The Parker Harding parking lot is often full, even on weekday mornings. Several of those attending Wednesday’s Board of Selectwomen meeting said that’s because employees at nearby businesses and not shoppers park there before stores open.
Above, Parker Harding Plaza’s parking lot, already full by morning as it now often is … and below, an architect’s drawing of how it probably won’t look following Monday’s withdrawal of latest redesign plans.
Three new crosswalks guiding pedestrians from stores on Main Street to the riverfront, and art work installed in green spaces on a rotating basis, are both features of plans to remodel Parking Harding Plaza.

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — Plans to redesign the Parker Harding Plaza parking lot hit another bump in the road Monday.

The application to redesign the downtown lot, a topic of debate and controversy since spring, was withdrawn from consideration by the Planning and Zoning Commission after a rocky outing last week.

P&Z members, during a lengthy hearing on the application, posed pointed and skeptical questions about the project, focusing primarily on the loss of parking spaces and the need for a more coordinated plan for all of downtown’s parking lots.

Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich, who presented the plan to the P&Z, asked the commission to hold off on a vote after it appeared the verdict would be negative. The application was an “8-24 review” sought by First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker, which would have allowed plans to move forward.

On Monday, in a brief letter to Planning and Zoning Director Mary Young, Ratkiewich wrote: “In consultation with the first selectwoman, and in light of the commentary offered on the [Parker Harding] applications, we have decided to withdraw both applications so as to focus on addressing some of the issues.”

The application, scheduled for further review at the P&Z’s Nov. 6 meeting, was formally withdrawn by Monday afternoon, as reflected in a revised agenda.

It is another setback for the Parker Harding project, which seemed to be on track after a “compromise” redesign — unveiled at a public charrette in August — won recent approvals from the town’s Architectural Review Board, Historic District Commission, Flood and Erosion Control Board and Conservation Commission.

Those boards’ positive reception was markedly different from meetings earlier this year as the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee prepared the original version of the lot’s redesign. That plan, which proposed cutting 44 parking spaces and eliminating the cut-through road from Main Street to Post Road East, sparked intense criticism from downtown merchants, area residents and several District 9 members of the Representative Town Meeting.

Tooker, acknowledging mounting criticisms of the original plan, called for a “pause” on the project in June to allow DPIC to design an alternative proposal.

The compromise plan no longer eliminated the cut-through road and instead of reducing the number of parking spaces to 163 slots restored 11 for a total of 174.

But after the P&Z review Oct. 23, the project appeared headed toward rejection.

Ratkiewich told the commissioners that among the primary reasons to upgrade the Parker Harding lot is the town’s liability for the property’s failure to comply with current building and fire codes, as well as American with Disabilities Act regulations.

But P&Z members, as well as members of the public who joined the meeting, focused on the fact that the revised plan still would reduce the overall number of parking spaces by approximately 33 slots.

Others, including P&Z Chairwoman Danielle Dobin, suggested the Parker Harding project should be coordinated with plans for other downtown lots, where planners hope to provide additional parking.

That sentiment was echoed Monday by Sal Liccione, a District 9 RTM member, who has been an outspoken critic of the plans on behalf of downtown business owners and neighbors.

Liccione said any changes to the Parker Harding lot should focus primarily on maintenance issues and code compliance, while not eliminating any spaces.

More ambitious efforts, he added, should be made in conjunction with an overall downtown parking plan.

John Schwing, the Westport Journal consulting editor, has held senior editorial and writing posts at southwestern Connecticut media outlets for four decades. Learn more about us here.