It is an open secret that the chairman of the Westport Planning and Zoning Commission has been meeting this summer with a small group of Westport landlords to create proposals to radically transform Wesport’s small downtown Main Street business district. The Text Amendments on the table include proposals for 6 story, 60 FOOT HIGH buildings to go up in the middle of downtown. They include proposals for a new ” overlay zone”, an entirely new concept, which removes setback and height restrictions. They include proposals to increase the square footage of commercial space from 10,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet. Now we discover that Mr. Corwin is actually a paying member of their group, called Downtown Activist. Mr. Corwin ought to recuse himself from a vote on these proposals given his obvious bias on the issue. P & Z Commissioners sit in quasi-judicial capacities during public hearings. Mr. Corwin has prejudged these text amendments and ought not to vote. He has abdicated his responsibility to be an impartial commissioner who would fairly hear both sides of the issue during the upcoming hearing on September 8, 2011.
If you haven’t heard about this, it’s most likely because The Westport News and The Minuteman are not covering the story. I leave it to you to speculate on the reasons for that. Thank you to theWestport Patch for alerting me to this entire situation. http://westport.patch.com/articles/paving-paradise Had it not been for the journalistic prowess of Chandra Niles Folsom, I would not have known about this. And I host a daily talk radio show. You can see that an effort has been made to keep this under the radar.
In a recent article in Fairfield Business Journal http://westfaironline.com/2011/15742-in-wesport-an-active-voice-for-business/, Mr. Corwin is even quoted as saying, “There is no question there is a widespead community sentiment that the downtown area needs a makeover.” Widespread Community Sentiment? Sure, if the “community” is a small group of landlords who raised their rents so high in the good years that many small businesses were forced to flee or close. But last time I checked, the word community was more inclusive than that. Community actually means the people who moved to Westport because they LIKE the downtown the way it is. They LIKE the fact that downtown has a small, pedestrian-friendly feeling, with open sidewalks and low buildings. They moved to Westport BECAUSE of the small-town feeling, not in spite of it.
And how exactly would Mr. Corwin be able to judge such “widespread community sentiment”? On the basis of an anonymous poll taken on the Downtown Activist site, admittedly funded by landlords who have the greatest economic stake in increasing the square footage and density of their properties? The first chance that anyone in the community will have to voice their concerns is on September 8th, which has not even occurred yet. Clearly Mr. Corwin has already made up his mind.
The main argument in favor of these proposals that I heard was that there was a “lack of economic vitality” in downtown Westport. Hello? There is a lack of economic vitality in this country right now, a situation which has existed for at least two years and may persist. This economic downturn is not exclusive to Westport. Nor can it be attributed to the zoning requirements.
Second, the perceived lack of economic vitality is due more to the lack of diversity in the downtown shopping district than any other factor. What is missing from our downtown? Hmmm. Here is my short list- feel free to add.- Bookstore (there used to be three), Movie Theaters (there used to be four, none in higher than a two-story building), Grocery Store (Gristede’s- before my time), Hardware, Gas Station, Bagel Cafes… Moreover, the Westport Y and the Post Office (!) are actually leaving downtown! Without the Y and the Post Office, the only reason to go downtown will be to shop. A real downtown is not merely an outdoor shopping mall. That is what is being overlooked in this discussion.
There are mutliple ironies in these proposals. One, of course, is that the landlords are bringing these proposals to increase square footage when people can’t afford the rents that exist right now. Two, the landlords arguably caused the problem because they raised the rents so high that only large, non-local chainstores could afford to move in. Those managers do not support local charities, they do not have a hand out for our community and they are not really a part of it in any meaningful way. Contrast the contributions of the Mioli family, owners of Westport Pizza, with the owners of the Gap, Banana Republic and Brooks Brothers. Who do you think gives more to our community? Not even a contest.
The third irony is that one of the leaders in this effort is David Waldman, who bought up the Y property and intends to transform its use into more commercial and retail space. Will he diversify use with space he controls? We don’t know- and he doesn’t have to tell us. Nevertheless, he and others are seeeking to increase the maximum square footage of their buildings from 10,000 feet to 50,000 square feet. A five-fold increase. You do the math.
Moreover, Gordon Joseloff, Westport’s First Selectman is a member of the family that closed the last movie theaters in town, transforming their property into Restoration Hardware. If the leader of this town cares so much about diversity of use, the answer lies not in building more and higher buildings, but in creating economic incentives to transform the buildings we already have.
At the recent P & Z meeting I attended, the only people who sat at the table with Ron Corwin and Ellie Lowenstein (the former Chair of the P & Z) were three landlords, one landlord employee, Larry Bradley, who works for the Town, and two consultants. I think Jonathan Steinberg was there too, our Westport Representative in Hartford who sits on a board that has a financial interest in this project. Not one member of the general public was at that table. Almost everyone who spoke had either a direct financial interest in seeing their property wealth increase, or stood to earn money from the town.
The fundamental problem with re-zoning a downtown so dramatically is that once the buildings go up, they don’t go down. The Wright building, on the corner of the Post Road and Route 33,at the edge of town, is universally regarded as a huge mistake by the planners of Westport. They let it go up and now we all have to live with that ugly eyesore. The only good result to come out of that edifice was the community’s response to it, which was to write zoning laws to (theoretically) prevent it from happening again. If a six story building is built to house the “next great arts center”, who is to say it will be economically viable? What if that, too, goes under, just as so many worthy ventures have not been able to thrive? The town is stuck with another problem, this one right in the middle of downtown.
I was scared when I attended that recent meeting. I was scared to lose the downtown essence that I love, a main reason for moving here 22 years ago. I was scared when I heard Ron Corwin say “This is just a foot opening the door”. What more might he have planned, that we haven’t even seen yet? I was scared, because this movement is organized and determined. They said as much during the meeting, noting that they only had until November to get this done.
Town activists lost a brutal and expensive battle when the P & Z decided to allow Mahackeno Camp to become a new Y, leaving a gaping hole in the downtown district. The wounds are still fresh, and many are disheartened. I understand and share their frustration, and their pain. Were I sitting on that P & Z Commission, I would have rejected that proposal, but my time on that Commission had passed. Nonetheless, this battle is just as important. We, the vigilant soldiers who love our town, must attend this meeting on September 8th and make ourselves known. We need to elect leadership in November that will reflect our vision of Westport, one which is in accordance with the Town Plan, and not in accordance with the view of a few myopic , shortsighted developers. It’s too easy to sit on the sidelines and complain when the buildings go up. The time to act is now.
Please sign and circulate this petition I have written with respect to these text amendments. http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/713/944/407/ “We, the undersigned, oppose Text Amendment 637, which would permit 60 foot high buildings in downtown Westport, CT, create a new “overlay zone”, and increase square footage of certain commercial buildings from 10,000 square feet to a maximum of 50,000 square feet.
We would very much appreciate your support. There is urgency to this request because this Amendment is being heard on Thursday, September 8, 2011 at Westport Town Hall at 7:00 PM. We will present this petition at that hearing. Thank you very, very much.”
I’ll see you at 7PM on September 8th at Westport Town Hall, 110 Myrtle Avenue, Westport, CT 06880. If it can happen here in Westport, CT, it can happen in your town too. We don’t want Bedford Falls turning into Pottersville.