takes two hours, there’s no time left to shop,” Webster said. “I mean, there’s an hour. But it’s not enough time for the merchants to get the benefit of that person who’s driven to Westport.”
Webster said the town should either implement four-hour parking limits or create metered parking in which the first couple of hours are free and customers pay for additional hours through a mobile app.
Porcello told CT Examiner it’s is not her responsibility to “rally the troops” and bring downtown merchants to town meetings. Rather, she said, the town should have taken the initiative to meet with business owners prior to the Wednesday meeting.
Porcello added that the town should be thinking about downtown parking holistically instead of piecemealing separate initiatives.
“There should be a comprehensive plan to understand the whole picture before making any changes,” she said.
The town is currently implementing a plan to improve safety and accessibility in downtown Westport, which includes an ongoing reconfiguration of the Parker Harding Plaza parking lot. The most recent proposal would remove 50 parking spaces and a cut-through road.
Next week, the town is holding a meeting to review Parker Harding design proposals and hear public feedback. At the Wednesday meeting, some members of the Representative Town Meeting joined merchants in asking the selectwomen to delay the vote.
RTM Member Richard Lowenstein said no matter his opinion on the proposed parking limit, the board should delay any changes until the Parker Harding lot is sorted out.
“I urge you to postpone, and I wish one of you would make a motion to delay until after the charette is over [and] you have a chance to analyze what you see,” Lowenstein said of the Aug. 22 meeting. “Nothing is lost by delaying, but there’s a lot lost if you make a decision today and it’s not the right decision.”
RTM members Sal Liccione and Kristin Schneeman also asked the selectwomen to wait until residents are back from vacation and after the Parker Harding meeting has been held.
“It’s a terrible time of the year to really get people to participate, and I think all of these plans really benefit when people participate,” Schneeman said.
The board ultimately voted to approve the three-hour limit for 553 of the 2,000 public and private parking spaces in downtown Westport, with Tooker and Selectwoman Andrea Moore in favor, and Selectwoman Candice Savin opposed.
Before the vote, Savin said she would only feel comfortable approving the limits if merchants agreed it would benefit their businesses.
“Good intentions are not always the only factor,” Savin said. “That’s just my concern, because I would feel more comfortable with the change if we had at least some amount of merchants here saying, ‘We want this.’ And I haven’t seen that at all.”