A rendering of the possible “North River Loop,” a pedestrian trail — including a new footbridge bridge — linking both sides of the Saugatuck River, envisioned by the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee.

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — A plan to spend $400,000 in federal pandemic relief money to redesign three downtown parking lots was approved Wednesday by the Board of Finance.

The parking lot funding wasn’t the largest appropriation of the evening, but the projects are likely to have a major impact on how downtown looks and flows for years to come. 

The appropriation, using some of the $8.4 million the federal government is sending Westport’s way through the American Rescue Plan Act, will fund the planning, redesign and permitting process for Parker Harding Plaza, Jesup Green lot and Imperial Avenue lot.

Redesign sets the stage for broader plans

Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich told the board that the appropriation combines several line items from the town’s capital forecast “to get a conceptual plan that’s consistent in the entire downtown area.”

“Parker Harding and Jesup Green are sort of contiguous, the Imperial lot is not, but we wanted to hire a firm that, whatever plan we come up with for revitalizing downtown, is consistent from location to location, as far as theme and just basic design parameters.”

After designs are completed, construction will be funded later and is now roughly estimated at $3.7 million. Work will be implemented in phases because, Ratkiewich said, downtown needs parking, so one lot will be reconstructed at a time. 

Parker Harding would come first, he said, followed by Jesup and then Imperial. He hopes to begin work in spring 2023.

Randy Herbertson, chairman of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, discusses a $400,000 appropriation of American Rescue Plan Act money, for redesigning the Parker Harding, Imperial Avenue and Jesup Green parking lots, at Wednesday night’s Board of Finance meeting. / Photo by Thane Grauel. 

Planning for green areas, footbridge?

The Downtown Plan Implementation Committee has been discussing a new vision for the Parker Harding, Jesup and Imperial Avenue lots, including the areas bordering the Saugatuck River.

Committee discussions have mentioned a desire to increase green areas along the river without sacrificing too many parking spaces, and possibly create a walkable loop across the river with the addition of a footbridge from the Gorham Island to the west bank.

A cantilevered walkway over the water to provide more green space along Parker Harding also has been discussed. 

Ratkiewich said four qualified bidders submitted design proposals and the chosen bidder, Langan Engineering, was not the lowest. 

But, he said, the firm had the most experience in Westport, working with the town and commercial clients. The firm has established relationships with many downtown property owners, he said, which will be helpful when working with the various stakeholders.

“They’ve been working in the downtown probably the last 15, 20 years,” Ratkiewich said.

Board member Nancy Dupier asked how the firm had performed for the town in the past. 

Ratkiewich said Langan designed the overhaul of the Baldwin parking lot, off Elm Street, which will soon begin, and that cost less than the appropriation.

Private input, funding sought

Board Chairwoman Sheri Gordon asked First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker about the possibility of public-private partnerships.

“This part of the process we are willing to fund,” Tooker said, “but going forward we are absolutely expecting public-private partnership.”

Ratkiewich said the footbridge across the river is a good example of where private funding would be critical.

“That’s a very expensive bridge, and it’s not going to carry cars,” he said. “That would be one aspect we would definitely look for partnership on, and certainly other elements in the downtown area, there will be opportunities as the design evolves.”

Ratkiewich said the consultant will be asked to find such opportunities.

“Sounds like a great naming opportunity for a Westport family,” said board member Lee Caney.

Board member Brian Stern noted the redesigns involve more than just a parking lot overhaul.

“This is a design project that will change the face of downtown,” he said. “I really hope it’s successful.”

“This is very exciting,” said Randy Herbertson, chairman of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee. He called the plan “holistic” and was pleased that Langan had been chosen.

The Representative Town Meeting will have final say on the $400,000 appropriation. The contract with Langan then will need approval of the Board of Selectwomen.

Ratkiewich said after the meeting that Langan will look at ideas from the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, and also seek other input in various ways.

“Including, but not limited to, actual engaging with the people in the downtown as they’re downtown, while they’re walking around down there,” he said.