'Library Lane,' more green on Jesup Green among ideas in new downtown plan

In the near future, there might be a new street in town called Library Lane running alongside the eastern flank of the Westport Library. It would extend to the Imperial Avenue parking lot by building a vehicular bridge over Dead Man's Brook.

The concept is to entice more people to use the Imperial lot, explained Jackson Wandres, director of landscape architecture and planning for the RBA Group, consultants hired to compile a master plan for the downtown area.

The new street might also make that area more attractive for new community activities, as well as some form of redevelopment that can generate tax revenue, he added.

The master plan is a detailed comprehensive proposal designed to make downtown more pedestrian friendly and also suggests ways to handle parking issues, said Mark Keener, director of urban design for the RBA group.

A draft of that plan was presented Tuesday morning at Town Hall during a work session of the Downtown Steering Committee, which is overseeing the project.

The plan also proposes removing the parking lot from Jesup Green and extending the green area to the Saugatuck River, making it a more active and family-friendly area. Amenities like a playground and a place to launch small boats could be added.

"As a planner, the highest value is open space," Wandres said.

Jesup Road would also be reconfigured with the addition of sidewalks and more public parking spaces.

Another proposal would be to transform Parker Harding Plaza by carving out a green space near the river and creating a linear park, which could cost about $3.5 million, Wandres said.

Turning Church Lane into a "shared street," where pedestrians can walk on the street any time they want, is also proposed. Cars could still use the roadway, but the street would give priority to pedestrians.

Also discussed were parking strategies and recommendations including special parking permits for residents and valet parking. Funding strategies were also discussed with committee members told it wold cost at least several million dollars for the Library Lane connection.

The plan is divided into projects than can be completed near term, which would be in the next two years; short term, those that can be accomplished in two to five years, and long term projects, that can be initiated five or more years down the road.

Near-term projects include upgrading sidewalks and crosswalks, especially those on the Post Road. The plan also suggests redesigning all four Myrtle Avenue intersections.

First Selectman Jim Marpe said the draft reflects and incorporates "the values which Westporters told us are important to them: to maintain the `small town character' of Westport; to make downtown more of a place for Westporters to enjoy, and to compete and improve downtown where needed rather than growing it."

He said the report is both "visionary and practical, with over 40 specific recommendations on how we can improve the functioning and look of our downtown in a way that will benefit residents, merchants and visitors."

Committee members raised issues about financing, time lines for accomplishing some of the projects, and the loss of parking spots.

Steve Desloge, president of the Downtown Merchants Association, was concerned about flooding in the downtown area from the Saugatuck River, which he said happens every time there's a "moon that gels all the tides together."

He said flooding wasn't addressed in a "concrete manner" in the proposal and, "if we're not careful, Main Street will lose tenants. Keener said flooding can't be stopped entirely, but can be managed.

The draft will be presented next to the Planning and Zoning Commission for its comment in a work session scheduled Jan. 15, said Melissa Kane, the committee chairwoman.

Public comment on the draft master plan can be made through the website www.downtownwestportct.com, where it can be read in its entirety. There also will be a public forum on the plan Wednesday, Jan. 28, from 4 to 9 p.m., in the Town Hall auditorium.

The open house will include exhibits. There will be several power-point presentations on the draft from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

After that, the draft will go back to RBA, which will prepare a final report, Kane said.