A rendering of the proposed “North River Loop,” a pedestrian trail — including a new footbridge bridge — linking both sides of the Saugatuck River.

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — Federal pandemic relief money could help reshape the downtown riverfront.

Westport received $4.2 million from the federal government this year through the American Rescue Plan Act, and expects the same amount next year.

The Board of Selectmen on Wednesday began discussing how to spend that money, and $340,000 was proposed to fund a plan to redesign the Parker Harding and Jesup parking lots.

The Downtown Plan Implementation Committee talked Thursday morning about rebuilding and expanding pedestrian walkways along both sides of the Saugatuck River.

Members also talked about constructing a 200-foot arched footbridge across the river from the west side to the edge of Gorham Island, creating a walkable loop that would include the RuthSteinkrausCohen Bridge, carrying the Post Road over the river.

“There’s a boardwalk that goes from the Post Road to Bar Taco, and that’s where it ends, with the [former] Save the Children site redevelopment,” said Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich. 

What’s proposed, he said, “is to extend that walkway all the way to the northern extent of the property and then install a clear-span arched pedestrian bridge from that point over to an extended walkway … that would connect to that timber walkway that exists right now.”

That would create a walking loop connecting the east and west sides of the river, tying them together.

“When you’re downtown and you’re looking for a place to dine, you have this loop that you have a lot of choices on,” Ratkiewich said.

There was discussion about the various permits needed for permission to build the footbridge. Ratkiewich said since it has not been designed yet, that is uncertain. 

A cantilevered walkaway providing more green space along Parker Harding, which would have supports not sunk into the riverbed, is also under consideration. 

“The goal is to lose as little parking as possible,” committee Chairman Randy Herbertson said of the plan.

“We do know we’ll lose some just by pure size regulations … but we know it’s a very inefficient lot right now the way it’s been designed and the goal is to create more pedestrian access,” he said.

Committee member Deirdre O’Farrelly, who drew up a couple sketches of possible improvements both north and south of the Post Road, suggested jut-outs on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge.

“European bridges often have these places you can sit down and cool off or look at the water,” she said.

“Very early sketches, you know, landscape architects are needed, traffic engineers …”

Herbertson liked O’Farrelly’s ideas.

“I thought this was a really creative idea, even the triangular spaces,” he said.

Downriver, changes are possible at the Jesup parking Lot as well.

The paved parking area between the green and the river could give way to an extended green, bordering a riverfront esplanade with some docks. A playground with water features is envisioned on Jesup Green, north of the library steps.

Herbertson said reclaiming the lower lot for green space could be offset, parking-wise, by combining the upper lot and the Police Department’s parking lot.

“A downtown playground is something that has a lot of public interest,” he said.

O’Farrelly said the police parking lot could be better designed, and provide more space for public parking.