This Thursday night, once again the citizens of Westport will be forced to rise to protest substantial changes sought by a local real estate developer. A developer who bought property subject to certain zoning rules is seeking to change the rules for his own economic gain. In this case, the developer is David Waldman and the zoning amendment is # 639. Mr. Waldman believes that he knows what is best for the people of Westport, a town he purports to love. How much does he love it if all he wants to do is change it?
According to the report prepared by the Planning and Zoning staff, this amendment, if passed, would accomplish the following:
1. Rezone a substantial portion of the downtown to a business commercial district (BCD) from the existing RORD district.
2. Quadruple the allowable square footage on the site. Increase the allowable square footage from 4,964 SF (.25 FAR) up to 19,859 SF (1.0 FAR for mixed use). This would increase by more than 10,000 SF the current floor area of 9,674 SF that exists on the site.
3. Require an additional 55 parking spaces to be provided on-site.
4. Triple the maximum allowable building coverage. The maximum allowable building coverage on the site under current zoning is 25% or 4,965 SF. Based upon the existing building foot prints on the site there is approximately 3,200 square feet of building coverage. If the site is rezoned to BCD the maximum allowable building coverage will be 14,894 SF (75%). This would be an increase of approximately 10,000 SF over what is currently allowed. The P & Z office notes that the BCD has a maximum single building size of 10,000 SF but there is no maximum floor area limit for a collection of buildings on a single site.
We who opposed the last go-around just a few weeks ago hoped that this lame duck Planning and Zoning Commission would not entertain such grandiose changes to the downtown, after withdrawing its own proposal in response to “public pressure” such a short while ago. However, Chairman Ron Corwin has other plans, which he has made abundantly clear to those who listen. I was listening when I attended part of a subcommittee meeting this summer. Here is what I saw and heard:
1. I sat at a meeting at which no less than three real estate developers and their employees spoke. Not one member of the public who did not have an economic interest in the outcome was consulted. When I asked Mr. Mel Barr why he was there, he told all that he had no economic interest in the outcome; rather, he had been waiting for this opportunity for thirty years. Mr. Barr is listed on Mr. Waldman’s application as his paid consultant.
2. Mr. Corwin understood that some of these preliminary plans were just a “foot in the door”.
3. The discussion included plans for two separate underground parking lots, one on Jesup Green, as well as metered parking.
I was both infuriated and discouraged after attending that meeting. It so reminded me of those old Frank Capra movies, where the boys in the back room plot the destinies of the little people. The boys in the back room always assume they know better, and they are usually motivated by greed and power.
During my time on the Planning and Zoning Commission, we had no subcommittees. We believed it was improper to delegate the task of the Commission to only a few of its members. We were very, very busy. Often meetings went past midnight. We routinely met weekly, occasionally twice a week. I loved every minute of it.
I believed then, as I do now, that the task of the Planning and Zoning Commission is to represent the neighbors. The neighbors are not in the business of building. They don’t have budgets to spend on lawyers, architects and consultants. They do not speculate on real estate for profit; rather, they invest in an existing landscape based on assumptions that those restrictions will continue. The neighbors buy a house because they like their neighborhood and they like their town. They need and deserve a Commission who sees their point of view.
If a person wants to change the rules to suit his own pocketbook, then that person should have to jump over hoops to persuade the Commission that the move is right for the whole town, not merely the asker. In this case, the argument will be made that poor Westport lacks vitality. Tell that to the landlords who raised the rents so high that most of the mom and pop businesses could not afford to stay here. The argument will be made that tall buildings, large buildings, will restore activity past 6 PM. I’m not convinced, nor am I persuaded that the tradeoff is worth losing the charming, quaint, small-town feeling of our downtown.
Section 639 has been drafted to benefit only one person, Mr. David Waldman. He needs this amendment to pass to continue with his plan to redevelop downtown and the Y. He has even circulated a personal plea for passage of this amendment, and solicited letters of support to be written to Ron Corwin. When Mr. Waldman purchased these properties, he had no right to assume that our Planning and Zoning Commission would allow him to demolish existing structures, re-zone the area for his benefit, and rebuild much larger structures in their places. I sincerely hope that our entire Planning and Zoning Commission will see this effort for what it is, and deny it.
On Wednesday, October 19th, Connie Greenfield, former P & Z Chair and leader of Save Westport Now, will be on The Lisa Wexler Show to discuss this issue. You can listen at lisawexler.com between 4-6 PM or on the radio at either AM 1400 WSTC or 1350 WNLK.
If you care about this issue, please show up on Thursday night at 7 PM Town Hall, 110 Myrtle Avenue. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to sign a petition in protest.