By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — Plans to impose new time limits on parking downtown, approved last August, have hit a detour.
The signs are not installed.
Signs designating new three-hour parking limits for more than 500 spaces in downtown lots and streetside were delivered later than anticipated and have yet to be posted, rendering the new limits unenforceable as the busy holiday shopping season gets underway.
When the new signs are installed — expected sometime in December — they will remain covered and the new short-term parking limits will not be enforced until January, according to Tom Kiely, town operations director for the first selectwoman.
Under the plan approved by a divided Board of Selectwomen in August, three-hour time limits will apply to about 550 spaces of the more than 2,000 parking spaces in public and private lots downtown. The rest will remain all-day parking spaces.
The previous two-hour limit for many downtown spaces was suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic to encourage more business for the district’s stores and restaurants. Some of those signs have remained covered ever since.
“After the new year, we will make a formal announcement, a formal date when the enforcement goes into effect,” Kiely said. Delivery of the signs ordered from East Coast Signs and Awnings in New Rochelle, N.Y., was delayed, he said.
Signs in downtown parking lots on both sides of Post Road East currently have a welter of one-hour, two-hour and all-day parking signs. And in some areas, including the Parker Harding parking lot, signs are covered with a wrap that says, “Westport Enjoy Open Parking.”
For the time being, police will enforce parking limits in compliance with signs that are uncovered, as well as for handicapped accessible spaces and commercial loading zones, according to police Cpl. Alan D’Amura, public safety officer for the Police Department. There will be no enforcement for spaces where the signs are covered.
Parking and traffic downtown have already been challenging as the holiday season arrives, and lack of conformity among parking limits in different lots can make it worse as the season progresses, merchants say.
“Parking was particularly bad this weekend — all week it’s been bad,” Michael Porcello, manager of GG & Joe Coffee shop on Parker Harding Plaza, said Monday.
Merchants’ complaints and concerns expressed by Representative Town Meeting members from District 9, which includes the downtown area, resulted in the selectwomen’s August decision to extend the initial proposal to re-impose two-hour parking limits to three hours instead.
That meeting at times was contentious as merchants complained about what they said was a lack of transparency and clear communication from the town administration on downtown parking issues. Several speakers also called for the decision to be delayed until a comprehensive plan for downtown parking and traffic was in place.
First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker contended the lack of parking limits in some lots was being abused by drivers who parked for long periods of time. “Spaces are not circulating … We know parking downtown is a problem,” she said before the vote was taken to re-establish parking limits and extend them to three hours.
Police Chief Foti Koskinas also advocated for a decision to be made on the parking limits at the August meeting. “The timing is that we have a Thanksgiving holiday coming … the Christmas holiday coming, we are trying to make every effort to have as high a turnover as possible to assist the businesses,” the chief said.
“The reality is there is adequate parking, but it’s being filled up early in the morning by people who can park in other places,” Koskinas added, referring to the issue of downtown business employees parking in unlimited-time spots while customers are forced to find alternatives.
Downtown parking has been a concern for officials, business owners and the public as commerce rebounded from the pandemic, but some plans to redesign parking lots have sparked controversy.
Reconstruction of the Baldwin parking lot off Elm Street was completed in the summer of 2022, but plans for upgrading Parker Harding Plaza have been the subject of sometimes-heated debate for months.
The latest version of the Parker Harding proposal — a “compromise” designed to address some of the contentious features in earlier plans — was withdrawn by the administration in October shortly after the application got a skeptical review by the Planning and Zoning Commission.
The Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, which has drawn up the plans for Parker Harding, canceled its next meeting after the P&Z raised many questions about proposal, according to Matthew Mandell, executive director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, and a DPIC member. Mandell said he does not know when the committee will meet next to review or revise the plans.
But he believes that one solution to help ease the parking crunch would be to free up spaces where employees of downtown businesses often park. “The chamber is advocating for businesses to have their employees park on the periphery [in the Jesup and Imperial lots] to allow the customers to have closer spaces to the venues,” Mandell said. “Then, employees should be allowed to move their cars closer to their jobs later in the day.”
Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.