By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — As plans to add more downtown parking at Jesup Green and the Imperial Avenue lot move forward as part of a new, three-phase project, questions about the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee’s process in making the recommendations were questioned Thursday.
A $630,000 request for design money for the Jesup/Imperial part of the project was on the agenda of the Board of Finance meeting Wednesday — before DPIC members had voted on it.
The new downtown parking scenario — switching the initial focus to design more spaces in the Jesup and Imperial lots before the much-debated Parker Harding redesign advances — also has not been communicated to downtown merchants and the public, several merchants said at DPIC’s Thursday meeting.
“There was a request for an appropriation that didn’t come before this body. It was before we even saw or voted or discussed what was being asked from us. This is problematic,” said Matthew Mandell, a member of both DPIC and the Representative Town Meeting. “This was out of sequence. I want to ensure that this body does things in proper sequence.”
The Board of Finance on Wednesday ultimately postponed consideration of the $630,000 appropriation until its next meeting.
DPIC then voted Thursday morning, after the fact, to formally request the proposed expenditure, which is likely to be added to the finance board’s March agenda.
Merchants and residents on the Jesup Green side of the Post Road had a right to know about the appropriation and the revised timetable for downtown parking plans before the issue was added to the Board of Finance agenda, Sal Liccione, a District 9 RTM member, told the committee.
When Randy Herbertson, the DPIC chairman, replied that they will be told “at the appropriate stage,” Liccione said, “It should be now.”
Also complaining about a lack of information was resident Toni Simonetti, who admonished the committee, saying, “You can never communicate too much. I recommend you over-communicate rather than under-communicate.”
Herbertson on Monday had outlined to the Westport Journal the three-phase plan that DPIC envisions for redeveloping downtown parking lots. The timetable was changed to respond to concerns that parking spaces at Parker Harding Plaza will be lost.
The revised plan calls for additional spaces to be designed for the Jesup/Imperial lots; complete the Parking Harding project next, and then carry out work at the Jesup and Imperial lots in accordance with approved designs.
The next step will be to allot additional parking, temporarily, in the Taylor Street lot, located below the Westport Library and next to the Saugatuck River. More parking in that area will become crucial when the Parker Harding lot is remodeled, closing one-half of that lot first, then the other half while work is being done, Public Works Peter Ratkiewich told DPIC.
Fifteen new spaces can also be added immediately to the Imperial Avenue lot, he said, because all it requires is new striping there. The entire Imperial Avenue lot will be redone later as part of the overall project, he added.
Other parts of the plan involving Jesup Green discussed Thursday include the possibility that boats may eventually be able to cruise down the Saugatuck to the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge spanning the river when a federal dredging job is complete, and whether that would affect the plan.
Another uncertain element is the possibility that Police Department headquarters might eventually be moved from Jesup Road to a new public safety complex including Fire Department headquarters and the Emergency Medical Service. “That would have a profound impact on the design project,” Ratkiewich said.
Herbertson called the Jesup Green side of Post Road East “a culture area” because of the proximity of the library and Levitt Pavilion. These institutions create different usage and parking patterns. particularly since drivers park there for longer times and often converge at the same time for performances and other scheduled activities.
DPIC will work with the library on landscaping in the area with the help of a grant, he said.
The Jesup Green area also presents some environmental problems “requiring geo-technical investigation,” Herbertson said because the library and the Levitt are both built on landfill, which will require working with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Designs for adding temporary parking spaces at Jesup Green will be referred to the town’s land-use boards and commissions during March or April, according to Herbertson.
“We will be holding public forums throughout the [Jesup] project,” he said, similar to a charrette held on Parker Harding last August. DPIC will also send out surveys and continue to hold public meetings throughout the process, he said.
Also asking questions at the meeting were several merchants. including Annette Norton of the Savvy + Grace store on Main Street, who was assured that signs directing customers to Jesup Green would be installed during renovation of the Parker Harding, to particularly help out-of-town customers locate parking.
Norton also asked if more parking spaces could be added on the Main Street/Parker Harding side of the Post Road.
Herbertson said no. The only way to provide extra parking there would be to build a parking structure, he said, noting the recently remodeled Baldwin lot off Elm Street has been designed to accommodate a parking garage if town officials ever decide to do so.
Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman and has taught journalism at New York and Southern Connecticut State universities.