Centers of Attention

 

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In Fairfield County, suburban Fairfield and Westport have always been odd neighbors. Both are affluent, conspicuously white, upper middle-class commuter towns—but there, for most of the 20th century, the similarities just about ended.

Closer to Manhattan by a few miles, Westport had long been a haven for actors and actresses, artists and ad men, cartoonists and illustrators, authors and musicians, alongside everyday businessmen. Its politics, in most cases, were liberal, its money relatively new and its nightlife vibrant. For many years, with its four downtown movie theaters, the famed Westport Country Playhouse within walking distance of Main Street, and dozens of popular restaurants and watering holes, Westport was both a destination for people not just from all over Fairfield County but from as far as New Haven, Westchester and even Manhattan.

At night and on weekends, both Main Street and the Saugatuck section of town near the train station were crowded with local diners, shoppers, theater-goers, club-and-bar hoppers and tourists. It seemed as if venues had little more to do than simply be in Westport to continue to draw customers.

Fairfield, due east, was a different story. Republican, WASPy and older-monied, with a population three times the size of Westport, its “center” on the Post Road consisted of a couple of fancy grocers, two diners, a handful of mom-and-pop stores, several blue-collar bars and an inordinate number of pizza parlors and nail salons. The heart of the business district was the Fairfield Department Store, a nearly block-long, two-story box that sold traditional styles that had changed little over the 75 years of the store’s existence.  “Passing Fads Have Their Place,” it reportedly once advertised. “But Not Here.”

A cultural and culinary no-man’s land, Fairfield barely registered as a drive-through, much less as a destination. “They didn’t call it a downtown,” recalls Simone, who grew up in the town in the early ‘70s. “It wasn’t a place.”

What has happened in Fairfield and Westport over the past generation or so provides lessons in economic revitalization that may be applicable to town centers elsewhere in the state.

First of all, in 1983, after a group of Fairfield restaurant owners complained about restrictive ordinances, the town’s planning & zoning commission removed a regulation requiring that patron bars be a minimum of 1,500 feet from one another. The next year, then First Selectman Jackie Durrell launched a streetscape design competition that resulted in a clearly articulated business district, with wide brick sidewalks, handsome cast-iron lamp posts and benches, and parklike, semicircular settings meant for resting and observing. As new restaurants opened, residents followed.

“She put the heart back into Fairfield Center,” says architect Mark Finlay, whose Southport firm won the streetscape contract. “Suddenly, it became nice to walk around downtown. It became a matter of pride that got into everyone’s blood.”  

In 2000, The Fairfield Store, closed and shabby looking, was purchased, along with several adjacent retail stores, by local development company Starwood Cerruzi. The 80,000-square-foot space was completely renovated and a large parking lot constructed in the rear. When Victoria’s Secret and Borders Books moved into the new space, traffic downtown increased dramatically.

For its part, the town began permitting outdoor dining, another key driver in getting people downtown. Already endowed with a 1923-vintage movie theater and a bandstand on the town green, the town also turned a former maintenance building into a performing-arts space that it leased, at below-market rates, to the Fairfield Theatre Co.  

“Sometimes it’s the small things that in the aggregate foster and create the environment you’re looking for,“ says Mark Barnhart, Fairfield’s director of economic development. “You can definitely see the connection between arts and culture and a vibrant downtown.”

Since then, Fairfield Center has steadily accrued a broad and deep array of venues: in addition to the theaters and bookstore (now run by Fairfield Univesity), two ice cream parlors, three cafes, national-brand clothing stores, and some three dozen restaurants within a five-block area.
 

Centers of Attention

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