Woog’s World: Big decisions lie ahead for Hamlet at Saugatuck

A crisp, spring night with street lights reflecting on the Saugatuck River in Westport on May 7, 2019.

A crisp, spring night with street lights reflecting on the Saugatuck River in Westport on May 7, 2019.

Melanie Espinal / For Hearst Connecticut Media

The Architectural Review Board spent quite some time last week, discussing plans for the renovation of Bridge Square.

What shade of paint, exactly, would work? Was the cupola in the right spot? Would the back side get the same attention as the front?

The questions were earnest. Bridge Square - the small plaza at the William F. Cribari Bridge by Bridge Street and Saugatuck Avenue - punches far above its weight. It’s home to Kawa Ni and Rainbow Thai (plus Dunkin’). Its New England-y architecture and vibe fits nicely with the 133-year-old swing bridge. And as traffic waits (and waits and waits) by the bridge, drivers get a good, long look at Bridge Square.

But new paint palettes and store facades pale in comparison to the next item on the ARB’s agenda: The Hamlet at Saugatuck.

The project would dramatically remake Saugatuck. It would replace several drab, worn-out buildings with exciting new ones. It would open up a neglected stretch of the river, provide innovative retail experiences (and a much-needed hotel), extend a welcome to rail passengers, even give a new look to Westport’s most-disliked office building.

It would also tie together a neighborhood that began as Westport’s commercial heart, then pulsed with immigrant life, and was nearly destroyed when a highway slashed through it. Redevelopment a decade ago brought new restaurants, new energy, and a renewed appreciation for the Saugatuck River that was once its lifeblood, but had fallen victim to neglect and environmental degradation.

“The Hamlet at Saugatuck” encompasses the rectangle between Riverside Avenue, Railroad Place, Franklin Street and Charles Street, land on Riverside Avenue from Tutti’s to Railroad Place, and the private parking lot above Luciano Park now used for boat storage.

It would not include the Black Duck, or Railroad Place between Steam Coffee and the alley by the train station. Current Railroad Place tenants will remain.

But what it will include is a boutique hotel with approximately 55 rooms, 35 condo-type residences, pools and underground parking; new shops and restaurants; gardens; a year-round gourmet market; a marina; water taxis to Longshore, Compo Beach and downtown; a boardwalk along the river similar to Bartaco’s, and re-skinning and beautification of the 21 Charles Street office building.

Traditionalists say, “hold on!” Preservationists say, “wait!” Both want to preserve Saugatuck.

But which Saugatuck?

The area to be redeveloped is unattractive and under-utilized. There are a couple of non-descript buildings; a boat storage facility that blocks all views of the river; a private parking lot with no cars post-COVID; a dry cleaners that was formerly a car dealership and a hideously ugly office.

That’s what anyone stepping off the train sees. And if they’re looking for a place to stay, they’re out of luck too. Besides the very limited Inn at Longshore, and the currently closed Westport Inn, near Southport, there’s not a hotel room to be had here.

Rail and water make a powerful combination. But in the decades after river commerce ended, we neglected the waterway. The Saugatuck Rowing Club provided a powerful push for recreation, north of the Cribari Bridge; a kayak rental shop (part of the earlier redevelopment project) opened up that area. Now, a new marina and boardwalk will once again make the river accessible, and fun.

The Hamlet at Saugatuck puts the “neighborhood” back in Saugatuck. It won’t revert to the days when families lived, worked and celebrated together. But it will help. A gourmet market in the lot above Luciano Park will draw new attention to that long-forgotten bit of green space. Gardens and pathways in the new construction will encourage exploration. The butcher shops and bakeries of 1900s Saugatuck are gone forever, but The Hamlet’s developers want the 21st century equivalent: local artisans and retailers, not chain stores.

The Architectural Review Board is still in the early stages of its review. Many steps lie ahead, including the Planning and Zoning Commission and Conservation Commission. Questions last week were not unexpected. They centered around height, density and whether the new uses were necessary or appropriate for Saugatuck.

As The Hamlet at Saugatuck winds through the approval process, it’s important to keep in mind that Saugatuck is not set in stone. It’s an ever-changing section of town. It’s been up and down, a few times.

It will not return to the crucial commercial hub it once was, or to the neighborhood where everyone knew everyone’s name (and business). No place will.

But anyone who has been to Saugatuck lately - and enjoyed its restaurants, energy and walkability - knows what happens when the most recent redevelopment finally happened. Sure, DeRosa’ is gone, and the barber shop. But look at what’s taken their place.

Saugatuck has the chance to be better than ever. And all of Westport will benefit.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.