That Was Then, This Is Now

Has success spoiled Westport’s downtown center, Main Street? Is the fabled “Golden Half-Mile” getting too glittery for its own good? The last two years have witnessed the closing of such venerable commercial establishments as the restaurant Onion Alley and Klein’s, which sold just about anything anyone in Westport ever wanted for sixty years. Replacing the mom-and-pop ambience are national stores like Tiffany & Co. and Patagonia.

Westporters are known for having two things in abundance, money and opinions. Since Main Street draws so much of the former, it seems fair to sample the latter. We asked many of the town’s leading citizens what they think of such downtown dramas as the rise of the chain stores, the loss of locally owned business, plans by the Westport-Weston YMCA to move out of the district and, perhaps most controversial, the installation of parking meters (gasp!) at Parker Harding Plaza.

We asked some questions, beginning with the most obvious for those who have been around a while:

Q: What has changed the most about Main Street?

Gordon Joseloff, First Selectman, who grew up in Westport in the 1950s: My friends and I used to ride bikes into town. We used to put them in a rack outside the YMCA. You never worried about anyone stealing them. There used to be cartoons and serials at the YMCA on Saturday morning. You’d go there, watch them, play pool or billiards. Then you’d have lunch at Colgan’s Pharmacy, a burger and a cherry Coke.

It was a carefree time. At the same time, you knew you were under scrutiny. Like that saying: “It takes a village.” There were people there who knew your parents, and if you did something wrong, word traveled home before you did.

John Izzo, Selectman and childhood contemporary: The downtown was what it is, except Parker Harding wasn’t there. The Saugatuck went to the back of buildings. I remember when they built that parking lot, I think in the 1950s. Then they were all mom-and-pops. You had places like Greenberg’s, small, individually owned stores. Today, there’s a lot of corporate ownership that uses Westport as an address. The Y was there, as long as I remember. It was our hangout.

A.E. Hotchner, author and cofounder of Newman’s Own: On Main Street you had a butcher’s shop, a fish market, an old-fashioned hardware store where you bought nails by the scoop. It was like Norman Rockwell drew it.

Q: Corporate-owned stores

Were slow in coming to downtown. In the early sixties, Peck & Peck and Franklin Simon had stores here and in 1968 Ann Taylor opened a branch on Main Street. When did things really begin to change?

Mickey Herbst, former owner of Quality Printing and Graphics, Inc.: It was a slow evolution. In the 1970s, things were very stable. Stores didn’t turn over, landlords didn’t raise rents. Stores did leave, but they would be replaced by others just like them. By the early to mid-eighties, things started changing. First CVS went in. It wasn’t just the local pharmacist anymore. That spoke to the changing nature of how business was being done.

David Fugitt, Realtor, John D. Hastings Commercial Real Estate: I remember in 1983 when CVS moved out. I remember they were asking $25-$27 a square foot. It sat for at least six months. A store called Narragansett, a women’s clothing store, finally came in. That was a high rate back then. Now, twenty-two years later, the same space could get easily over $100.

Q: Other than money, what else is different about the downtown?

Shirley Mellor, owner of Max’s Art Supplies, a downtown mainstay since 1957: It’s completely changed. There’s been practically nothing but change.

Lee Papageorge, owner of Oscar’s Delicatessen on Main Street since 1974: There were probably more local shoppers in the 1970s. There were more residents that were shoppers. It was still a destination shopping area, but maybe the ratio was 80/20.

Wally Meyer, Representative Town Meeting member: Twenty-five years ago, when you walked down Main Street, you always saw someone you knew. Today, that’s probably not the case.

Joseloff: A lot of Westport residents don’t frequent downtown Westport. Just ask the people down at Compo Beach whether the sidewalks are brick or not. They won’t know.

Hotchner: I’m not interested in Gap for Kiddies or Banana Splits [Banana Republic]. There’s absolutely no reason to go downtown. There’s nothing that bespeaks this place … . At this point, the apple’s gone rotten at the core. It’s become a really poor imitation of Madison Avenue.

It’s really gone into the sewer as far as being picturesque. When you look at Southport or New Canaan, those downtowns are good examples of holding the fort. They still have character. Westport has lost its character. It’s just a mini-mall.

Mel Mioli, owner of Westport Pizzeria since 1968: A lot of the mom-and-pops are gone now. Klein’s was a great store. I bought postcards there, books, anything. Remarkable Book Store. I miss those stores. But it’s a better business, I’ll be honest with you. How so? Well, the downtown attracts people from other towns to come here. That’s why traffic here is so heavy. It’s good.

Barbara Sweet, executive director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce: Westport is a very good place to do business. Businesses come here because it’s a good climate. People would say different things to your question … I think overall, our members would say they are doing well being in business in Westport.

Marilyn Lipton, founder of Soleil Toile: Business has improved. I’m not sure I can attribute that to a more serious business atmosphere or people getting to know us better, but we are certainly attracting a more serious shopper. We’re not that close to any mall. People either come here, go to Westchester or they go to Manhattan.

David Waldman, Main Street landlord and president of the Downtown Merchants Association: I see it as a positive transition, not a negative one. It certainly helped justify the exorbitant prices for residential property. People want to live here, and they feel Main Street gives them an exciting type of Rodeo Drive-thing.

Waldman is spearheading an initiative he says will improve the downtown, currently in final planning stages. Tentatively, it calls for metered parking at Parker Harding, the addition of a parking level (“not a deck”) with more than 100 spaces on the Elm Street lot, and construction of a 30,000-square-foot building that would include both retail and residential use. Income generated from the meters and the rent would be used to defray a $15-$20 million self-liquidating debt incurred by the town that Waldman estimates would be needed to fund the project.

Waldman: If the plan is allowed to be implemented in the form we present it, income from apartments, retail and metering will generate the revenue needed to support the debt and maintain the facilities, and leave excess revenue for the town to do what they want with. As opposed to taxing the taxpayer, we’ll give them money. Seems like a win-win to me, but I can tell you there will be people who say it’s too risky.

Q: You say business is good now. Why fix what ain’t broke?

Waldman: If the plan doesn’t get implemented, will Westport die? No. But that’s not a reason not to do it. Just because it’s not broken, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fix it.

There’s not a single place to sit down on on the entire street — well, there’s a couple of benches. There has to be more exterior activity going on. Visually, it just doesn’t do it.

Q: How do others feel about Waldman’s plan?

Joseloff: I never reject anything out of hand. It’s worth investigating. I am wary of putting the town in a position of a lender in a situation involving risk. There’s no doubt there is risk in this.

Diane Goss Farrell, Westport First Selectman from 1997 to 2005: David’s idea is a concern to some because it represents density. Right or wrong, a decked parking garage evokes an emotional reaction to those who have been here a long time. They see it as the ultimate sellout to modernity. They will see it as the symbolic last gasp of a charming New England community.

Q: What’s the deal with parking?

Papageorge: I think parking is a big issue. If we had a parking garage, it would help shoppers. I don’t think townspeople should have to pay for it.

Bob Hertzel, chairman of the Downtown Merchants Association, whose family owned the Banana Republic building and used to operate Klein’s there: It’s always been a crucial need, especially during the holiday season. The problem is not so much no room for shoppers, but no long-term parking for employees. If we expanded the Elm Street lot, and put a deck on it, employees could park there.

Mellor: Mostly parking meters would limit the salespeople from using spaces for the whole day and not having it for customers. I go along with it. I get annoyed at people who work on the street and park in front of my store.

Sweet: Part of it is communication. We don’t have the best signage for letting people know where there is parking. People want to park right outside J.D. Cosmetics, but if they knew they could go up a block, it doesn’t take a minute and a half to walk down to J.D.’s or anywhere else on Main Street.

Izzo: Everything’s so easy to solve if you throw more money at it. Could the downtown use more parking? Quite possibly. But I never jump at anything.
 

 

Ellie lowenstein, chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission: Parking is pretty good. You have to be able to find it, if you’re new. I know there is a lot of parking on the Imperial Avenue lot, across Dead Man’s Brook, behind the library. Right now it’s a commuter lot. There’s plenty of parking. People walk all over New York! You forget! Around here, you are so used to driving three blocks from one place to the next.

Q: How about parking meters? Isn’t that also going too far?

Farrell: We can do that. In the past, the police have always felt it was not a revenue source but more an administrative headache. The police now are more amenable to metered parking. There are some more sophisticated forms of metered parking, not as expensive or complicated as the old types.

Papageorge: I was never in favor of parking meters, but times are changing. Norwalk has them, Bridgeport has them. It’s a way it is done.

Mioli: I have to see the plans, but I don’t think the customers will like it. We make plenty to compensate from the money we lose from parking meters.

Q: While Waldman’s plan is still being developed, another major downtown change involves the planned move out of the downtown by the YMCA. Why do this?

Ted Davis, chairman of the YMCA steering committee: This building was originally built in 1922. It was built for the needs of its membership at the time, and the size of the membership at the time, which is clearly not the size or the needs of the membership today.

Rosemary Halstead, president of the YMCA Board of Directors: Over-whelmingly, people, even those who aren’t members, agree we’ve outgrown the space. It’s uneconomical to think we could rehab the space. It would cost way too much money if we could even do it. We would have to shut it down. It’s an eighty-three-year-old building, with sixteen different elevations on the first floor alone. We spend over a million a year in maintenance expense. It’s got six boilers and some ridiculous number of air-conditioning units.

Davis: The site we are talking about moving to, the Camp Mahackeno site, makes sense. It has the space we need, and it’s in Westport. If we were at Mahackeno, and wanted to move the Y from Mahackeno downtown, people would say you are out of your mind.

Q: What will that do to the downtown?

Gavin Anderson, member of the Board of Finance: If the Y leaves its location, it’s going to create a major change to downtown activity. When people go to the Y, probably after they go shopping, they go to a coffeehouse. If the Y moves, and people go to Mahackeno, where do they go after, downtown or home?

Izzo: I think it preserves the downtown character.

Hertzel: I’m somewhere in the middle. I’d like to see the Y downtown. It would be nice if they could fix it in the spot they’re in, but that doesn’t look like it will happen. If a new user attracted more customers, it would be better. But keeping the Y downtown draws customers.

Joseloff: Some say the downtown will lose its vibrancy when it loses the Y. But when you replace the Y, it may be replaced with an arts center, with a mini-theater in the pool area. That might draw a lot of people.

Papageorge: I would like the Y to stay downtown, on the Baron South property. It would still be in the downtown area. They have room there to build the building they want to build, I think.

Waldman: My preference is motivated by my desire to buy the building. Honestly, I’d like to see the Y move, whether it’s to Mahackeno or Baron South; I think they need a facility that’s better than where they are in. If the YMCA leaves, we’ll get a phenomenal mixed-use development in its place that will generate similar traffic. It could be a hotel, a theater, more stores, restaurants. It’ll be stuff that’s exciting for the town, wherever the Y goes.

Q: What happened to those theaters that used to be downtown?

Joseloff: My grandfather Robert Joseloff built the Fine Arts Theaters in 1916. At one time there were three of them. Our family still owns the building that used to house two of them, where Restoration Hardware is now. I’m the managing member. When the multiplexes opened in Fairfield and Norwalk, it really was the final nail. We had leased the last theater to Loews and Sony. One of the struggles when we closed the theater was we could have continued operating it as an arts center, perhaps at a loss.

Q: There are a lot of local owners, but they seem to rent to the chains. Do they consider themselves complicit in any loss of character?

Joseloff: It’s important to keep the stores and businesses on Main Street in the hands of Westport residents. Even David Waldman, he knows what he can and can’t do. He retained the vault and murals on properties he bought [i.e., Banana Republic]. For us owners, it’s important to retain property in the hands of locals. But at the same time, we have a vested interest to get value for our family and our lenders.

Waldman: I don’t think the chain stores are the devil. I don’t see the Gap being the killer of small-town USA.

Fugitt: I frankly think it’s a positive in many ways. Chains invest a lot in buildings. Buildings are in better condition now than twenty or twenty-five years ago. There were some pretty rough-looking stores twenty-five years ago, stores that had been there a while, that were run down. Nationals, even if a store building is in perfect condition, they will gut it and fix it up.

Hotchner: I just disregard Westport as a source of everything. It used to have three theaters. Now it has none. The attrition is constant. Whatever comes in, little by little, it’s gone. You’ve had a succession of good restaurants folding. It just seems that everything folds, nothing prospers.

Meyer: You get to a certain age, you can be very active, doing a lot of things. But you don’t need that many fashion duds.

Bobby Lerose, proprietor of Bobby Q’s Barbecue, which replaced Onion Alley: It’s a tough place to have a business. I hear from customers that parking during the day is tough. A lot of people won’t come to Main Street because their perception is that they won’t find a space. Nighttime, it’s great. There’s plenty of parking. But with the DMA, a lot of that stuff is focused on stores. They want to get high-end shoppers. We need more action, more people. I would even support more restaurants.

Q: Chain stores or no, how long can this boom continue?

Mark J. Brockwell, president of MJB Real Estate Service Corp.: That’s the almighty question. I’ve been here twenty-one years and never seen anything like this before. Even in the “Good ’80s,” there was at least an opportunity with turnover. I can remember opportunities being available then in a way they aren’t today.

Q: What’s driving it?

Brockwell: People who have money spend money. They like to come here because the stores have what they want. It’s about as fancy as you can get.

Sharon Maddern, broker at David Adam Realty: Main Street has become an outdoor lifestyle center.

Sweet: I’ve seen a lot of downtowns that were absolutely dead, where you can’t sell or give away real estate. Really, sincerely, we are not in that position. I got a phone call the other day from a woman who was coming from out of town just to shop, and wanted to know what stores were around, even what personal trainers are available around Main Street. People are coming in and spending a lot of money, which is disseminated throughout the community.

Joseloff: There’s a crowd of people coming to town who are the customers downtown. They can go to Tiffany’s and spend $200 on some bauble for a house gift. The downtown is a reflection of the changing demographic of Westport. The high end literally caters to customers in Westport. It’s a well-to-do community.

Jen Rapp, Patagonia manager of public relations: There are tons of incredible financial markets that we won’t go into. This is our only Connecticut location. We came to Westport for good reasons: Great demographics, great location and  the community is interested in both the environment and sports.

Marian Cherrone, sales associate at the jewelry store Lux Bond & Green: You’re not too far from New York. There’s a lot to do community-wise. You have the Westport Country Playhouse. There’s so much going on. Being part of the community is great. We get a lot of customers from outside Westport. People will say when they come in: “I always hear about Westport. You have such a great Main Street.”

Q: What are other needed changes?

Anderson: Most of the commercial operations are on the north side. Tiffany’s is on south side, but most of the south side is green. You have Jesup Green. That’s beautiful. The whole idea of how Jesup Green could be showcased is something we haven’t addressed as a town. These are opportunities we need to think about.

Sweet: One of the things we are trying to do is enlighten the larger region about the different areas of Westport. There are shops at Sconset Square that may feel they don’t have the visibility that the shops on Main Street do.

Mioli: It’s well managed. I wouldn’t make changes. I think it’s run right. I see more new faces now than I used to. That’s a good feeling.

Mellor: I miss the old days. But there are still a few things around, like us.

Farrell: The newer residents don’t know what was there before, and so don’t lament the old. Most residents are happy with the downtown. They would like to have their own personal parking space, but, by and large, I think it’s good.    

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