Officials on Tuesday urged the Pop Up Park’s organizers to realign with the local organization that’s supported the downtown gathering space in past summers—a relationship that appears to have broken down over moving a kiosk three feet.
Ostensibly the municipal body that would grant a Special Events Permit for the Pop Up Park, the Board of Selectmen stopped short of saying it would definitely nix it.
Yet First Selectman Kevin Moynihan and Selectmen Kit Devereaux and Nick Williams each signaled that the New Canaan Chamber of Commerce’s involvement—which the organization itself has essentially ruled out for a proposed July 21 to Sept. 3 season—was a make-or-break consideration.
“Given where we are, I don’t think there is any way we are going to proceed with the Pop Up Park on the terms that we’d had last year,” Moynihan said during a special meeting of the board, held at Town Hall. “It’s too long. And the concerns of the merchants have to be the most important consideration. This is their livelihood. This is their backyard.”
He referred to complaints from some who own retail businesses abutting the Pop Up Park, as well as others in downtown New Canaan, that mostly revolve around traffic and parking. Some of those merchants attended the meeting and addressed the selectmen, including Heather Gaudio of an eponymous fine arts business, Helen Richards of Odesmith & Richards, Susan Rein of Elm Street Books and Mary Jane Setter of Togs.
Much of the 45 minutes that the selectmen dedicated to the matter saw Barbara Wilson, one of the Pop Up Park’s volunteers, argue in favor of keeping it and describe how, in her view, the relationship with the Chamber broke down. From the Pop Up Park’s infancy and through last year, the Chamber provided insurance for it and the organization’s executive director, Tucker Murphy, obtained a Special Events Permit from the town and acted as a liaison to collaborating town bodies, such as the Department of Public Works.
Yet following an incident last summer involving a kiosk that had been placed in front of Gaudio’s oversized show windows, the Chamber had an agreement drawn up that described the organization’s own oversight of the Pop Up Park.
Barbara Wilson told the selectmen that she objected especially to a section of that draft agreement specifying that “the Chamber will have final say” with respect to matters such as furniture layout and activities.
Murphy said she felt the Pop Up Park Committee members were moving away form the Chamber’s own priority of representing New Canaan businesses—a perspective that the merchants who took to the podium backed up, saying those volunteers appeared to be “hostile” and “combative.” The committee is comprised of Barbara Wilson, Betsy Wilson, Jeff Holland and Nicole Jezairian, officials said.
Murphy said that she still feels the Pop Up Park, if it’s going to operate, should be located just where it has been. Yet if there are are merchants who object to it, they must be heard, Murphy said.
“We have heard from three very vocal merchants that are unhappy with it,” Murphy said at the meeting, prior to Gaudio’s arrival. “There are those that like it, too.”
She added: “It’s unfortunate that you have three abutting neighbors who do not like it there. You can’t ignore that. Whether you think it’s the right location or not, you can’t ignore three direct merchants there.”
At one point last summer, Gaudio—whom Murphy described as opposed to the Pop Up Park though supportive of her and the Chamber—phoned to say that a new piece of equipment (the kiosk) had been built and brought into the space directly in front of the gallery.
Gaudio asked if it could be moved three feet so that it was no longer blocking her window and “I said sure, that’s enough,” Murphy recalled.
“That’s when it was an all-out problem because we just wanted to move it three feet away away from her glass windows,” Murphy said, but the committee members refused to move it. As a result, Murphy said, she needed to ask DPW’s help in moving the kiosk. During the following “offseason” for the Pop Up Park, the draft agreement was drawn up and the volunteer committee declined to accept it, officials said.
Gaudio told the selectmen that “there is almost no visibility for the gallery during the time the Pop Up Park is in existence,” referring to her business.
She added that her own father-in-law, who is handicapped, has a hard time accessing her shop because of how the Pop Up Park reduces parking, and that there have been problems with the space’s operation, where she’s seen children left unattended.
With respect to the volunteer committee that runs it, Gaudio said, “In my opinion, they do not have any interest in hearing reasonably how we are impacted downtown.”
Rein said that while the Pop Up Park is in place, she hears at her shop from motorists wondering “Why is it here in the middle of the street?”
Asked by Moynihan whether the problems with traffic present weekdays as well as weekends, Rein said, “We do not have a scientific survey, but we hear from customers about why somebody would block the main street into town.”
Richards said that during the Pop Up Park season she sees virtually “no shopping” at the antiques store.
The Pop Up Park is a “lovely idea” but “in the completely wrong location,” Richards said. Merchants who had been in place prior to the park’s introduction six years ago have found that “business was better” back then, she said.
Setter said the Pop Up Park is seen as “an annoyance” by motorists who need to drive around it and that has a “negative impact on business” that’s helping push prospective customers to online shopping.
Williams said that he would “defer to the Chamber” on the question of whether and where the Pop Up Park should run, “because the Chamber is representing businesses generally and if they say, ‘No, we longer think this is a good idea, it’s not helping businesses and in fact hurting business’—which I don’t think it is—if that were the situation” then the matter would be closed.
“There has got to be a representative of the Chamber of Commerce involved in this committee, because I do think that if one of the store owners adjacent to the park has an issue about a German Oompah band or whatever, I think that that merchant needs to be heard from and respected, because we need to support our merchants.”
Devereaux said she thought the Pop Up Park was “a wonderful thing” and “a gift to community.”
“But what I am gathering is you want to be completely autonomous,” she told Barbara Wilson. “Is that true?”
Barbara Wilson said no, but that the volunteers “did not want to be ultimately controlled by the Chamber.”
“Because the Chamber has a mission that may be slightly different from the Pop Up Park Committee,” she said. “We are sort of focused on the residents, not the merchants. We want to be flexible. We want to be able to do things that are not necessarily absolutely just for the merchants. So that is what is different and that is mainly why we came to loggerheads this year.”
William said he hoped the Chamber would be involved in the future, and Devereaux agreed.
“I feel similarly,” she told Barbara Wilson. “And to me, you are implying that the Chamber will come and say, ‘We don’t like that, you cannot let them come, we don’t like where that table is.’ And I think they are very reasonable people so I cannot imagine that happening.”
Barbara Wilson said she interpreted the draft agreement that way.
“I wish we had had an attorney on our committee to look at this,” she said.
In making her presentation to the selectmen, Barbara Wilson noted that the committee has obtained insurance as well as a sponsor, describing the Pop Up Park as a “public space to serve the community of New Canaan” that serves as a central meeting place for people of all ages.
“The park is well loved by a very quiet majority of New Canaan residents,” Barbara Wilson said.
Rein, Richards and Setter could be heard to sigh audibly during parts of Barbara Wilson’s presentation.
Murphy said she agreed with Barbara Wilson’s description and commended the volunteers for their hard work. The Chamber supports running the Pop Up Park during specific downtown events, such as the Sidewalk Sale, Taste of the Town Stroll, Food Revolution and Overdose Vigil, Murphy said, but that she “cannot be spending time away forming a committee.” She added that since the news broke that the Pop Up Park’s future is uncertain, she’s received no phone calls from residents seeking to find ways to help and restore it.
Moynihan said the selectmen would return to discuss the Pop Up Park’s future at the board’s July 10 meeting.