Attendees at the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee’s forum Tuesday listen to presentation of “compromise” redesign plans for the Parker Harding parking lot. Event took place at the Westport Library. / Photos by Gretchen Webster
Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich presents latest plans to redesign Parker Harding parking lot.

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — A new plan to remodel the Parker Harding Plaza parking lot, unveiled at a forum attended by more than 150 people Tuesday night, is a compromise. 

The proposal is designed to respond to criticism of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee’s plans to revamp the downtown parking lot, which had included eliminating more than 40 parking spaces and closing the pass-through road from Main Street to Post Road East. That plan was put on hold in June by First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker in response to negative feedback from downtown merchants and residents.

Tuesday’s “Reconnecting the Riverfront” forum, described as a “charrette” by officials, was the third on downtown plans in recent years. It took place at the Westport Library.

The new “August 2023 Site Plan” would maintain the access road through the parking lot, and as many parking spaces as possible, while still meeting federal regulations for accessible parking spaces and state fire codes, Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich told the gathering.

The newest version of the plan is similar to one drawn up in 2015, Ratkiewich said. “A lot of folks say we should go back to that plan and adhere to it,” he said. 

The Parker Harding plan presented Tuesday would allot 173 parking spaces and preserve the cut-through road.

The major problem with the lot’s current layout, although it has more spaces than all of the other options for redesigning the lot, is that existing spaces in the lot are not large enough to conform with regulations, making it more difficult and dangerous to navigate for both vehicles and pedestrians, he said. 

Of the parking lot’s current 177 spaces, none of them meets the standard regulation size of 9 by 18 feet, he said, and only 37 meet the standard for a “small” space of 8 by 10 feet. 

“It’s not even close to ideal,” Ratkiewich said. And if the lot is re-striped, all the spaces must conform.

The new plan calls for 84 standard-size spaces, 87 smaller parking spaces, several additional accessible parking spaces, and three loading zones for trucks making deliveries to downtown businesses. 

The plan also adds enough space for a two-way corridor, instead of the one-way passage there now, which forces vehicles to back up behind motorists in the process of parking since there is not room to get around them. 

Design options for the Parker Harding parking lot: The top rendering is the latest, revised plan unveiled Tuesday night. The lower illustration is the June design, which was put on hold after generating opposition from downtown merchants and residents.

Ratkiewich outlined the seven steps the committee took to formulate the new plan:

1. Comply with American with Disabilities Act federal requirements for accessible parking spaces by adding four accessible spaces parking spots.

2. Comply with state fire codes, which require enough space near the stores for a firetruck to extend ladders and other equipment close to buildings. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Ratkiowich said of the parking lot’s current lack of compliance with fire codes.

3. Prioritize pedestrian and vehicular safety by including pedestrian crossings in the lot. Currently, there are no designated crossings, forcing pedestrians to weave in between cars as they cross the lot and “pop out from behind parked cars,” he said. “There have been a lot of near misses.”

4. Improve circulation and traffic flow in the lot. Currently, it is difficult or impossible for cars to get by other vehicles that are parking or pulling out of spaces, Ratkiewich said. The newly remodeled Baldwin parking lot off Elm Street accomplished that goal when the town realigned spaces and reduced the total number of spaces there, he noted. 

5. Prioritize flood mitigation to keep the Saugatuck River from rising over its banks and flooding the parking lot.

6. Reconnect downtown visitors to the riverfront by constructing wider, greener walkways along the river. 

7. Facilitate “useful and inviting parking” on both sides of the Post Road.

Other changes to downtown parking that could be made in the next step of the planning process would be adding 20 spaces to parking in the Jesup Green area across Post Road East, which could mitigate the parking squeeze in Parker Harding, Ratkiewich said.

DPIC continues to accept feedback on its newest plan, encouraging both positive and negative comments from town residents and merchants.

“We would like your feedback,” he said. “We’d like to know what you don’t like … This is not going to make everyone happy, but it’ a compromise.”

Details of the latest site plan for Park Harding Plaza have been posted on the DPIC website.

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.