Centers of Attention

 

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Torrington’s Rose Ponte graduated from Fairfield University. Torrington Chamber of Commerce president JoAnn Ryan lived in Fairfield. During the early stages of the Torrington’s revitalization planning, Ponte and Mayor Ryan J. Bingham visited Fairfield, as well as West Hartford and Great Barrington, Mass., shopping for ideas.

“What I learned from Fairfield,” Ponte says, “is that they didn’t go the route of big name-brand stores. They chose to support their individual merchants. Also, their downtown is very clean and beautiful, they do flowers, the parking is pretty accessible, they have wonderful restaurants and they also have a little movie theater.”

Ironically, two years ago Westport also looked to Fairfield for clues on how to revitalize its downtown. Members of various boards and committees visited Fairfield Center and talked with Fairfield Economic Development director Mark Barnhart and Chamber of Commerce president Patricia Ritchie.

In 2010, after years of complaints from local merchants, the Westport Planning & Zoning Department, like Fairfield before it, finally struck its own 1,500-foot requirement for patron bars in restaurants—one of “a series of regulations that were resulting in a lack of vitality downtown,” according to former P&Z chairman Ron Corwin. The board also eased or eliminated other regulations. “The restrictions on outdoor dining were horrendous—they were lumped into ‘outdoor storage and display,’” says Corwin. “There were onerous parking requirements that required additional parking spaces for a modest number of additional tables. It was byzantine.”

Corwin’s department urged the creation of other commissions and subcommittees to help revitalize downtown Westport. Howard Lathrop, an architect and P&Z member who heads the Beautification Subcommittee, had seen pop-up cafes in New York City and last fall urged the P&Z board to allow them in Parker Harding Plaza parking lot, as well as other parking lots, behind Main Street. Last May 10, Acqua, an existing restaurant, began outdoor table service at what is believed to be the first pop-up café in the state.

Yet another group, the Westport Cinema Initiative, is currently in talks with a Main Street landlord to build a three-screen, art-house movie theater in an empty lot behind The Tavern on Main, a longtime local fixture, bringing films back to a town that has had a long love affair with its actors and actresses.

Almost as soon as the 1,500-foot regulation disappeared, local entrepreneurs began planning new restaurants, too. David Waldman, a developer and the acting president of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association, was first out of the gate with The Spotted Horse Tavern, a hot new restaurant in a renovated 1808 colonial-style house on Church Lane, around the corner from Main Street.

“If you look at Fairfield and you look at Darien and other towns—New Canaan’s a great example of what they did with Elm Street—there’s a concentration of restaurants in one area,” says Waldman. “People think, ‘Oh, all these restaurants are going to kill each other,’ but it’s actually the contrary. All of those restaurants actually feed off one another and bring more people downtown, which creates a more lively downtown area.” Four new restaurants are currently in various stages of development on the Post Road near Main Street.

Perhaps the biggest catalyst for the next phase of downtown Westport’s revitalization may be the redevelopment of the handsome 100,000-square-foot, Tudor-style YMCA at the foot of Main, which was given to the town by local industrialist E.T. Bedford in 1923. Construction is scheduled to begin sometime in 2014. When completed, Bedford Square will contain retail, office and 30 to 40 housing units. And with the completion of an ambitious plan to wrap the entire downtown area in new sidewalks and streetscaping, it may also be the cornerstone of a unified, revitalized Main Street.
 

That downtowns must serve a multiplicity of purposes and needs, with fewer government restrictions and more responsible commercial involvement, is a lesson being learned the hard way by dozens of cities and towns. How effectively?

Connecticut Main Street’s Simone answers this way: “I think we’re on a rising curve. I’m not sure if we’re above or below the curve when compared to other states, but there’s the beginning of a sea change in which elected officials are beginning to see the downtown as a potential asset worth investing in. But we’ve got a ways to go. We’ve spent a long time making sprawl development real easy and the kind of mixed-use development downtowns need real hard—and we need to reverse that.”
 

Centers of Attention

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