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Jesup Green – Origins of Future Debate

Yesterday the Westport Arts Center announced it’s plan to build a new facility at Jesup Green during the Long Range Planning Committee meeting of the Westport RTM.

How did the idea come about?

The seeds of the idea came from Drew Friedman’s proposal, going back 40 years, for a Community Center downtown. He hired an architect to draw up the plans. He had a good working relationship with the zoning officials and Selectmen and things were moving along swimmingly. But regimes change and with time his initial proposal was looking too big. It called for 80,000 square feet. A bridge over Dead Man’s Creek, parking garage—all located over near the Imperial parking lot. The problem with the Imperial lot has always been that it’s entrance is prone to flooding. Drew had worked out all the solutions but Westport was changing and he found less and less people committed to his vision.

The new library was built in the mid-8o’s. It was(and is) glorious. Drew actually bought the old Library building at 1 Main Street(19 Parker Harding) (with partner) and converted it to retail. The new library was built on a little hill overlooking Jesup Green. At the time Jesup Green was functioning as a town green and a the mini-bus depot. It was the center for local public transportation. It was the town hub, the gateway to downtown for all the children. Most of the stores were locally owned. Downtown was a place for Westporters. The YMCA was expanded before the new library was built. It featured a huge new pool and a new work-out center in the old fire-house on Church Lane. The movie theater was across the street next to the town hall and vibrancy was the order of the day.

The Westport Arts Center was located in the old Saugatuck Elementary School across from Gieger’s Garden Center on Morningside drive. The old classrooms were rented out to local artists as studios. The artists actually did their work at the art center. That was the whole idea, artists needed a place to work.

Problem number one:

The new library wasn’t designed with an orientation to the river though it was right next to it. The idea was not to have stunning views of the river because it was to be a place to read and conduct research, that’s what libraries are for, books.

Problem number two:

The Westport Arts Center always wanted to be downtown. It had an identity crisis. They started showing out of town artists. Local artists were starting to feel left out, they had been members for years but were relegated to one group show. Gary Cosgrave(then Arts Center Presedent) had a meeting with Miggs Burroughs(local artist) and they came with up creative ways for the art center to grow with the inclusion of local artists—success story.

Meanwhile the library, under the direction of Maxine Bleiweis, began to function as the de-facto community center. The coffee shop was developed, the gallery was developed and the internet services were developed under her direction. People hardly go there to read anymore but its packed everyday with kids running around and events going into the evening.

A couple of years ago Maxine showed me an artist rendering of a new library building. I was shocked, she told me not to publish anything about it because it was in the preliminary stages and subject to change. Grand sweeping views of the river, a ‘Great Room’ for symphonies and just about the most beautiful building you could ever imagine, not much to do with books but really nice. She said it wasn’t going to be an expansion or an addition of square footage but a reallocation of the space already there. Recent reports have put the price tag at 25 million but the drawings have still not been made available.

Enter Smart Code:

Gordon Joseloff—ever proactive, smart,  media savvy and the new First Selectman, 7 years ago appointed a new committee—the PIC or Planning Implementation Committee. The first problem with all downtown plans is they don’t get implemented—paid for–but not implemented. The committee was made up of all the downtown movers and shakers; Friedman, Waldman, Bleiweis, Welsh, Branson and others.

A presentation is made by Robert Orr—Smart Code specialist. Downtown could be remade! If it wasn’t for all that pesky parking by the river. Parking next to the actual stores. Downtown doesn’t fit into models of computer like efficiency. Downtown has been cobbled together over hundreds of years—that’s where the shabby chic charm comes from but Robert Orr presented a new way. Smart Code overlay zones.

Parker Harding and Jesup Green look like perfect candidates for development. “The river is wasted on parking-we need to embrace the river….”, the new mantra I started hearing from the day Robert Orr made his presentation. All parking is to be moved to parking garages like every other mall.

Late 2010 Drew Friedman comes up with a new plan for a community center—Jesup Green. He is told to back off, that land is spoken for. Friedman heads up to Cobb’s Mill.

The way it looks to me is that a battle for the soul of downtown is brewing. Who gets their view of the river? The library needs 25 million for their view, maybe they already have the money-I don’t know. The Westport Arts Center already has a view of the river but they want to swap it for the exact opposite view on the other side.

The idea of a park along rivers edge, is kind of cool but we already have one–it’s called the ‘River Walk’. Parking in a garage for downtown shoppers is a totally cold/dark idea and will ruin the charm of the Westport shopping experience. From what I heard from news accounts of last nights presentation the underground garage proposed for Jesup Green will only replace the parking that is already there. If they build a new building they will have to create new parking. Also, the library cannot expand without creating new parking also, that is why they are only renovating-not expanding. If any new buildings are built downtown they need to provide for more parking. If they take parking away from the river they will only need more parking garage spots.

Downtown Westport will be turned into a concrete parking garage—so much for shabby chic/cobbled charm.

I love the idea of an ‘Arts Campus’ but at what cost?