WESTPORT, Conn. – The historic Kemper Gunn home in Westport is on the path for demolition after the Planning and Zoning Commission voted Thursday against a proposal to relocate the house—despite overwhelming public support to save it from the wrecking ball.
“This is a sad day for Westport when residents clearly wanted preservation of that house and for the commission to ignore the letters, speeches and petition that asked for this,” Representative Town Meeting member Matt Mandell said Friday. “There are a lot of people upset about this.”
Built in 1855, the Queen Anne-style home is located at 35 Church Lane next to the Westport Weston Family Y, which will be transformed into a mixed-used complex known as Bedford Square. As part of the Bedford project, the home and a portion of the Y will be torn down to make room for four new buildings.
Bedford Square Associates—developers of the Bedford Square project— offered to move the home to the Baldwin parking lot at no cost to the town. It was also proposed that the town retain ownership of the land and enter into a ground lease with a developer, which would have restored the home and leased it for retail and office use—creating a revenue for the town.
At last week’s public hearing on the proposal, many residents spoke in favor of the plan and encouraged the commission to approve it. Among the supporters were First Selectman candidates Helen Garten and Jim Marpe. Only one resident spoke against the proposal that night.
In addition to all those who voiced their support, Mandell presented a petition signed by 500 residents urging the commission approve the plan. Nevertheless, the commission voted 4-2-1 against the proposal.
“It was a surprise,” Garten said Friday of the vote. “I thought compelling arguments had been made in support of the proposal. I’m also saddened to think we lost a great opportunity for historic preservation, to repair the Elm Street streetscape and for mom and pop stores to be housed down there.”
Concerned that relocating the house to the Baldwin lot would result in the loss of parking spaces, commissioners Ron Corwin, Howard Lathrop, Nora Jinishian and Tim Wetmore voted against the proposal. Commissioners Jack Whittle and Chip Stephens voted in favor of the proposal, and Chairwoman Cathy Walsh abstained.
"I think we all feel badly about losing the house, but the price is simply too high in what the use of that key lot for the town is,” Corwin said.
Although disappointed by the vote, Marpe said he respects the commissioners' concerns about traffic and parking.
"That said, this is a house that helps define the unique character of Westport and it will be a shame to lose it," he said. "Hopefully the proponents of the project will be able to find a solution."
Although the proposal failed to gain approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission, it isn’t completely dead. The commission’s decision can be appealed to the Representative Town Meeting—the town’s legislative body— and overturned with a two-thirds vote.
Historic District Commission Chairman Francis Henkels said he was shocked the commission voted against the proposal “given the outpouring of public support.” He hopes the commission’s decision is appealed.
“This is a significant property worth saving,” said Henkels, who worked with Bedford Square Associates, Mandell and others on the proposal. “I hope the popular vote prevails.”