After a handful of merchants voiced concerns about how the Pop Up Park at South Avenue and Elm Street affects traffic and business, members of the municipal body that oversees street closures in New Canaan said Wednesday night that they’ll take the feedback into consideration in deciding on the future of the downtown amenity.
No immediate decision is needed regarding the Pop Up Park, which saw part of the South Avenue’s first block cordoned off as a pedestrian-only space—with tables, chairs, WiFi, planters, grass, fountain and events—from the July 15 Sidewalk Sale to Labor Day.
However, approval from the Police Commission is needed each “offseason” to get the volunteer-run Pop Up Park in place.
During the commission’s regular meeting Wednesday, some of those who long have said the park creates problems that hurt the downtown and its businesses reiterated their concerns.
Susan Rein, owner of Elm Street Books, said she has talked to many merchants downtown and that many “are very concerned about the park because they think—what we hear from customers is: Why is it where it is, why when you come up into town from the Merritt Parkway, why do you run into it?”
“They don’t want that, they think it’s confusing,” Rein said during the meeting, attended by more than 30 people. “This is just people telling us that. It’s not that we don’t like the park for what it does, it’s just the location of it, and we are wondering: Isn’t here any other place put it that doesn’t block the egress and entrance to Elm Street? We hear it all the time in the summertime: Why would the let something block one of the two entrances to Elm Street?”
Ultimately, commissioner Paul Foley said that while the Police Commission next month may take up a separate question of whether it’s OK for nonprofit organizations to sell things like fundraiser tickets in the Pop Up Park—an issue that had arisen last month and has been met with skepticism—the larger questions of whether, where and for how long the park will operate downtown deserve more discussion.
The topic opened with Pop Up Park Committee member Betsy Wilson reviewing the season just ended. Others on the volunteer committee include Jeff Holland, Marty Skrelunas, Barbara Wilson and Nicole Jezairian. Tucker Murphy serves as a liaison to the Chamber of Commerce.
Wilson said people of all ages use the park and that although there are scores of scheduled events—Food Revolution, YMCA Summer Fun Festival, Emergency Services Day, Coffee with a Cop, Overdose Awareness Vigil, Young Entrepreneurs Fair and Young Women’s League Fall Into New Canaan, for example—still passive time when people are simply meeting in the space ranks as the most popular.
“This season felt really special—there seemed to be an energy that park had,” Wilson said.
Others who spoke in favor of the Pop Up Park included 25-year resident Jack Horner.
“We are as concerned as any citizen with keep out community together and keeping our small businesses thriving, and we have found the Pop Up Park is a wonderful place,” he said.
The park is the envy of the Darien Chamber of Commerce, said Horner, who sits on that organization’s board. Chairman of the New Canaan Fire Commission, Horner added that the Pop Up Park in no way impedes the work of the New Canaan Fire Department.
Yet those with local shops—especially some of those with businesses in the immediate vicinity of the Pop Up Park—said they’ve had problems with it.
Heather Gaudio, owner of an eponymous fine art gallery and store at South and Elm, said “the Pop Up Park hinders the operation of our gallery.”
Gaudio said she’s seen unattended children in the park, trash left behind and that it “creates a bottleneck” of traffic.
“I would love for it not to be a problem,” she said. “It’s a beautiful idea poorly placed.”
Gaudio noted that the Pop Up Park eats up a loading zone area in front of her shop, forcing UPS and FedEx trucks onto an already crowded Elm Street that can become difficult to navigate with delivery trucks on it.
Helen Richards, owner of Odesmith & Richards antique shop next door on South Avenue, said the Pop Up Park has a “deleterious effect on my business.”
She said many who oppose the Pop Up Park are “afraid of stating their views” that it blocks traffic and creates hazardous parking as well as garbage that’s unattractive.
“We feel we are ridden over roughshod and considered to be ‘grinchy’ and not in the interests of the town, but we pay a lot in rent and would like our concerns addressed,” Richards said.
Holland said the meeting marked the 32nd public hearing on the Pop Up Park and that he repeatedly has provided data and literature showing that such areas promote commerce and bring more people to town.
He noted that Richards’ store and others often “are very-part time shops” that often are closed, adding that the garbage that fills the trash bins in the Pop Up Park is from merchants who do not have their own pickup.
Mary Jane Setter, owner of Togs, responded that her store is open seven days per week and that she “saw an enormous drop in sales this past August.”
Setter said she had many customers, both local and from out of town, who have complained that they’re frustrated trying to park and having to drive all the way around the long block of Elm Street repeatedly to find a spot on busy days.
Jim Berry of Mackenzie’s, by contrast, said he was delighted that the Pop Up Park exists “and is there for everyone in town to enjoy.”
Berry addressed those who say they don’t like the park because it hurts business, saying he sees the same foot traffic and that sales generally are off 50 to 60 percent in August.
“This town is dead in August,” Berry said.
He added that “nobody is here” just then and thanked Murphy, Holland and others who do the work of organizing the Pop Up Park and its events.
Murphy said she was “thrilled to see” everyone speaking about the Pop Up Park, including those for it, neutral about it or against it.
“No one things the merchants [opposed] are being unreasonable,” Murphy said. “They have valuable concerns and we feel we have tried to address and work with them.”
Murphy said the Pop Up Park fosters New Canaan’s “fierce local pride’ and sense of community, and that she would not support relocating it to a different area of downtown where it would displace a greater number of parking spaces.