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Friday, March 23 News

Workshop rounds up public opinion on future of downtown

What's up with downtown?

That's what the committee helping to guide the preparation of a new master plan for the heart of town wanted to know Saturday as it hosted a four-hour forum for the public to sound off on "Your Downtown."

Competing with sunny spring weather, members of the Downtown Steering Committee sought to engage residents in a brainstorming session at Bedford Middle School for their views on the future of downtown.

"I think it's wonderful that we're all getting together here and talking about things," said Joe Pucci, who feels more could be done to improve pedestrian safety around town.

"This is our first opportunity for more active public participation," said Melissa Kane, who chairs public outreach for the committee, noting it hopes to hold another roundtable discussion sometime soon.

About 75 people were on hand for the forum, though many were town officials and players with vested interests in specific projects and programs.

The Downtown Steering Committee reported, however, that more than 2,100 residents -- over 10 percent of Westport's adult population -- have weighed in by taking an online survey seeking views on the master plan.

"We're getting a lot of very interesting input from that," said First Selectman Jim Marpe.

"There have been many efforts over the years that have never come to fruition," said Dewey Loselle, the committee chairman, noting about 10 separate attempts to formulate a total vision for Westport.

"We have a great downtown, but there can be improvements," he said. His committee, working with a consultant, is scheduled to present its plan before the end of the year.

"I feel like it's fallen into somewhat of a state of disrepair," Matt D'Auria said of downtown.

"We have a tendency to over-think things so much that nothing gets done," he said, so "it's my hope that we see something progress and actual things happening downtown, rather than just talk."

"A lot of it is about making compromises (and) making investments," said Mark Keever, director of urban design with RBA Group, a Norwalk-based design company that has been hired to prepare the plan.

Josie Berardi's main concern centers on public access, particularly for pedestrians, and particularly around the Westport Library and Jesup Green. "Maybe we can do something better with that," she said.

"And I'd like to keep the flavor of the historic -- let it blend, like they do in New York -- work around it, so it's not static," she said.

Phil Ross sees the biggest obstacle to downtown being a reticence for change. "But you've got a lot of people that care, and that shows," he said.

"I don't really have any position," said Harold Levine, a 36-year resident of Westport. "My sense is that most people who live here are pretty satisfied with how the town is situated and I'm not sure they're ready for any significant changes."

"You guys are kind of blessed to really have a great downtown already, but that doesn't mean it can't get better," said Jackson Wandres, architect with RBA.

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For more information about the prospective master plan and to take the survey, visit the "Your Downtown" website at www.downtownwestportct.com.