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The Ever Changing Westport

What’s bridging old and new westport? a new library, more downtown housing, better parking, improved waterfront access and a re-energized arts scene are just a few of the changes rolling into town

If you’ve lived in town long enough, you’ll know that Westport has undergone its share of boom years, transformations, growing pains and even doldrums. Now putting the Great Recession years in the rearview, the town is fully in the grips of a Renaissance, complete with a movie theater, more downtown housing, better parking, improved waterfront access and a re-energized arts scene on the horizon. Already, the uptick in the economy and looser zoning restrictions have lead to the proliferation of outdoor “pop-out” cafes and an influx of upscale, national retailers, restaurants and mixed residential/retail developments.

Many of the town’s premiere arts and educational organizations are planning for vital modernizations and, in some cases, wholesale redos, of aging facilities to meet future challenges. Five years from now, Westport will look a whole lot “fresher” than it does today—something that excites some but frightens others who seek to keep tighter reigns on Westport’s New England charms.

First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, who grew up in Westport, quips, “My vision of Westport has not changed over the years—to continue to make it the best place to live and raise a family. I hope six decades from now, Westport will continue to be one of the nation’s most desirable places to live.”

The Master Plan

The vision for the future addresses issues like parking, walkways, river access and lighting.

Sensing changes ahead, Joseloff appointed the Downtown 2020 Committee, a group of Westporters who have been attempting to drum up support for a master plan to coordinate major projects planned for the town, including: redevelopment of the Westport Weston Family Y’s property; construction of a senior residential complex at Baron’s South; transformation of The Westport Library; construction of a downtown cinema; construction of a new Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts on the east bank of the Saugatuck River; relocation of the Westport Arts Center to Jesup Green; and construction of an affordable apartment complex, including housing for the elderly, at the Baron’s South property.

But generating a consensus around the master plan has not been easy. Why the strife? It’s an elected, not appointed, committee, Joseloff explains. He says, “I have urged members from the start to work closely with the elected Planning and Zoning Commission, and I think we finally are beginning to see such cooperation.”

Lou Gagliano, 2020’s chairman, urged cooperation at a May Representative Town Meeting (RTM). He said, “We believe we are at a critical fork. Time is not our friend, because those projects are going to happen. And if we don’t coordinate them, I can guarantee you that we’re going to be talking about a missed opportunity to bringing solutions to traffic, people-walking, congestion, lack of streetscape planning, flooding, etc.”

In a June editorial, for the Westport News, titled, “Changing the Face of Westport—Too Much, Too Fast,” Westport writer Woody Klein asked Westporters to “pause long enough to actually see and digest what we are planning to do here. We need to be more proactive than reactive.” He added, “Sure, there will be the usual bickering between factions in town, but that is part of our fierce democratic process that has helped the town thrive.”

While planners quibble over the details of the master plan, Westport received good news from the state in the form of a $497,595 grant to kick-start improvements to the town’s downtown commercial infrastructure.

The grant from the state’s Main Street Investment Fund comes at an opportune moment. Joseloff noted, “This grant will allow us to more rapidly implement Main Street curbing improvements, energy efficient lighting, and sidewalks that will enhance pedestrian access to downtown.”

In five years the downtown landscape will be vastly altered, and the key to cohesion and protecting our “small town, New England feel” is a unified strategy. As David Waldman, principal in David Adams Realty, responsible for some of downtown’s largest development projects, notes, “I think a downtown master plan, which addresses parking, pedestrian access, the greening of the riverfront, histor-ically appropriate lighting, garbage, sidewalks, crosswalks, way-finding, river walks, and building a bridge to the back of Save the Children are key components to making all these great projects even better. I commend Lou and his group for trying to figure out a way to tie together all the great projects.”

The Commercial Landscape

Businesses along post & main reinvent themselves or give way as the changes demanded by time come due.

While town planners duke it out over the master plan, national retailers continue flocking to here. Nike, Vince, Theory, Allen Edmonds, Walin & Wolff, Paper Source, West Elm and a host of others recently hit Main Street, paying premium rents for a prime perch on Main Street and beyond. Take Terrain, a 17,500-foot home-and-garden fantasyland with a restaurant and café and valet parking that sprung up on the site of a 1940s Post Road Cadillac dealership last year. The folks at Terrain sized up the Westport demographic and doubled-down their bet on the town.

Wendy McDevitt, president of Terrain, explained that it made great sense to open its second location in Westport. She notes, “It is a beautiful area, and one where we have the opportunity to connect with our customer, offering her a curated collection of things she would love to own, a fashionable garden oasis where she can meet her friends for lunch, and design services to help her achieve the editorial landscape she dreams of having in her home.”

Across town, Saugatuck, the working-class neighborhood near the train station and under the I-95 overpass, is now a hot destination, thanks to the creation of Saugatuck Center, a contemporary, mixed retail-residential complex that has already attracted Saugatuck Craft Butchery, The Whelk and Downunder Kayaking—three popular lifestyle venues—as well as three financial-services firms and six new apartment tenants. Sam Gault, a principal in the project, says, “We always knew this riverfront land could serve a better purpose. Saugatuck Center makes the very best use of this location, transforming it into a waterfront destination for the town of Westport and the Saugatuck community. We’ve come full circle; welcoming folks back to a neighborhood that virtually disappeared with the construction of I-95.”

As part of the project, Hamilton Development, an arm of Gault, Inc., erected a marina and public boardwalk along the river, as well as a thirty-five-space underground parking garage. Across the street, an annex of 35,000 square feet is now nearing completion. It will include twenty-one apartments and 4,400 square feet of retail space.

Gault recalls, “From the very beginning, our mission with Saugatuck Center was to bring ‘neighborhood’ back to Saugatuck. We had envisioned Saugatuck Center becoming a role model for the kind of small-scale, transit-oriented neighborhood development that we hoped would be the hallmark of smart growth and new urbanism in the twenty-first century.” The developers received two HOBI Awards from the Home Builders Association of Connecticut for “Best Mixed-Use Development” in the state and “Best Luxury Rental Units” for the Tide and Marsh Buildings, the project’s first phase finished in May 2011.

Gault says, “Since phase I, the neighborhood around Saugatuck Center has attracted a variety of independent restaurants and cultural elements, headlined by celebrity chef Mario Batali’s Tarry Lodge Enoteca and Pizzeria, bringing the area back to a bustling riverside community where people can shop, dine, work and live in a small-scale pedestrian friendly neighborhood.”                

The Future of Historic Spaces

Treasured landmark buildings morph into trendy restaurants, shops and condos.

Downtown, historic buildings are being re-adapted for modern uses. The former Town Hall, for instance, is now home to Spruce, an upscale home and garden store. The town’s former library is currently the site of Calypso, a national women’s retailer selling luxe, St. Barth’s resort wear. Up the street, the former post office is morphing into Post 154, the town’s largest restaurant, with a 4,650-square-foot main floor, a 4,200-square-foot lower banquet and party space, as well as an outdoor patio.

On the west bank of the river, after languishing for more than two years, the former Inn at National Hall is being transformed into an 18,400-square-foot office center on three floors. Greenfield Partners, a commercial real estate firm, plans to take up residence there, and has also proposed 1,100-square-feet of first-floor retail space and a glass-enclosed addition of approximately 1,600 square feet.

A public plaza and new sidewalk adjacent to National Hall and the surrounding buildings will combine to create a dining mecca, with Moja (Japanese fusion) already in full swing, followed by Bar Taco (Mexican) and Safita (Middle Eastern) expected to open in the near future. A few doors down, the 60,000-square-foot Save the Children headquarters (once home to Famous Artists’ School) was quietly put on the market earlier this year, and it’s anybody’s guess what will wind up in the coveted waterfront space, although rumors of townhouses or mixed residential/commercial space are swirling. If townhouses are built, a walking bridge across the river—a suggestion of a new downtown plan—could be a key selling point.

Everywhere one looks, projects that have been long tied up in red tape are finally getting green-lighted and developers are breaking ground. New eateries, retail shops and entertainment venues are making the scene. Most encouragingly, developers and town groups are figuring out that it’s easier to work together to get things accomplished than to spend months or years in protracted debate.

One prime example is David Adam Realty, founded by Westporter David Waldman. Waldman has been active in Westport’s downtown development as far back as 1993, when he renovated the Hunt and Downs building on the corner of Post Road West and Riverside, as well as the old Westport Library and a slew of Main Street storefronts. In 2004 he struck a deal to purchase the historic flatiron building at the corner of Post Road and Church Lane and turned it into mixed-use space. (This was the first in a series of high-profile downtown purchases and redevelopments, including the acquisition of the historic 1808 Sherwood House and adjacent office building on Church Lane; 125 Main Street, the lackluster four-story building in the middle of Main Street; and, most controversial, the town’s coveted YMCA building and Gunn property.)

Knowing that all eyes were watching, Waldman’s team painstakingly restored as much of the character of the 1924 Westport Bank and Trust as possible, not only refurbishing all of the original exterior masonry and two-story windows, but also saving the terrazzo flooring and two, seven-ton, steel-and-glass bank vault doors, as well as two 1935 murals by Robert Lambdin that depict Westport in the early nineteenth century. The former bank now houses the store Patagonia on the main level, offices on the second floor, as well as Pink Sumo, a lower-level sushi bar.

This project served as the catalyst for a movement to repurpose downtown’s older buildings into more contemporary spaces to attract a mix of retailers, consumers and foot traffic, while respecting the original architecture and history. Waldman explained, “It was my—and my partners’—intention from the beginning to showcase our understanding of the rich history of Westport’s historic structures, as well as how we could adaptively repurpose that history and translate it into today’s retail world. I was also very cognizant that this project would help us in the community if and when the Y came on the market.”  

A few years later, David Adams Realty introduced Urban Outfitters, a contemporary, 11,572-square-foot clothing store with nearly sixty feet of frontage on the Post Road. It sits next to The Spotted Horse, an historic home the team purchased and relocated eight feet closer to the street, and converted into a 3,400-square-foot restaurant, plus the company’s 2,100-square-foot offices upstairs. Urban Outfitters’ mod glass-and-steel design and The Spotted Horse’s orange awnings are two bright symbols that what was once a sleepy lane of dilapidated homes has become a vibrant, downtown draw.

Before construction, naysayers worried that such development would damage the town’s historic charm but today both venues are hopping. Waldman notes, “We have been very pleased with the community’s reaction to the Urban/Spotted project.  We received our second Preservation Award (the first was for the Westport Bank and Trust project), this one for The Spotted Horse, and both Urban and the Horse are doing very well.”   

Next up is Bedford Square, the most far-reaching—and high-profile—commercial real estate endeavor ever planned for the area. It will incorporate a complete restoration and renovation of the signature Tudor-style Bedford building and adjacent historic firehouse into an ambitious, mixed-use development along Church Street, extending from the corner of Main and Post all the way down Church and rounding the corner up Elm Street. The project was proposed by the Bedford Square Development team (of which Waldman is partner) and initially met with a firestorm of criticism.

Waldman attributed the early reactions to bad timing: “Unfortunately, we presented Bedford Square’s initial pre-application at the same time the Westport Cinema Initiative was trying to build a theater, and the previous P&Z was creatively trying to draft overlay zones to allow for the cinema use. Our pre-application, therefore, got tied together with the fear of a sixty-foot building  in downtown.”

Instead of throwing in the towel, Waldman and his partners challenged their architects and engineers to work closely with the town brass and citizens, holding open meetings and listening to suggestions for the new buildings’ height, style, public spaces and more. The new plans pay close attention to the scale and style of the surrounding neighborhoods and include wider, tree-lined sidewalks, public walkways and generous courtyards. An airy, light-filled public space, with seating and landscape design, is planned for the inner triangular area, which will be accessible from Main Street, Elm Street and Church Lane.

Project spokesperson Karen Johnson said, “The revised plans now include a reduced height of the proposed new structures, with lower rooflines and residential units stepped back from the street to reduce the perceived height from three to four stories to two to three stories. Additionally, substantial redesign work has been done to the new buildings on the adjoining Gunn property so they would be more in keeping with the transition zone they are in.”      

The developers have already obtained approvals from the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Conservation Commission, the Architectural Review Board, the Flood and Erosion Control Board and the Historic District Commission.

Gaining the public trust was crucial to getting Bedford Square past initial obstacles. Waldman says, “It was very clear that this high-profile project was going to garner substantial scrutiny from all corners. Some were still upset about the Y leaving, and some feared the historic fabric of the downtown might be ruined. This is why I felt our prior projects were so important. I needed to prove to the town that having lived in Westport since 1970, and now raising my own family here, I passionately understood the importance of our rich history and knew how to protect those majestic resources, while still allowing Westport to move forward. Just because we are developers does not mean we don’t understand the importance of incorporating the communities’ concerns. In the end, my partners and I feel the input we garnered through the approval process helped us create a substantially better project, both in terms of design and function.”

The Y recently broke ground on its massive Mahackeno complex, so when the Y has completely moved out in November 2014, the Bedford team will demolish the Weeks Pavilion and additional decaying buildings and will begin construction on retail, offices, restaurants and twenty-six residential units (ranging in size from 550-square-foot studios to 1,800-square-foot, two-bedroom units, as well as an underground parking garage.

Waldman says, “Once the Y moves, our only hurdle is to execute on our design and build what I am sure all of Westport will be very proud to have in their (and my) hometown. Construction should be completed in late 2016.”

Francis Henkels, chairman of the Westport Historic District Commission, lauded the team’s efforts. He said, “We appreciate the carefully considered and collaborative effort Bedford Square Associates has brought to this very important project for the town of Westport. The adaptive reuse of the Bedford Building and the respect for the scale of the streetscape of Church Lane, in the new construction, should enhance the character of the town center for years to come.”

Westport is in the midst of a fairly significant facelift. Only time will tell how Westporters will adapt to the changes.      

YMCA and Bedford Square

A stately tudor of the revered Bedford family housed a community on the verge of its own change, the YMCA, celebrating ninety years.

If the walls of the Westport Weston Family Y could talk, the stories would be a compelling history tour of the fascinating times and people of our community. There is something about this center’s ninety years that permeate the hallways of the Bedford Building on Post Road and Main Street—a landmark for many. The names and faces that have passed by these brick facades could inspire novels on what has come and gone in the town of Westport, with the main message being that the Y has created a “home away from home” for people of all ages. Those who grew up as Y members have since gone on to realize extraordinary achievements. Their lives become part of the Y’s story, a page in its book. They are more than just members of the Y, they are family and embedded in the story of the structure itself.  

A deep inhale of the scent of the pools, the consistent sound of basketball dribbling and the sense of children’s joy in laughing and playing throughout the building are palpable comforts. And with a matured sense of purpose and identity, the Y is now building a revolutionary project to “build what matters” in Westport—and takes the next step toward the future. Each day, drivers turn their heads while getting on and off the Merritt Parkway to catch a glimpse of the building site for the new center.

At this point in its history, the Y is a pioneering locale that many families in this town have shaped their lives around. The all-inclusive sense of a positive environment for ages young and old has created more than a presence in Westport: It has created a community. Family Y CEO Rob Reeves says that the “Building What Matters” campaign for the new YMCA facility will provide a “new center of community life and wellness…a modern, sustainable new home for the Family Y.” This time next year, those curious drivers will soon be turning into the Y to swim some laps or bring the kids to a lesson.

The Y has kept one thing constant since 1923: the need to serve all. The only change is that the Family Y will serve the community at its state-of-the-art facility at Mahackeno. Edward T. Bedford once had a vision to enrich Westport when he founded the Family Y. That vision is reimagined but with the same clear focus.