The Transit Committee of the Representative Town Meeting. / Photo by Thane Grauel
The Transit Committee of the Representative Town Meeting. / Photo by Thane Grauel

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — The Transit Committee of the Representative Town Meeting on Monday voted against recommending the full body approve funding for a redesign of parking at Jesup Green.

It was the second week in row the overall plan to remake downtown Westport’s parking areas and Jesup Green encountered opposition.

A week before, the Planning and Zoning Commission gave the plan a frosty reception and continued its discussion.

Monday’s single agenda item for the Transit Committee was a request by Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich for $630,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds “for the design and permitting of the redevelopment of Jesup Green and the Imperial Lot.”

At the end of the meeting, a motion was made to recommend the full RTM pass the funding from a federal ARPA fund.

It failed in a lopsided vote with Andrew Bloom, District 1, and Ross Burkhardt, District 3 in favor.

Melissa Levy, District 2; Chairman Richard Lowenstein, District 5; Ari Benmosche, District 8; Rachel Cohn, District 8; Jennifer Johnson, District 9; Sal Liccione, District 9, and Peter Gold, District 5, voted against.

Various iterations of parking improvements and ideas of bringing grassy areas rather than asphalt to the riverfront have been pondered for decades.

But recent plans by the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, to carve out an uphill chunk of Jesup Green for use as 40 parking spots to replace those lost in bringing Parking Harding Plaza up to modern standards, to some sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard.

That second phase of the plan would build a new terraced lot on upper Jesup Green, felling several tall trees, while about half of the existing Jesup parking lot, between the green and river, would be transformed to green space. That would net about 850 more square feet of green area than exists now, Ratkiewich noted.

Ratkiewich took time to detail the logistics of upgrading the town’s parking lots, and the sequencing needed. And, he noted, in a potential third phase, Jesup Green could actually end up much larger if the upper portion is restored after Police Department headquarters is relocated, and much of the lower lot is converted to green space.

At a joint meeting of several RTM committees March 19, the Finance and Public Works committees voted to endorse the ARPA funding for the parking redesign initiative.

The Transit Committee held off on a vote that night at the urging of member Jennifer Johnson. She said the committee should meet again, in person, before deciding. A majority of the committee agreed, and Monday’s meeting was scheduled.

On March 25, the Planning and Zoning Commission heard an 8-24 request brought by Ratkiewich on behalf of First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker. The application asked the commission to sign off the plans to redevelop the Parker Harding and Jesup Green parking lots.

An 8-24 review is required whenever a municipality wants to significantly change the use of a publicly owned property. Without a positive recommendation from P&Z, the plan can’t move forward.

The P&Z’s discussion was less than receptive, and it continued the matter to its April 8 meeting. Whether a vote will be taken that night is yet to be seen.

“I feel like the green space that is there is good,” Benmosche told Monday’s Transit Committee gathering at the Westport Library.

‘The $630,000 is not being spent wisely.’

ari benmosche, district 8

He said he did some polling with people in his district, asking if the town should spend $4 million switching green space from one side of Jesup Green to be closer to the river, and why.

He said his mind could still be changed, but also questioned shifting Jesup Road, which he said appears to have recently been redone.

“I don’t see how building a green closer to the library — and I’ve walked around this thing for like hours, I’ve been walking around all day, I was there right before this meeting — there is green space there I see like a slew of granite benches, and what do I see? Nobody there,” he said.

“So why moving the green space over there create more people to use the green?” Benmosche said. “So, for this reason, I think that I said right now, the $630,000 is not being spent wisely.”

‘We really could have something that really could be a dramatic improvement on what people would experience in the downtown,’

ross burkhardt, district 3

Burkardt said that after seeing the phasing, and the potential in a phase three, he thought it worthwhile for the planning.

“I think that if we get that, we really could have something that really could be a dramatic improvement on what people would experience in the downtown,” he said.

Liccione told DPIC Chairman Randy Herbertson the public hadn’t really been able to participate in that body’s meetings.

“Your DPIC meetings are at 8:30 in the morning,” he said. “I would formally request that we have a couple of night meetings.”

Herbertson said public input was sought at charettes later in the day, and would be again.

Liccione also said he thought it “disingenuous” for Herbertson to tell P&Z members at last week’s meeting that they could come to the DPIC morning meetings.

“That’s not my call, Sal,” Herbertson said.

Johnson again suggested a parking deck at the Baldwin Lot off Elm Street be considered to address the downtown’s chronic parking issues.

Herbertson’s assertion that such a deck could cost up to $80 million, which would be just shy of the new Long Lots school, came under scrutiny. He said that figure was based on a Fairfield project.

“I have a very tough time considering the $630,000,” Johnson said. “To move forward without that analysis of what structured parking would mean, putting concrete where concrete is now, I know it’s a third-rail issue, but we never contemplated the idea of putting parking on Jesup.”

“Jesup is a town green,” she said. “There is some indication it might be deed-restricted.”

A few members of the public spoke.

Bob Jacobs asked Ratkiewich if the Baldwin Lot is ever full.

Ratkiewich said there are usually spots available, except during the holidays, when all lots are full.

“To me, tends towards let’s leave things the way they are,” Jacobs said.

“I say leave Parker Harding as it is, and don’t rip up Jesup Green,” said Mike Treadwell.

Joseph Vallone, a local architect, said he felt Ratkiewich has taken an unfair beating over the loss of spaces in the Parker Harding plan as required by modern mandates.

“I would say that it is important to capture that green space along the river,” he said. “And I do think it is important to do a Parker Harding lot over, and lose those spaces.”

But, he said, that replacing those spots across the Post Road really wouldn’t work.

“People who are going to use the stores along Main Street are really reluctant to jump across the Post Road …,” he said.

Vallone also liked the idea of adding a deck to the Baldwin lot.

“I think the idea of adding that deck on the Baldwin Lot makes a lot of sense, given the natural topography of the site that it would actually feel almost dead-level with Elm Street,” he said.

The committee votes are just recommendations — the full RTM can take any action it sees fit.

The full RTM will discuss the $630,000 ARPA funding on April 9.

But questions remain.

Will the P&Z pass the 8-24 at its upcoming meeting?

If it doesn’t, and RTM goes ahead and funds the ARPA money for the designs, might that $630,000 be squandered if the gatekeeper P&Z later says no?

Stay tuned.

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 36 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.