Future of ‘Pop Up Park’ Uncertain After Some Merchants Voice Concerns

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.

Launched five years ago, the town had approved an all-summer run in 2015, but the Pop Up Park didn’t run at all that year after some merchants raised concerns.

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 Jezarian. 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.

18 thoughts on “Future of ‘Pop Up Park’ Uncertain After Some Merchants Voice Concerns

  1. I love the park and the location. Is it a little inconvenient the first time you drive down south and realize you can’t shoot straight into elm? Sure. But “little” being the key phrase. No Big deal. You turn into Morse and park there or go onto main and then turn into elm. Hi. It’s 60 seconds.
    I respect the concerns of the merchants, but not sure I understand them completely. I don’t feel it makes parking worse, the summer is practically dead here, many people go away, it is always easy to find parking downtown during the summer. I imagine sales are always down for most merchants in August.
    I used the park this summer two or three times, spontaneously, and enjoyed gathering there with my teenaged kids. I also derive pleasure from it when I see members of the community gathering downtown and enjoying the space. I dont take attendance but it seemed to be used and enjoyed more this summer than ever! Everytime I drove downtown there were families and friends eating and playing.
    As for garbage? I dined in the park and disposed of my trash at one of the regular garbage cans on Elm, are these not emptied on a daily basis? Surely this could easily be addressed.
    As for delivery trucks, I didn’t notice any inconveniences with them not having their regular loading zone. In general, all year round, I am always dodging around delivery trucks on Elm. It’s a year round nuisance, one that I wish could be addressed better, but not made worse by our lovely park.
    I applaud Tucker and those who have made efforts to keep it there and make the space as enjoyable. I hope it stays.

    • And just to add, I am a little tired of the complaint of “unattended kids”. Shouldn’t kids experience their own freedoms and feel independent, being allowed to go downtown without hovering parents? Or have we become a society where helicopter parents now have to hover over children enjoying themselves downtown?

  2. The park is one of the best thing the town has implemented in recent years and the location as a meeting point is absolutely perfect. The town should help address some of the affected merchant’s concerns regarding deliveries and garbage, but the park takes up relatively few parking spots, and that entrance to Elm is not used often by out-of-towners. August is a dead month because everyone is in Nantucket, or overseas, it has nothing to do with the park.

  3. “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,”

    Huh? I thought people in New Canaan were smart enough to be able to navigate the town.

    Hinders the operating of your art gallery? A lot of people buying art? Is that a high traffic business? A lot of art being loaded and unloaded? Same applies to the antique business.

    Unattended children? I doubt it. That is a serious accusation.

    Pop-up park is great. It is a great place to meet people and for families to get to know each other.

    Face it. None of the businesses in town are ever really busy, except the restaurants. Pop-up park is not hindering anything.

  4. I love the Pop Up Park. Can think of several times when I stayed in town longer, shopped or met people in town because of it. Having this bit of community & fun in our town center during quiet August is wonderful. Thanks Tucker!!

  5. I feel it should be relocated. If it’s for a town gathering, what’s wrong with using the town hall parking lot or lawn area for a pop-up location. ? You can still access city services by coming through the parking lot from the other direction and yet it wouldn’t tie up and parking spaces or access to businesses.

  6. I love the Pop-Up Park and I feel it adds charm and value to our community. If I didn’t already live in New Canaan, and if I was exploring Fairfield County towns in which to raise our family, the Pop-Up Park would be a big selling point making New Canaan an even more attractive place to live and shop. Many towns would love to have a village with a gathering spot like this one. Several times over the summer, either my husband and I, or our whole family, ordered takeout dinners from local restaurants and dined in the park. On two occasions I was walking through town running errands, saw friends in the park, sat down to chat with them, and ended up ordering takeout lunches. The atmosphere created by the fountain, tables and gorgeous flowers made errand-running a treat rather than a chore. My teen/tween-age kids rode their bikes into town with friends, or organized meet-ups with friends via Snapchat, gathered in the park with their snacks and drinks purchased at nearby shops, then used their babysitting money to buy gifts and other things at Funky Monkey, Elm Street Books, Groove, or MacKenzies. All are easy to walk to from the park. I love that they can do that on their own, that they are socializing outdoors in a safe place, rather than hanging out on electronics indoors. One of the reasons my husband and I chose to live in New Canaan over other towns was because we liked seeing young people out walking downtown, independently, without being chauffeured by parents. I think we could do even more to make the park a lively gathering spot and attract more foot traffic in town. We could have local performers entertain with low-key live music, we could have ice cream socials, food tastings, fashion shows, book readings, art shows … all sorts of fun activities that involve our village proprietors. I think the location is perfect. There is no other location that is so central to downtown, and the current spot doesn’t impact our parking situation. I drive along South Avenue to get to town, and the Morse Court parking lot is the easiest place to park. It’s not a big deal to loop around via Main Street if I need to go further up Elm. The merchants do deserve to be heard but I hope we can figure out ways to enhance their business visibility by way of the Pop-Up Park.

  7. The front of Town Hall is essentially a dead space. When the building was renovated for $10million or so, the front landscape should have been fixed to make it more accessible, for those with limitations, and just visually. When you drive by, do you ever really Look at Town Hall? Think of a country version of the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The steps sweep you up and make you want to visit. There is lots of activity there, vendors, people meeting and sitting on the steps. We should have thought about that.

  8. This is a great place for the park for people of town and for commerce.

    New Canaan should focus on how to create a destination for townspeople and for visitors. These types of amenities; benches flowers, encourage users to sit an stay a while (and leave their cash at stores). As as for car traffic circulation, I tend to think this actually helps circulation on Elm Street by eliminating two (more dangerous) left turns across crosswalks (one onto Elm and the 2nd onto South from Elm.).
    For all of our comments about New Canaan having a traditional downtown, we don’t have *central* green as many traditional towns have had. If teens are hanging out on the benches there with their coffee or ice cream, after their trip to the library, or after church, I couldn’t think of a better place for those kids to be spending their time as compared with being their home’s basements.
    Look no farther than Bryant Park (and the merchants that pay big bucks to put their kiosks there) to demonstrate the commercial value of bringing activity to a center. This has a lot of parallels to the work on Broadway in New York where awkward intersections are made useful with table and chairs and merchants. This does not meaningful tie-up access to villages in the 40 feet it occupies.
    Kudos to the town’s Chamber of Commerce for driving activity and commerce to downtown. Adding additional amenities will drive more people to town, not drive people away.

  9. Interestingly, the most vocal merchants complained about people coming to their stores from New York and from the Merritt. Do we have to adjust our situations and celebrations for out of town shoppers? I think the main focus of the Pop up Park should be for town residents, not visitors. As to the gallery, Ms. Gaudio has been in business on South Avenue for six years. She knew about the Pop up Park at its inception, yet chose to relocate to a larger more expensive space on the corner. The other new stores on the east side of the street knew about the park before they signed their leases also. I fail to see how a road blockage five stores down traffic can affect the bookstore.
    The park has not affected the direction of traffic to the bookstore, but has Increased it, as all cars must now enter Elm Street from Main, instead of from South Avenue.
    New Canaan is a very unique shopping destination. Most residents cannot fulfill all their needs by shopping in New Canaan, and must go elsewhere. Some stores open up hoping to capture the excess money supposed to be in this town. These stores are often not the type of merchandise our residents want to buy, and sometimes fail. Habits change. I buy and read less books than I used to. Maybe only 30 a year instead of the previous 100. My point is, the Pop up Park is not responsible for declining sales in New Canaan.

  10. This summer I spent many beautiful mornings at the pop-up park with my two toddlers and loved having a downtown spot to let them run around while enjoying our coffee and bagels. The park is a gem and I wish it were a permanent fixture. Ice skating in the winter, anyone?

    If NYC could convert parts of Times Square into a pedestrian zone, surely the bustling metropolis of New Canaan could do the same with that snippet of South Ave.

  11. The idea of a pop up park is very sweet but to put it in the middle of a public street is really an issue for concern and public safety. Some store owners are inconvenienced, and I am not convinced that those sitting in the park are truly safe. There are no traffic safety barriers around the area in case an errant car ends up accidentally turning into the park. A few planters unfortunately doesn’t protect park goers. Perhaps using one of the public parking lots or cut a deal with Starbucks to use their parking lot. And while we are on the topic, how about resurfacing the downtown main street and restriping? It would look so much better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *