The committee that developed, managed and advocated on behalf of the Pop Up Park downtown—recently securing approval to keep it in place through the summer—is suspending those plans indefinitely after a group of merchants in town voiced opposition.
According to a letter obtained by NewCanaanite.com that’s signed by 16 business owners downtown—most of them retailers, including Elm Street Books owner Susan Rein and Pimilico owner Jill Saunders (see full letter below, as well as those who added their names to it)—the Pop Up Park in occupying the final block of South Avenue at Elm Street obstructs traffic, blocks parking and displaces an important loading zone.
While complimenting Pop Up Park Committee members for their passion and diligence, these merchants say, the park itself “hampers business” because its visitors do not patronize local shops and restaurants.
“If it continues much longer, the small-town charm of New Canaan’s downtown is going to be overrun by big box chains just like many other towns in our area,” according to the letter, dated June 1.
“The look of the Park does nothing to enhance the visual appeal of town,” the letter said. “There are the fences and giant planters used to block traffic, the fountain with carpet laid over its hose and power source, the Costco brand tables and chairs. Even when there is an event, nothing is branded well and the set-up is juvenile at best. Then there is the excess garbage that overflows from the waste containers around the Park. We think the town of New Canaan deserves better and, as merchants, we strive to keep our planters filled and our window displays appealing to do our part to make the town visually attractive.”
The letter is to be sent to the New Canaan Chamber of Commerce, Pop Up Park Committee, Police Commission and Planning & Zoning Commission.
The perspective stands in contrast to what has been said of the Pop Up Park at public meetings where a 2015 schedule had been proposed and officials charged with making decisions on the park invited public comment.
It isn’t clear why those now lined up in opposition to the Pop Up Park failed to attend those public meetings or voice their concerns when in attendance.
There also appears to have been no communication outside of public meetings from those opposed to the Pop Up Park with the New Canaan Police Commission, the municipal group that oversees public road closures. For example, at a May 20 meeting when final approval was granted for the Pop Up Park to remain in place from the end of school (June 19) to Labor Day (Sept. 7), Police Commission Chair Stuart Sawabini said: “I have not heard really much grumbling at all.”
Rein could not immediately be reached for comment.
Saunders said that while more might have been done to involve merchants directly affected by the Pop Up Park sooner, those now raising concerns about it equally may have organized as a group more quickly than they did.
Asked to respond to the news that the Pop Up Park will not go forward as planned, Saunders told NewCanaanite.com: “I am happy that the Pop Up Park Committee has really taken some of the merchants’ concerns seriously. I think it is important that, going forward, we make sure merchants are included more. The idea behind this is great and I love it.”
One member of the Pop Up Park committee, New Canaan resident Tucker Murphy, said that the group is proud of its accomplishments and feels that it’s important to respect the perspective of “this small but vocal group of merchants.”
“We are just respecting fact that these merchants feel they have not had say in it,” Murphy said.
It isn’t clear whether the Pop Up Park will reform in some other area of the downtown, though Murphy said she’s open to exploring it.
Launched on a test basis in the summer of 2012 and evolving each year since into a more regular fixture downtown, the Pop Up Park at South and Elm—host to activities year-round including World Cup Weekend, family gatherings, outdoor concerts and showcases for local eateries—has garnered positive feedback from many residents, businesses and town officials. A poll on NewCanaanite.com in February showed that readers by a more than 3-to-1 majority had wanted the Pop Up Park in place during the summer.
Here is the text of the June 1 letter from merchants raising red flags about the Pop Up Park. Saunders said she wrote the letter and that it was simply presented to multiple business owners in town with an option to attach their names to it:
Dear Members of the Chamber of Commerce and the Pop-Up-Park Committee,
First, let us say thank you to each of you for all your hard work in trying to ensure New Canaan continues to be a harbor for small businesses. You each recognize how unique, small businesses help to separate New Canaan from any other Fairfield County town. The dedication you have to the Town of New Canaan, including your continued support and the support you rally from other residents of the town, is something we appreciate. We know how passionate each and every one of you is about the Pop-Up-Park, and we applaud that passion. However, there are effects of the Pop-Up-Park on us business owners that are not being heard or taken into account when it comes to the implementation of a Pop-Up-Park in its current location.
We understand there have been numerous studies which speak to a positive impact of the Park on the Town. How many of these studies looked at the effects on the Merchants in town? How many of these studies, actually studied the small, independently-owned retail shops and restaurants in town? None of us were questioned or polled. The Pop-Up-Park’s goal and heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, the location is not.
Our issues with the Pop-Up-Park are as follows:
TRAFFIC OBSTRUCTION: The Park occupies the major thoroughfare of Elm St and South Ave which is instrumental in feeding those out of town patrons from the Merritt Parkway directly into the heart of downtown. This area also contains 4-7 parking spaces, at given times, and a very important loading zone. We small businesses need our deliveries. We need as many parking spaces close to the shops as there possibly can be. We need the traffic to flow smoothly and potential customers to be easily able to drive around “the block” if need be. By obstructing this major section of downtown, delivery trucks will now occupy more of Elm Street, block more parking spaces, inconvenience more patrons whose cars are blocked in by the double parked trucks and cause outright congestion on a daily basis. Potential customers who are looking for a free, 90 minute spot will no longer easily be able to swing around and look for parking. They will be hampered by the trucks and the lack of parking. Where will they go? To the internet, where they don’t have to fight to shop.
USE: One of the goals of the Park is to entice people into the heart of downtown: to use the Park and then leave it to continue to visit the shops and restaurants in town and patronize them. In theory this is a wonderful goal. In actuality, this is not what happens. During the week, there is a certain demographic using the Park – business professionals who spend their lunch hour in the Park (many of them bringing their own lunch from home and not ordering from local restaurants) and then returning to work. Merchants who are directly adjacent to the park have a daily view of who is drawn in. Of course there are exceptions. But we are concerned with the majority and the majority is not leaving the Park to continue to shop in town. On the weekend, the use is a bit different. Families with children make up the bulk of the Park’s draw. Parents can sit and chat while their children run free in the confines of the Park. Again, it’s a lovely idea. However, what parent is then going to take their wound-up child into the many different shops and restaurants they are supposed to be visiting after their stint with the Pop-Up-Park? The answer is, almost none. They leave town. They go home.
The New Cananite recently cited the argument that the Park is encouraging New Canaan residents to walk or ride their bicycles into town. A quick survey of the bicycle rack which is set up adjacent to the park disproves this point. On average there are one to two bikes chained up a week, at most. There are also residents who walk to town. Ask them if they walk just because the Pop-Up-Park is up? Or do they walk to town on a regular basis because they have the luxury of living within walking distance? We know the residents. We can pick out those who walk to town, because they walk to town regularly, when there is no Park. We also know the local realty offices love the idea of the Pop-Up-Park. They talk of the pleasant village center and the enhancement the Park brings. We believe each unique small business that enhances the town? The Park hampers business and if it continues much longer, the small-town charm of New Canaan’s downtown is going to be over-run by Big Box Chains just like many other towns in our area.
AESTHETICS: The look of the Park does nothing to enhance the visual appeal of town. There are the fences and giant planters used to block traffic, the fountain with carpet laid over its hose and power source, the Costco brand tables and chairs. Even when there is an event, nothing is branded well and the set-up is juvenile at best. Then there is the excess garbage that overflows from the waste containers around the Park. We think the town of New Canaan deserves better and, as Merchants, we strive to keep our planters filled and our window displays appealing to do our part to make the town visually attractive.
The idea of the Pop-Up-Park was initially an attractive one with many Merchants on board at first. We enjoyed the idea of a space in the center of town being used for weekend events. We thought it would be a space geared towards drawing more people into our downtown area, a space that added more charm to an already charming town. We thought all the predictions of people using the Park and then enjoying lunches and dinners at our fine restaurants, spending money at the various shops in town would come to fruition. We have had three summers now of the Park’s existence and three summers to feel the strain it has put on us. Last year, during August, when the Park was up for, what we were told would be two weeks, but ended up being three, it was disastrous. Our already slow summer was slowed even more, to an almost stand-still, with the blockage of the South Avenue and Elm Street intersection. The cars coming up South Avenue into town ended up in a long line, trying to decide what to do when they got to the barricade of the park.
We, the Merchants of New Canaan, are working extremely hard to keep consumers coming back to our shops and restaurants. Luckily, we have succeeded in this, despite of and not with the help of, the Pop-Up-Park. We know it’s the Chamber’s and the Committee’s goal to help the town and its Merchants and we greatly appreciate this idea. However, when you’re in the trenches and have the day to day experience with the Park, you’d see it’s hurting, rather than helping the Town of New Canaan’s Merchants.
If there is a compromise to be made, we would suggest the Park is only open on weekends and the events it hosts are not just a stopping ground for people. The Park should become a staging area that drives people throughout town and encourages them to patronize the restaurants and shops of New Canaan. At this moment, the events start and stop in the park and don’t actively move its visitors around town.
There is a disconnect between the Pop-Up-Park and the Merchants of New Canaan, but we are willing to come together with the Chamber and the Committee to work on better solutions.
Fiona Sigg and Stephanie Sigg Morrissey, Country Design
Nancy Kline Gorkin, Earth Garden
Susan Rein, Elm Street Books
Karen & Andrew Zuckert, gingerbitz LLC
Heather Gaudio, Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Maxine Berg, Jade
Diane Roth, L’Armoire
Helen Richards, Odesmith & Richards
Jill Saunders and Melissa Lindsay, Pimlico
Rose Bonura, Rosie
Sally Kaltman, Sallea Antiques
Susan Langford, Soleil Toile
Wendy Diamond, Taylors Luggage
Liz King, The Linen Shop
Robert Stinchfield, The Whitney Shop
Mary Jane Setter, Togs