Moving the Gunn House
Drew Friedman – 08/13/2014
Thank you for the opportunity to address you, and voice my opinions.
Moving the Gunn House to the Baldwin Parking Lot will require you to remove existing parking spaces from our municipal inventory for the building, and then dedicate a number more of those Baldwin parking spaces to the square footage of any anticipated Gunn House uses. The total parking depletion will be somewhere around 60 to 75 parking spaces. This will commit around 30 percent of the parking spaces in our Baldwin Lot to the Gunn House Project, which will literally be no longer available to the public, or allocable to downtown’s existing buildings. The property owners downtown who have no parking on their own lots have had to depend on less than 2000 municipal spaces which make it possible for them to do business, to have parking for their employees, to accommodate their customers, and to share those spaces with all the businesses who have their own parking. Yes, it’s true that properties with their own on-site parking spaces love to send their employees to park in municipal spaces in order to conserve their own on-site spaces for their customers’ use. Now the Town intends to remove up to 75 more spaces from Westport’s inventory which has been committed by law to the support of our downtown properties.
In brief, you intend to take my property without my consent, and against the law, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which guarantees me due process. I have a vested interest in every municipal space in our downtown inventory, and this Westport government has used, and continues to use every opportunity to reduce the value of my BCD properties by consuming our continuously diminishing number of downtown parking spaces. You may think that accusation is absurd, insulting, or without foundation. I’ve been struggling for the last 45 years to understand it myself, so please let me explain. Having formed the Downtown Merchants Association in 1971, and being the Chairman of the Board for thirty years, I’ve come to learn a few things about our Downtown, and about our Government.
Our existing parking spaces are way short of the number required by our Zoning Regulations for that 700,000 square feet of downtown buildings which depend on municipal parking. The construction of our Westport Library alone, with its additions, somewhere over 60,000 square feet so far, with more to come, was built without the P&Z requiring the Library to add a single parking space. The Library simply paved 100 pre-existing spaces which were already a part of downtown’s inventory of parking spaces, and claimed them for themselves. That, alone, was a travesty which reduced our parking inventory, and which would have been impermissible, and unthinkable for any private applicant for new construction. The so-called pop-up patios for restaurants indiscriminately removed many more parking spaces on Westport streets and in its parking lots. My consent to the removal of critical parking spaces directly in front of my buildings was never solicited or required. They suddenly became restaurant space, rarely used, and no longer available for parking. The Taylor Parking Lot was reconfigured with a loss of about 10 or 12 parking spaces. We used to have about 2000 municipal parking spaces downtown to support the properties which have no private parking on their own lots, and which depend on municipal parking. In order for Downtown’s buildings to be in compliance today, Zoning Regulations would require, at roughly 5 spaces per thousand square feet of floor space, about 3500 municipal parking spaces. Our parking space shortage of 1500 spaces is indefensible, our parking management bears no evidence of strategic thinking, and our loss of parking spaces is increasing as we speak.
And now the Gunn House, soon to be called the Waldman House, will subtract up to about 75 more spaces from our municipal inventory. This will be at the expense of one of Westport’s crown jewels, the Baldwin Parking Lot, the object of scrutiny for many years as the sole, central location which would lend itself to parking expansion, with opportunities for additional vitality built into that expansion. This is a shameful proposal, in violation of our Zoning Regulations, which absolutely require retaining the parking associated with the properties dependent upon them. If I were to put landscaping in one of my parking spaces on my commercial lot, eliminating a parking space required for my building, Zoning would, and should, immediately serve me with a notice of violation, and require me to put the parking space back or start paying a daily fine.
How did my vested property right come to exist for what is ostensibly a municipal parking space? How could I claim such ownership, at the same time the Town of Westport vehemently denies that I have any such legitimate claim? My claims come from three sources. The first source is my outright purchase of parking spaces. The second source is the Town’s commitment to grant me development rights in keeping with my existing uses and square footages. The third source is in the form of the Zoning Regulations’ commitment to maintain my ability to do business by insisting there will be no reduction in available parking spaces. My first ownership of municipal parking came about because I built and paid for the Parker Harding Parking Lot. How could I do that?
In 1936 a number of property owners got together to form The Board of Trade, sort of a Chamber of
Commerce in Westport. You know them: Henry Klein from Klein’s, Nat Greenberg, Leo Nevas, Harvey Koizim, and others. Their sole purpose in forming this group was to create parking for their downtown properties, which had only street parking. It took them 20 years of hard work to finally get the State Legislature to pass a Special Act in 1955 allowing the Town to benefit assess those abutting property owners who would agree to pay for the construction of Parker-Harding Plaza. Evan Harding did the parking lot design for around 210 parking spaces, and those 20 abutting property owners repaid the Town $250,000 for Kowalsky’s construction of the Parking Lot, using fill and stone from the Connecticut Turnpike construction. The Library was able to expand, the Town paid for the intersections on Main Street and the Post Road, and the abutting property owners, as well as the citizens of Westport, were able to enjoy a busier, more commercial, cleaner, more accessible town center. My property at 35 Main Street was required to give up an eight foot right of way for public access from Main Street to the new Parker-Harding Parking Lot. This parking construction, as well as the construction to come, was responsible for producing, on only a very few downtown acres, about 25 percent of all the property taxes in Westport. Obviously this improving tax base, and improving downtown environment, was from our increased parking inventory.
The second such large event was the Baldwin Parking Lot, presently with about 250 parking spaces, which was surrounded by 40 non-abutting property owners. The spark for this acquisition by the Town was a group of property owners who sought a Special Act of the State Legislature, granted in 1965, allowing a benefit assessment from the Town to be levied against non-abutting property owners. The original intention of this parking development was to use the Parker Harding Special Act as a model, requiring agreement, although with non-abutting owners. Unfortunately only 19 of the 40 owners agreed, and when the Baldwin Lot was finally mostly completed, the Town tried to bill all the owners without any strategy or formula to calculate the billing based on distance from the lot, benefit to the property owner who may or may not have had any economic benefit from the use of or access to the lot, size or value of the property, etc. The Town’s intent to assess the property owners was further complicated by the fact that Westport had determined it wanted $650,000 for 450 parking spaces, which included the parking spaces it intended to purchase on Hulbert’s property behind Chase Bank. This was never actually acquired and included in the Baldwin purchase. Jackie Henage was in office at the time, and Don Bremner, our Director of Planning and Zoning, took a Zoning job in Hawaii. Don left a note to his successor, Dave Dodes, that all those new parking spaces were development rights, and should be given out to allow some modest construction, one parking space for every two story building, and two parking spaces for every one story building. Using four of those spaces thereby allocated, I was able to build a new building, now West Elm, with a second floor, replacing the old Greenberg’s.
The Downtown was of course largely constructed before our Zoning Regulations were in place, and was almost entirely non-conforming. The goal of Zoning is to eliminate all non-conformities. So in 1986 Planning Director Mel Barr determined to identify those Downtown properties which were built on their lot lines, with little or no setbacks, with almost total coverage, with more than an FAR of one, and with little or no parking on their own lots. He delineated our Business Center District, the BCD, which had all the above-described non-conformities. His intent was to next put in place the Regulations which would apply to this new District, so that all the buildings which were built similarly would logically be identified as conforming, instead of non-conforming. Unfortunately the Commission told him not to do any more.
Every ten years our Plan of Development praises our Downtown, already condemned by our Zoning Regulations because of its non-conformities, and recommends impossible changes. Our Downtown problems are not the symptoms we waste time trying to correct. Our problems are systemic. They are simple to change. But we can discuss later how to do that.
Let’s look at the second source of parking space ownership. It’s in the form of a sacrosanct gift from the Town of Westport. When I prepared to rebuild in 1969, the Planning and Zoning Department allowed me a credit for that number of parking spaces which had been credited to the Greenberg Department Store, as well as the other non-collapsed stores on the property I purchased. Those parking spaces constituted my asset, my development rights, which determined precisely the number of square feet I could build, and the uses I could include in the structure. Those spaces were exactly the value of my property. Without them my property had no value at all, because it would have no development potential at all. Since the property was non-conforming with no parking on its own lot, and because the P&Z was determined to eliminate all non-conformities, my property was at great risk, and needed to be protected at all costs. If it should burn down I could lose my right to rebuild what was there unless I followed the timing requirements in the Regulations precisely.
The third factor which gives me a vested right to the municipal parking is in the Zoning Regulations which guarantee me that municipal parking spaces will be constant, and I can depend on their existence and their number and their not being reduced. Those guarantees provide me with the incentive to invest in
land and improvements which depend on municipal parking, and convince me that I’ll be able to make a living, pay my bills, and support my obligations to my employees and my customers. Without those Zoning Regulations I’d be a fool to invest in Westport, and risk the loss of my business assets to any whim of my government. What do the Regulations say to warrant such confidence? In Section 34 of Westport’s Zoning Regulations, Off Street Parking and Loading, I quote two sentences: “34-1, INTENT, The number of parking and loading spaces required shall be based on construction or development activity after the effective date of these regulations. The number of parking and loading spaces shall be retained and the parking lot or paved areas shall not be increased or encroached upon as long as said principal building or use remains, unless the Commission determines that public parking spaces are available to be allocated as provided elsewhere in these regulations.”
The next paragraph, 34-2 OBLIGATION, puts the same obligation on me, the property owner, that the previous paragraph, INTENT, put on the P&Z Commission: “The requirement for off-street parking space and off-street loading space shall be a continuing obligation of the owner of the property on which any such building or use is located, as long as the building or use is in existence and its use requiring vehicle parking facilities continues, unless a change in use also increases the parking requirements. No owner of any building or use affected by this Section, shall discontinue, change or dispense with, or cause the discontinuance of any required parking or loading space. No person, firm or corporation shall occupy a building without providing off-street parking and loading spaces which meet with the requirements of and are in compliance with these regulations.”
I’ve already pointed out that we are short of about 1500 parking spaces to bring our downtown into compliance with the Zoning Regulations. There’s no way we’re ever likely to add such a number to our inventory. In the face of such a severe parking shortage it is inconceivable that the Commission should ever consider the municipal parking spaces they’ve pledged to retain in their Regulations, to be “available to be allocated as provided elsewhere in these regulations.” The only way you can lawfully remove about 75 parking spaces from our municipal inventory is if you can demonstrate they are available. Such a contention would be absurd beyond comprehension since the Regulations don’t allow such an interpretation.
The Town has always treated the disenfranchised members of the business community as a special interest group. It fails to accept that this special interest group has the greatest and the longest term financial stake in Westport’s Downtown future, and wants more than anyone to sponsor the brightest, the most appealing, the prettiest, the most vital location in the town. All we want is a partner we can count on to reach our joint objectives.