Parker Harding Plaza’s parking lot and access road. / Photos by Gretchen Webster

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — Two days after a petition questioning the controversial plan to redesign the Parker Harding parking lot was certified for the Representative Town Meeting’s review, First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker has ordered a “pause” in the process to allow time for another option to be considered.

Without directly acknowledging the stiff opposition the current plan has generated, Tooker, in a statement released Friday afternoon, said, “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.”

By postponing action on the proposal developed by the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, Tooker said review of the project also will be halted by other town boards and commissions. In the coming week, the project was scheduled to be discussed July 5 by the Flood and Erosion Control Board.

Plans to repair and redesign the Parker Harding Plaza lot have sparked growing opposition over the last several months, particularly from downtown business owners and employees, as well as nearby residents. 

The most recent signal the plan was in trouble came Wednesday, when a citizen-generated petition calling on the RTM to review DPIC and the project was certified by Town Clerk Jeffrey Dunkerton.

Criticism has focused on the plan’s recommendations to eliminate the parking lot’s cut-through road between Post Road East and Main Street and to cut 44 parking spaces. 

(See reports on those issues here, here and here.)

During the pause, Tooker said she wants DPIC to consider another option for the project, although she did not offer specific suggestions.

“DPIC and the consultants will propose a second option for the upgrade that incorporates and considers additional community comments,” the first selectwoman said in her statement.

“There will be a third evening public charrette scheduled in the near future to view and discuss the options. Continued public participation is encouraged during each of the public meetings where any proposal will be presented,” she added.

Critics of the paused plan, not only faulted its recommendations, but contended there had been a lack of transparency and communication about the project while it was being developed.

They noted some of the DPIC reports and key decisions appear to have been made when the COVID-19 pandemic skewed the outcomes.

The recommended changes would, in essence, worsen already existing parking and traffic problems downtown, critics said.

In Friday’s official statement, Randy Herberston, the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee’s chairman, noted the Parker Harding plan was developed during “several years of monthly public meetings and thorough documentation on the DPIC website, multiple online surveys and two public charettes.”

Ultimately, he said, “It is the desire and intention of DPIC to have the support of and prioritize input from downtown businesses, merchants, and residents, as well as the entire Westport community.”

Critics welcome chance to consider new options

The plan to set aside the existing Parker Harding plan, at least for now, and consider other options was welcomed Friday by several vocal critics.

Douglas Enslin, who posted an online petition opposing the plan — signed by 1,190 people as of Friday — said in an emailed comment to the Westport Journal: “I am very pleased with First Selectwoman Tooker’s decision to pause and reconsider the downtown redevelopment plan. 

“I and many others believe repair and maintenance of Parker Harding Plaza is the number-one priority. I look forward to seeing a plan which accomplished these goals and continues to promote the revitalization of downtown Westport as a cultural and commercial center.”

Sal Liccione, a District 9 member of the Representative Town Meeting, who helped organize a meeting on neighborhood concerns about the DPIC plan, also was pleased.

“Wow,” he said, and thanked Tooker after learning about her decision.

Liccione said he and downtown business owners have been seeking a voice in plans to renovate the parking lot, which he agrees does need attention.

Holding off on the project, he added, gives all stakeholders a chance to weigh in on their concerns. To facilitate that, he suggested there be at least one nighttime meeting on the proposal — DPIC routinely schedules its monthly meetings at 8:30 a.m. Thursdays.

John McCarthy, who attended the neighborhood meeting on the project, in an emailed comment, also thanked Tooker “for listening to the constructive comments that have been made during the process.

“I thank the DPIC for the work that they have done so far and look forward to participating in the ongoing process. I know many residents and downtown merchants who are looking forward to contributing to the future plans for Parker Harding.”

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.