Since the COVID pandemic, a stretch of Church Lane has been closed to traffic and parking to promote shopping and outdoor dining. / Photo by Gretchen Webster
Enjoying an evening at a “Music on Church Lane” concert last year.
A series of “Music on Church Lane” concerts is presented Friday and Saturday nights by the Westport Downtown Association from June through September. / File photo

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — The summertime closing of Church Lane is a boon, according to the street’s merchants and restaurateurs, who report that creating the traffic- and parking-free mall attracts more pedestrians — and business — downtown.

But others, including some Main Street and Sconset Square merchants, say the Church Lane closure cuts into their business because of altered traffic patterns and reduced availability of parking.

“It totally screws us,” said Sheri Lebowitz, the owner of Bespoke Designs in Sconset Square. The diversion of traffic over to Myrtle Avenue, when Church Lane is closed, causes a major problem for anyone trying to enter and exit Sconset Square she said.

“We 100 percent have less business when Church Lane is closed. … I just don’t understand why nobody gets this,” Lebowitz said. “Why are those businesses [on Church Lane] more important than these [in Sconset Square]?”

A stretch of Church Lane initially was closed to traffic and parking during the COVID pandemic to allow more space for outside dining when restaurants were closed or had severely limited seating. Since then, the street closure from April 7 to Nov. 2 has been approved yearly by the Board of Selectwomen. Additional permission has been granted for a series of outdoor concerts on the street Friday and Saturday evenings, a program organized through September by the Westport Downtown Association.

But what helps merchants on one downtown street is hurting others elsewhere, Lebowitz said. Drivers who might use Church Lane to get to the Post Road are using Myrtle Avenue as an alternate route instead, jamming Myrtle Avenue all the way to the traffic light at the Post Road East intersection and, as a result, completely blocking access to Sconset Square, she said.

“It is quite challenging to even get into Sconset Square because of the amount of traffic that’s diverted from Church Lane,” agreed Laurel Anderson, a bookkeeper at Bungalow in Sconset Square. It can take as long as 15 minutes to turn left when exiting the square during summertime, she said. 

And downtown parking problems aren’t helped by blocking off parking spaces on Church Lane, either. People are now parking in Sconset Square’s limited spaces to walk to Church Lane businesses, she added.

“They’ve done a pretty good job of getting businesses to come to Westport and opening up, but without figuring out where they’re going to park,” Anderson said.

The outdoor dining area at the Spotted Horse Tavern on Church Lane was busy Monday, a day when many other restaurants take a day off. / Photo by Gretchen Webster

Several Sconset Square businesses sent a letter to First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker asking that Church Lane be kept open all year, according to Anderson and Lebowitz. However, the letter was not received before the Board of Selectwomen acted to approve this year’s permit to close the street, both women said.

However, Sal Liccione, a Representative Town Meeting member form District 9, representing the downtown area, said the letter was delivered to the selectwomen before the board met and granted the permit.

“The town said it was too late but they had dropped it off the day before the meeting,” he said.

Both Liccione and the Sconset merchants said better traffic-control measures are needed to help customers and staff enter and exit their parking lot as well as to monitor traffic problems on Myrtle Avenue.

“I have requested from the traffic authority numerous times for someone to be stationed there,” Liccione said. “People run the stop sign there all the time.”

Jennifer Johnson, another RTM representative from District 9, said, “On many levels it’s a nice addition to have a pedestrian friendly place, and that’s lovely, but you can’t do that in a vacuum.”

Church Lane, she said, “can’t be closed without thinking how we’re going to increase parking downtown — there’s general consensus and funding to move that ball forward. This has to be addressed globally.”

Town officials are “trying to delay things for an undecided police station site. We can’t wait forever. We want the merchants to succeed,” Johnson added.

Some Sconset Square tenants also sent a letter to the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, asking that a permit parking system be established for downtown employees. And a letter both supporting permit parking for employees and the reopening of Church Lane by Barry Brennan, general manager of Mexicue restaurant on Main Street, was published by the Westport Journal.

Merchants and restaurateurs on Church Lane, as well as both the Westport Downtown Association and Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, support blocking off part of Church Lane to create a summer pedestrian mall because of the atmosphere it creates and the attraction for customers and diners.

On Monday, when many Westport restaurants are closed, the outside dining area at the Spotted Horse Tavern, 26 Church Lane, was busy, with patrons enjoying the sunshine and the quiet street.

“There’s such a nice vibe here,” said Matt Gass, the Spotted Horse assistant manager, as he stood outside the restaurant. “Everyone loves it. They all agree it’s one of the positives that came out of the pandemic.”

Diners bring their children and it’s quiet, “with no cars zipping by,” he said. “It’s nothing but good.” 

Down the street, Ada Yeung, manager of Pink Sumo, said the restaurant attracts more customers in the summer when they can eat outside. In the colder seasons, most of its business is take-out.

“Everyone loves it,” she said of dining outdoors when the street is closed. 

Maxxwell Crowley, president of the Westport Downtown Association, called the closing of Church Lane “a home run.”

Originally the idea of Randy Herbertson, who now is chairman of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, closing Church Lane has become not only a favorite place for Westporters to dine outside, but also a platform for local musicians to perform weekend nights, Crowley said. 

“It created a piece of the downtown that was meant for the public,” he said. “They gather, they sit, they enjoy.”

Matthew Mandell, the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce executive director, said he understands why merchants not benefiting directly from the street’s closure may not be happy about it.

“The closing of Church Lane has been very successful overall for our town,” he said. “It’s understandable that people whose businesses aren’t there don’t like it, but globally it helps everybody.”

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.