Opposition Steadfast to Latest Boardwalk and Parking Designs in Westport

Attendees review plans at Tuesday night's meeting on the parking redesign (CT Examiner)


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WESTPORT – Business owners pleaded for a “merchant-centered” approach on Tuesday night at the unveiling of the latest design for downtown parking, after previous designs met with opposition.

In June, merchants and local residents opposed a possible reconfiguration of the Parker Harding Plaza lot that would have removed 50 parking spots, and a well-trafficked road, in exchange for a boardwalk along the Saugatuck River. They argued that the plan would only increase existing traffic congestion, worsen parking troubles for customers, and scare away business.

Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich presented the newest Parker Harding plan on Tuesday to a crowded Westport Library conference room.

The latest version of the boardwalk design (CT Examiner)

Ratkiewich acknowledged the opposition, and said the new plan kept the boardwalk proposal, but also the road serving Route 1 and Main Street. Instead of removing 50 parking spaces, the new plan would cut 41.

But after a review of the new plan, members of the merchant community stuck with their initial objections, asking the town to prioritize nearby businesses over river access. Between the proposed reduction in parking and the recent decision to limit some downtown parking to three-hour spots, they said the changes would only deter customers.

“We survived 2008, we survived Sandy, we survived COVID. But I don’t know if we’re going to survive this,” warned Joanne Salerno, co-owner of ElixirSpa.

Salerno, who has operated the medical spa for 18 years, said some clients have already warned her that they will avoid downtown Westport altogether if spaces at Parker Harding, the lot servicing her business, are eliminated.

Alan Cohen, co-owner of the spa, said the town should implement a “merchant-centered” approach in their redesign of the lot, especially now that customers have returned to downtown after the pandemic.

“I haven’t seen so much activity on Main Street at night in years,” Cohen said. “And so now you’re going to look towards possibly sabotaging that in the name of bringing the river closer to people?”

But during his presentation, Ratkiewich said that improved access to the river with a new boardwalk, benches and lookout would only encourage people to visit the downtown.

“If you want to attract people to downtown Westport, the biggest gem we have is the river,” Ratkiewich said. “And all we’re doing is putting parking against it.”

Cars in the Parking Harding Plaza lot (CT Examiner)

He backed the new plan, pointing to the nine additional spaces in this version, compared to the previous plan.

“This is not going to make everybody happy,” Ratkiewich said. “But it is a compromise, and we think it’s a good compromise between competing interests.”

While the redesign of the Parker Harding Plaza lot is the current focus of downtown merchants, it is just one of the many proposals included in the town’s larger redevelopment plans, Reconnecting the Riverfront. The town has already redesigned circulation for the Baldwin lot beside Elm Street and has plans to redesign the Lower Jesup Green lot and Imperial Avenue lot. The idea is to extend the proposed boardwalk across the Saugatuck River.

The current cut-through road (CT Examiner)

Ratkiewich said the town also needs to bring the Parker Harding lot into compliance with current-day size standards, with the Americans with Disabilities Act and state fire code.

Of the 214 parking spaces in the current lot, he said,177 are non-conforming with town regulations, 37 accommodate small cars and none of the spaces adhere to contemporary space standards – 9 feet by 18 feet. The lot should also have at least seven handicap accessible spaces, but now has only has three.

The narrow aisles, he said, create traffic jams as lines of cars wait for a single car to back out of a space.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” Ratkiewich said

Sal Liccione, a member of the Representative Town Meeting in the downtown district and vocal opponent of the Parker Harding parking reduction, thanked the town for keeping the cut-through road, but continued to advocate for a merchant-centered approach.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the merchants,” he said. “There is a way, and they can sit down and meet with us.”

Liccione said the members of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, the body responsible for carrying out the downtown master plan, need to sit down with the local business owners and first responders to figure out a solution that works for all stakeholders.

At the meeting, Ratkiewich encouraged attendees to write their suggestions on index cards for the committee to consider. Westport residents have another two weeks to provide comments on the new plan.