A conception of the proposed Parker Harding redesign.
A drawing of the proposed Parker Harding redesign.

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — The Planning and Zoning Commission gave the Parker Harding lot redevelopment plan a poor reception Monday night.

It was clear after every member had questions or expressed concerns — mostly about the loss of parking spots — that an 8-24 review at the request of First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker would not have yielded a positive recommendation that evening.

The plan by the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee also was before the commission for a coastal site plan approval.

It was a major setback for the proposal to redevelop the decades-old lot by adding more greenspace and a wider walkway by the river but subtracting parking spaces to comply with modern codes and engineering standards.

Over the last year, the proposal encountered significant opposition from downtown merchants and restaurant owners over the loss of spaces, and from the public not only worried about that, but the loss of the cut-through from Post Road East to Main Street.

Tooker hit the pause button on the project, and the cut-through and some parking spaces were restored. The revised plan has since sailed through several boards and commissions.

But Monday, it wasn’t enough.

After more than three hours of discussion, Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich, who was presenting on behalf of the town, requested the discussion be continued rather than be put to a vote.

Early in the meeting, Planning and Zoning Director Mary Young, who is also a member of the DPIC, said the improvements are needed for public safety.

“None of this meets code,” she said of the existing parking lot. “Fire code, building code, A.D.A. code. That doesn’t sound great, it doesn’t sound like you have to do anything, well you do. This has got liability written all over it.”

Member Paul Lebowitz had a laundry list of questions and concerns, including traffic circulation and flow, moving the dumpsters farther from businesses, and the loss of parking spots.

“I’m an eight-year commissioner on this commission, and I tried as I would to remember a time when we ever actually approved the reduction of parking in such a major, important part of town as this,” Lebowitz said.

Other members echoed his concerns.

“I’m concerned about losing parking spots,” said member Neil Cohn, acknowledging, as many did, the hard work and positive aspects of the plan.

Ratkiewich addressed the issues raised, and said that parking structures, which have always been spurned in town, would solve some problems.

“We could always do nothing, and turn our focus over to a parking garage, and I’ll see you again in about four or five years,” he said.

“Right now, we have an opportunity to get stuff done,” he said. “We did a very good job on the Baldwin lot and the Elm Street lot. I’d like to continue going around the horn and getting them all done.”

“Parking downtown literally is the lifeblood of our community here in District 9,” said John Suggs, a candidate for RTM in the district. “We have to respect that.”

He credited RTM member Sal Liccione, District 9, for raising the alarm early about plan, when few people were aware of the changes being proposed.

John McCarthy said he was disappointed the presentation didn’t detail the economic impact of cutting so many parking spaces.

“The odds are the rent rolls are going to go down, which will impact property value, which will impact property taxes,” he said. “I think that’s something going forward that really needs to be a major consideration.”

Gina Porcello, who with her husband owns the coffee shop GG & Joe, was grateful that concerns voiced by business owners downtown have been heard.

“A lot of the things that we’ve been trying to say at meetings and whatnot have been kind of brought up by the commission now, 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 been trying to point out for a while now.”

Kristin Schneeman, an RTM member from District 9, said she was disappointed the discussion was reduced to parking.

“It is a parking lot, but it’s not only a parking lot,” she said. “It’s in some of the most prime real estate in town with the most beautiful views, it is used, and it should be, for other purposes than parking.”

“Pete, you mentioned we have the opportunity right now to get stuff done, and I think that you’re right, but I don’t know that that means that we chose to,” P&Z Chairwoman Danielle Dobin said to Ratkiewich. “When I look, as a commissioner just speaking for myself personally, at a proposal like this I’m guided by the idea of do no harm.”

“The parking lot, as Randy [Herbertson, the DPIC chairman] put it, looks like garbage right now, it is how people come into our town,” she said. “But I disagree with you respectfully, Randy, I do believe that generally, it does function. It does function. I appreciate the fire safety issues, but the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee was not created in order to reimagine parking lots for fire code compliance. The Downtown Plan Implementation Committee was created because our downtown was dying a slow death. It was suffering. It was empty. And we were trying to consider as a community ideas to revitalize it.”

Catherine Hiriart, owner of Catherine H. on Main Street.
Catherine Hiriart, owner of Catherine H. on Main Street.

Catherine Hiriart, the owner of Catherine H. on Main Street, said her clothing store has customer who drive two or three hours, from as far away as Boston.

 “What I’ve heard, over and over again is clients telling me how long it took them to park,” she said. “Now to continue to have those people coming, if we remove parking, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

“The headliner for me is we just need more parking,” said Nancy Kail, RTM District 9.

“Where do we go from here?” she asked, “because we’re so close.”

The discussion was continued, at Ratkiewich’s request, to the Nov. 6 meeting.

“Last thoughts,” Dobin said, “overwhelmingly deep concern with regard to the elimination of parking, and a hope that there is a way to either sequence these proposals differently so that Jesup [Green parking lot], which adds parking, would come first versus this proposal, which eliminates parking.”

“Or alternatively that we can find some common ground where the four new A.D.A.-compliant spots can be created, fire code-compliant, and this can be addressed if not entirely, at least in part, but where far more parking is retained,” Dobin said. “That’s what I generally heard from the commissioners.”

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 35 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.