Westport’s downtown has experienced a number of changes. Sadly, Westporters lost Oscar’s Deli after the untimely passing of owner and downtown fixture Lee Papageorge, who oversaw the community gathering spot for forty-two years. This year, downtown Westport also said goodbye to Bobby Q’s (moving to West Avenue in Norwalk), Chico’s, Walin & Wolff, Sperry, Acqua and NEAT, among others.
On a more upbeat note, a flurry of exciting new developments are in the works or complete, including the opening of a three-story Serena & Lily store in the historic Kemper-Gunn House. A few doors down, the massive Bedford Square is set to open in April, a mixed retail-residential-commercial enclave by developer David Waldman of David Adam Realty. Waldman’s firm has already made a major impact on the downtown landscape from redeveloping historic properties for more modern uses, including the Flatiron building that now houses Patagonia and the multistory Urban Outfitters.
Right now, all eyes are on Bedford Square, featuring a complete restoration and rehab of the stately 1923 Bedford Mansion and historic firehouse at the foot of Main Street and Church Lane.
Waldman reports: “The project is moving along nicely. The details and feel of what we have been trying to do for the last ten-plus years is showing, and reaction from the public has been excellent. We anticipate the entire project being done on schedule, by April 2017. Our anchor tenant, Anthropologie & Co., has begun internal construction of their premises with an April opening goal as well. As of today, we have signed a lease with a gourmet butcher for a 1,157-square-foot space across from the Spotted Horse. We also have three additional letters of intent signed and are negotiating the leases as we speak.”
Bedford Square’s tenants could include national fashion retailers, fitness studios and restaurants, including Amis Trattoria, a Philadelphia-based restaurant group owned by Urban Outfitters, in the Bedford building and firehouse. What’s more, an array of beautiful new apartments will be ready for occupancy in February 2017. They will add much-needed apartment living and round-the-clock vibrancy to the sleepy downtown area.
Waldman continues to work on other developments in Westport, such as renovating the former Save the Children building, but notes that he is most proud of the lease he just completed with the Rye Ridge Deli in the former Oscar’s space. He explains, “Lee [Papageorge] was a close friend, and I promised him that I would do everything in my power to stabilize his property [his family now owns the building]. After his passing, the family agreed that a new deli would be the best use for the space, and we are all very pleased the Rye Ridge group will be bringing back this needed use to downtown.”
From a community standpoint, downtown Westport is also undergoing a renaissance, starting with the addition of spiffy new sidewalks, which make getting around easier and more attractive. Melissa Kane, cochair of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, an appointed group responsible for initiating and implementing the Downtown Master Plan, says, “We started with mobility and parking, two issues that have been plaguing downtown Westport for years.” Right off the bat, the committee voted to fix the sidewalks and bump up the free one-hour downtown parking to two hours. And, this holiday, they rolled out a valet parking pilot program in partnership with the Westport Downtown Merchants’ Association.
“Our goal is to make downtown more accessible and work better for people. Right now, I’m really excited about completing a plan for wayfinding—with uniform signage throughout the town that will make it easier for motorists and pedestrians to get around,” says Kane. “It’s good for businesses, and it’s good for the people who live here. If people know where to go and how to get where they want to go, it clears up congestion and traffic.” To make the signage reflective of the community’s character, the committee hired a firm that has created handsome, historic signage for towns such as Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Annapolis, Maryland.
Other projects in the works include a drainage study for Dead Man’s Brook to address flooding concerns, tackling longstanding maintenance issues downtown by working in partnership with the DMA, focusing on outsourcing routine maintenance for better quality and cost effectiveness, and rehabilitating Toquet Hall to make it more attractive for teens.
One of the larger projects on the docket is how to make the waterfront area of Jesup Green more usable. “Now that the library project has been approved [see sidebar on page 93], we are going to take a look at the viability of flipping the parking lot to the upper part of the Green to put in green space, walkways, and a playground along the water—a much more enjoyable way to engage with the riverfront that is so emblematic of downtown,” says Kane. “We’ll also look at making the drive from behind the police department to the back of the library and Levitt parking into a real road that will feel safe and address access.” The wasy she see it, all of the changes are interrelated.
“It’s great how our community gets things done. People want and should have input, and we’ve included residents every step of the way. Even if some of the things on our plan take longer than I would ideally want, I feel confident and excited for the future of this town,” she concludes. “At the end of the day, the goal is to make downtown a place Westporters want to be—a place to walk around and enjoy for all of its beauty—with great shopping, dining and economic vibrancy. We want downtown Westport to reflect who we are.”
A PROMISING RESIDENTIAL MARKET IN 2017
In November 2016, following one of the most contentious elections in U.S. history, the financial markets stabilized, and real estate professionals finally exhaled. Realtors in Westport and surrounding towns are now looking forward to a robust 2017, kicked off by what is predicted to be an active spring market, when approximately ninety new properties are expected to hit the market.
Mary Crist, office leader at Berkshire Hathaway Home Services New England Properties, says, “When I look into the crystal ball, I get excited about the first quarter of 2017. Interest rates are beginning to trend upward, which will encourage buyers who have been waiting for the bottom of the market to move into action. We are already seeing indications of that in the last couple of months. Buyers may continue to be cautious, but, hopefully, more optimistic about the economic situation in our area. Still, it is extremely important for sellers to have their homes market-ready prior to listing. Fresh paint, updated kitchens and baths and depersonalized décor are all necessary for a quick, profitable sale.”
Crist adds, “We used to say ‘location, location, location’ was the most important in real estate. Now, it is ‘condition, condition, condition.’ For Millennials, properties must be turnkey and amenity filled, with easy access to all of life’s needs. As realtors in Westport, we are often the translators between Baby Boomer sellers and Millennial buyers. Baby Boomers purchased their homes and fixed them up. The next generation of buyers doesn’t have the time or interest in doing so.”
Michelle Genovesi, of Westport’s Michelle & Co., also foresees an uptick in 2017. She notes that buyers are cautious, conservative and smart. “They are doing their homework on understanding value,” she says. “and, interestingly, they not only are looking at the price they are willing to pay for a home, but also want to know their cost per month to own—taxes, utilities, maintenance, property upkeep.”
She adds, “As far as sales, we have such wonderful communities here within commuting distance to the city, so whatever the market, our towns do well. However, in 2016 we saw more companies leaving Connecticut than coming in; hedge funds being one group. We also see more empty-nesters leaving than staying. It all seems a tax-related. This, along with an election year, has impacted our market for homes over $3 million.”
The sunny side of the street for newcomers and those who stay seems to be in homes that are neighborly. “The trend to be in a ‘community’ environment has also impacted the estates that are two-acres-plus, causing more supply than demand,” she explains, adding that buyers in 2016 scooped up great values, along with all-time-low interest rates. The new year appears promising, too. “With the election behind us, the stock market doing well, interest rates climbing and lower inventory, I am very optimistic that 2017 will be a great year for our towns.”
Beverly Walsh, vice president of sales and sales manager, William Raveis Real Estate, Westport, agrees. “There has definitely been a paradigm shift in what buyers are looking for,” she says. “They gravitate to smaller lots and locations that are within walking distance or easy driving distance to town amenities and shops. Fully updated homes sell faster.”
BY THE NUMBERS
“Interest rates soared since the day after the presidential election and went up for about forty-five days through January 1,” says Mike Daversa, president of Atlantic Residential Mortgage. “Fast-forward to January and February and rates are up three-eights to half a point. We’re seeing so much activity in the first quarter—I’m in shock! The combination of rates going up and really good weather and consumer confidence up on Wall Street, and it looks to be an extremely busy spring market.”
Take a look at the numbers during the first week in January 2017: 234 homes were on the market and were listed for an average of 156 days. The average list price was $2,269,610, and the median price was $1,698,350.
Carrie Perkins, of Westport Spaces at RE/MAX Heritage Real Estate broke it down like into segments, based on price range, to show what has been selling:
- $1-million-to-$3-million tier: “This comprises about 46 percent of the market, which showed consistent strength and a steady pace. Closing out 2016 with the highest number of pending sales—16.”
- $3-million-to-$5-million tier: “There is two-plus years of inventory, with a 4 percent bump in price. Buyers showed their desire for the poetic spaces and luxurious features that new homes offer.”
- $5-million-to-$7-million tier: “The outlier in the market, this segment seemed most affected by the gravity of this past year, with prices softening 16 percent over the considerable market time. However, we are talking about only four sales, which is up from just one in 2015. There are currently six homes for sale in this tier.”
- $7-million-to-$10-million tier: “High-end homes are struggling as well, though not quite as much, down 10 percent from 2015. Activity was consistent with the past few years.”
- Over-$10-million tier: “In the ultra-high-end, homes over $10 million, only one to two sell per year, often going a year to two without any activity, which was the case in 2016.”
She adds that the luxury market suffered the most during 2016. She reports that luxury homes selling for over $3 million in Westport dropped 29 percent, and those that did sell took an average of 335 days versus 296 days in 2015. In Wilton, sales over $2 million dropped 17 percent, although the average number of days on the market decreased from 250 to 118 days. Finally, homes over $2 million in Weston dropped from six sales in 2015 to three sales in 2016. “The good news is that those homes sold more quickly in 2016,” she says, 287 days on market average in 2016 versus 372 days on the market in 2015.