WESTPORT – Planning and Zoning Commission officials recently joined residents and downtown merchants in continued opposition to a plan to remove parking spaces from a busy lot in exchange for riverfront access and improved safety.
More than 60 individuals tuned into the commission’s virtual meeting on Monday to protest the redesign of the Parker Harding Plaza parking lot, which services downtown shops and restaurants.
The parking lot is currently out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as only three of the 214 parking spaces are handicap accessible, and with the Connecticut Fire Safety Code, as ladder trucks cannot properly respond to emergencies at the downtown shops.
Earlier this year, the town proposed a plan that would have removed 50 parking spaces and a well-used road in order to build a new boardwalk along the Saugatuck River, bring the lot into compliance with state and federal standards and provide additional green space. But merchants pleaded with the town to rethink the design, claiming the loss in parking would worsen traffic congestion and discourage customers from visiting downtown Westport.
Under a new plan, which the town unveiled in August, officials have instead proposed removing 41 spaces and keeping the busy road, while still constructing the boardwalk, additional handicap-accessible spots and green space. Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich told attendees on Monday that the addition of a crosswalk, speed bumps and right-sized parking spaces would also improve pedestrian and vehicular safety.
But even with the adjustments, commission members echoed ongoing concerns from merchants. The new plan is “problematic,” they said, because it still removes 20 percent of available parking spaces and does little to improve traffic flow.
“I’m trying to wrap my arms around what benefit there is to the town,” commission Vice Chair Paul Lebowitz said. “… I agree, public safety is important. But parking is what this lot is. This is a parking lot, and so we need parking.”
Lebowitz said the loss of parking spaces and addition of a two-way lane within the lot would likely push traffic onto the busy Post Road. While two lanes allows drivers to pass a car waiting for a spot, he said, people often don’t use the extra space and create congestion regardless.
Lebowitz asked the town to rethink the design again and find a “happy medium.”
Commission Chair Danielle Dobin backed Lebowitz’s concerns. She said she understands the town’s intentions, but that the plan does not consider just how busy downtown Westport has become in recent years.
“I don’t think that it takes sufficiently into consideration the sheer number of cars that are coming in and out of that lot during the high time,” Dobin said. “And I’m not talking about the day before Christmas – I’m talking about every single day during lunch.”
In addition to removing parking and impacting traffic flow, Dobin said the town’s plan to move trash compactors from their current location in the middle of the lot to the north end could mean many downtown employees would need to drag garbage across the parking lot.
“I don’t know that we value river access so much that we want to make life so difficult for the people that work in some of our restaurants downtown,” Dobin said. “And I worry that relocating the garbage does that.”
Dobin said Westport should be more considerate of the people who work downtown and will have to deal with the consequences of the redesign every day.
The Parker Harding Plaza parking lot is one of four lots included in the town’s larger redevelopment plan – Reconnecting the Riverfront. In addition to Parker Harding, Westport plans to renovate the Lower Jesup Green lot and Imperial Avenue lot, and has already renovated the Baldwin lot and removed 35 spaces in order to connect and extend the boardwalk down the river.
Dobin told Ratkiewich that if he had instead presented a redesign of the Jesup lot first – which may include up to 40 new parking spaces – there may have been less opposition to the Parker Harding plans.
“After achieving the reimagination of Jesup, if you had then appeared in front of this commission with this idea, I think that everybody would have a really different starting point,” she said.
But Randy Herbertson, chair of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, said the plan has not been looked at in piecemeal. Rather, he said, it would be “chaos” if the town redesigned all of the downtown lots at the same time.
“The reality is, it would be chaos to try to do these all at once. It’d be like remodeling your whole house and living it,” Herbertson said. “It would not be tenable [for] anybody to do them all at once, so we have to do them one at a time.”
Herbertson said the committee, which is charged with carrying out the 2015 Downtown Master Plan, is renovating the lots based on need. The Baldwin lot was in poor shape, he said, and Parker Harding is next.
Herbertson assured attendees that the committee has put significant work into researching alternatives and understanding the plan’s impact, including conducting three traffic studies, holding numerous public meetings and facilitating surveys to gauge merchant concerns. Still, he said, the town must cut parking in order to implement the 2015 plan.
“I’ve been an advocate all along to retain as much parking as possible in this parking lot,” he said “But at the same time, parking that’s actually accessible, is usable, is safe.”
Herbertson noted that downtown Westport will likely end up with the same amount of parking as it started with once the redesigns of the Jesup and Imperial lots are complete.
But without any official plans for the other lots yet, the majority of the meeting attendees opposed the Parker Harding plan – especially the merchants.
Gina Porcello, co-owner of GG & Joe, thanked commission members for voicing their concerns and validating what business owners like her have been saying.
“A lot of the things that we’ve kind of been trying to say at meetings and whatnot have all been kind of brought up by the commission now,” Porcello said. “So, it was really refreshing to hear a commission who’s independent of anything see the same problems and flaws in the plan that we’ve kind of been trying to point out for a while now, too.”
Porcello also pushed for the committee to present the plans for each parking lot as one. For example, she said, if the town proposed a new parking garage in tandem with the space reduction at Parker Harding, merchants would be more inclined to support the plan.
“I think that’s a lot more palatable to business owners, to customers and to residents if you put it together like that,” Porcello said. “So maybe it is a conversation that should be talked about in conjunction with this plan.”
Catherine Walsh, a former chair of the committee, said she takes responsibility for not looking at downtown parking cumulatively, especially in the case of the Baldwin lot.
“The Baldwin lot looks fabulous, but we lost 35 spaces there. And I’m going to take responsibility. I was one of the commissioners who didn’t think to say, ‘Where are you going to pick up the other 35 spaces?’” Walsh said. “And I should’ve.”
Walsh also asked current committee members to correct their plans and look at parking holistically.
The commission did not make a decision on the town’s proposed plans on Monday. Instead, Ratkiewich asked the group to continue the public hearing at its Nov. 7 meeting.