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Big consensus wants 'small-town' character preserved downtown

The results are in and show that Westporters generally agree on the future of downtown.

Of approximately 3,100 responses to the "Your Downtown" online survey, there was a broad consensus in several areas, most significantly, that future downtown plans should strive to maintain its "small-town character," according to data reported Monday night.

Survey participants also want to see greater focus on the Saugatuck River, including a waterfront park. And, also of importance, is dealing with parking.

"We also found that 75 percent of Westporters (responding to the survey) come downtown once a week," said Melissa Kane, chairman of the Downtown Steering Committee, who on Monday helped present results of the survey conducted by RBA Group, the consultant hired to draft a master plan for downtown.

"We were also impressed at the size of the survey -- that we got so many responses," Kane said. "That's 17 percent of the town's adult population."

She said they did "the largest public outreach ever in the town," adding it involved "roughly 50 community, town and civic groups and organizations."

"We found that Westporters care and are engaged in their community," Kane added.

Of the respondents, 50 percent have lived in the town 15 or more years and while 88 percent said they drive their cars downtown, 29 percent said they avoid going downtown because of parking problems, Neil DeSai of RBA told the several dozen residents attending Monday's meeting to discuss the survey results at Town Hall's auditorium.

"We need to take a critical look at this," he said about parking. "These are people who could be using downtown, using open spaces there."

He said when asked what they like, respondents said "stores, restaurants, the river and library, and the quaintness and ambiance" of downtown.

Retaining it's "small-town charm" ranked high on the list of recommendations, he said, adding, "the take-away is that the downtown is important in everyday life."

When ranking what would be a top recommendation for the master plan, DeSai said it would be a "pedestrian bridge and waterfront park," while low on the list is "flexible-fee and managed parking."

Right now, there is no fee to park, but there is a one-hour limit.

That was raised as an issue in a survey conducted by the Westport Downtown Merchants Association, said Steve DeLonge, the group's president. He said 134 downtown businesses took part in that survey. "Store managers said the most common customer complaint is that their clients spend two hours in their store and get a $25 ticket," he said. "That's not consumer friendly." He said the survey found customers wanted more parking, as well as no ticketing for downtown employees and a parking-sticker system for employees. Read Full Article 

The association's survey also found that 63 percent of local retail customers are from Westport, and 26 percent are from neighboring towns like Fairfield and Greenwich.

He said that 88 percent of downtown employees drive to work, the same percent of residents who drive downtown.

The town's Youth Commission also conducted a survey of 160 Staples High School students for suggestions for the downtown master plan, said Elaine Dano, commission chairwoman. Of those responding, 97 percent said they'd like a late-night cafe, 90 percent would like to see a movie theater, 75 percent a mini-golf course, and 63 percent said they'd like a bowling alley, Dano said.

"We had six movie theaters and they are all gone," said Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Chip Stephens, one of a handful of audience members who offered comment after the presentation. He also said "there's a lot of parking" downtown, which he said people could find if they took a "simple walk" around the area.

Peter Hewitt, a 35-year resident, also commented, saying that after hearing the survey results he was persuaded to stay in town another 35 years. "We have a consensus here," he said.

But Ken Bernhardt called the results "a Rubik's Cube." He said deciding how to begin implementing the plan is "like solving the immigration question." He also said the town should find a way to relocate the Police Department headquarters on Jesup Road, next to the library. "It doesn't' belong there," he said.

Besides the online survey, the town held two workshops to gather public comments on the plan over the last several months.

A charette, or group discussion, on downtown planning will be scheduled in September.

Three more meetings will be held this summer to discuss in depth several of the projects that are already planned or in development for downtown, including Bedford Square on the Westport Weston Family Y property and the Westport Cinema Initiative's efforts to open a movie theater, Kane told the audience, urging people to attend.

Anne M. Amato

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