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.
Parker Harding Plaza’s parking lot is often filled to capacity, even by morning on typical weekdays, as seen in this photograph taken last month. / File photo

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — Plans to redesign Parker Harding Plaza’s parking lot will be the topic of a public forum Aug. 22, after being sidelined earlier this summer by weeks of controversy.

A public review of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee’s master plan for downtown parking and pedestrian areas is scheduled at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22, at the Westport Library, 20 Jesup Road.

First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker, in a Wednesday statement announcing the meeting, or “charrette,” said, “We continue  to invite and consider public opinion, as we have throughout this year-long process.”

The meeting will give the public and downtown stakeholders a chance to review and comment on plans for revamping the downtown parking lot, as well as to suggest new options.

Tooker “paused” the redesign plans in June, acknowledging in a statement at the time, “recent feedback on the current upgrade and design option for Parker Harding Plaza has demonstrated that proposing another design option for the town-owned parking lot is supported and warrants further consideration.”

Her decision to postpone action on DPIC’s plans for the parking lot followed weeks of criticism, from both downtown business owners and area residents, focusing on proposed elimination of 44 parking spaces as well as the cut-through road between Main Street and Post Road East.

Tooker’s action came two days after a petition was certified for the Representative Town Meeting to hold a forum on the issue in September.

Critics complained the committee’s planning process lacked transparency, contending they learned about the plans only in the late stages of the project’s design.

Additional questions arose over validity of the committee’s surveys and reports on issues like traffic, with critics noting that some of the data were collected before the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic had eased. Downtown, at the time, had yet to see the opening of a number of new stores and restaurants, and has since re-emerged as a bustling — often congested — business district, they said.

The flap over the Parker Harding plans also rekindled a broader debate over finding long-term solutions to often-competing traffic and parking concerns for downtown businesses, their patrons and their employees.

Both Tooker and Randy Herbertson, the DPIC chairman, have defended the planning process, saying the Parker Harding proposal evolved over a months-long period that included regular updates posted on the committee’s website, an earlier charrette, surveys that attracted more than 1,500 responses, pop-up displays at community events and monthly public meetings.

And a primary reason for revamping the lot is its state of disrepair, according to Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich, who told a DPIC meeting in June the conditions pose a growing public safety risk and liability issue for the town.

Tooker, in her Wednesday announcement, added, “I appreciate the hard-working team that is managing this project. I encourage everyone to take an interest and attend the session on Aug. 22.” 

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.