State development officials tour Oak Bluffs business district

A group of town and state officials, along with local business owners, toured the Oak Bluffs business district on Monday. Christine Todd (left), executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association gives the lay of the land to Emmy Hahn of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, as town administrator Robert Whritenour (right) looks on. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Of the approximately 4,500 acres that make up the town of Oak Bluffs, only 11 acres are allocated for commercial development. The topic of how to maximize the potential of this small swath of B-1 acreage was the subject of a walking tour this past Monday, with a group of about 20 local business owners, town officials, and representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, Patricia Roushanaei and Emmy Hahn.

The tour was part of an ongoing lobbying effort by town administrator Robert Whritenour to obtain public funding that will hopefully spur private investment in the depressed downtown district.

“We’re really at a crossroads here,” said Mr. Whritenour to the assembled group, standing in the shadow of the Civil War statue on a picture perfect, chamber of commerce day. “We’re a resort economy trying to rebound from a very long difficult economic period. Our community has taken a huge hit over the past several years. It’s an historic town, but it’s an historic town with wooden structures, many built about the same time, in the late 19th century. Our community has taken a huge hit. After Hurricane Sandy we sustained over $20 million in damages.”

“I think we’ll have some ideas today,” said Ms. Hahn, surveying Ocean Park and the surrounding area.

Pay beach breech

First on the agenda was the town beach. “About five or six years ago, we had a concession stand, restrooms, showers, we were upgrading and fixing them up,” said Keith Enos, treasurer of the Oak Bluffs Association (OBA). “We were bringing back our town beach, which had been extremely successful and a huge draw, but after the breech in the seawall, we lost the concession stand, the shower, everything. The beach is one of the biggest assets of the town, and yet we don’t have a restroom.”

“Fortunately we’ve been able to build back the beaches with dredging and other means,” said OBA president Christine Todd, who proceeded to lead the group to the bottom of Circuit Avenue.

Circuit Ave. survey

Mr. Whritenour pointed out Dreamland as an example of well-managed renovation that benefits the building owner and adds value to the town. “The renovated grand ballroom, which holds events upstairs, and the M.V. Chowder company downstairs, show what private investment can bring to downtown. We’re trying to create more momentum. But the building at the door of main street has a blighting influence,” he said to Ms. Hahn, indicating the shuttered Island theater.

“It’s beyond visual: this is a place where families would come, get pizza or ice cream, drop the kids off or see a movie together,” Ms. Todd said. “That’s not happening any more. That’s an entire population that is not coming to downtown Oak Bluffs because there’s no theater.”

As the tour progressed up Circuit Ave., the state officials were impressed with the street presence of Linda Jeans and My Secret Garden. Primo Lombardi, owner and operator of the Martha’s Vineyard Yoga center, was roundly praised by the group for his renovation work in his mixed-use building. “It’s well worth it,” he said. “The town has been so close to turning the corner, it’s just a matter of time.”

OBA member Terry McCarthy raised the issue of building up on Circuit Ave. to create more apartments in the downtown area. Ms. Hahn immediately sparked to the idea. “One of your best assets is the living space available in the downtown area,” she said. “More people living here would certainly be a plus.” Several business owners thought the idea, while noteworthy, was impractical, given how even the slightest change is routinely thwarted. Ms. Hahn said she encountered a similar situation in Dennisport, and that computer-generated models and impact studies proved very effective in building consensus.

Mr. Lombardi suggested that changing the parking on Circuit Ave. to parallel parking which would allow the sidewalks to be widened. Many in the group, which spilled well into Circuit Avenue, agreed sidewalks should be a top priority. “Oak Bluffs is a walking town,” said Mr. Lombardi.

Ms. Hahn agreed, “People are walking more, that’s the new thing.”

Art district atrophy

After an obligatory stroll through the Campground — neither state official had been to Oak Bluffs before — the tour walked along Dukes County Ave., where sidewalks are apparently in the planning stage. The next stop, the remnants of the once promising Arts District, took the delegation past more dilapidated buildings, so overgrown they’re easily missed from the road. Both state officials stopped to marvel at the work on display at the Alison Shaw gallery, the most thriving business in the arts district.

Although the Arts District appears to be part of a residential area, it is zoned B-1. Several members of the delegation expressed concern that, while the commercial zoning holds promise, there are few restrictions on what businesses are allowed, which could result in a lot full of junk cars next to an upstart gallery, or possibly even chain stores. Mr. Whritenour and Ms. Hahn agreed a village overlay that could allow business to grow, with specific regulations, could be an effective measure to prevent further aesthetic attrition in the district.

Several in the delegation began to explain the byzantine history of historic Bradley Square, the erstwhile arts colony/mixed income housing project, but quickly decided against it. Bottom line, it still sits empty, as it has for more than 30 years.

Signage shortage

As the group wended its way back to the harbor, the lack of signage, especially for pedestrian traffic, was noted repeatedly by state officials. Signage is a key element to “wayfinding,” urban planning parlance for guiding visitors where you want them to go. Oak Bluffs, with the harbor and Steamship Authority dock that feed directly into downtown, is uniquely primed to take advantage of wayfinding. The newly renovated Dockside Hotel, an example of recent capital investment and first-rate historical renovation, could benefit greatly from wayfinding improvements. “It’s not obvious what’s around here for people who walk off the boat,” said Dockside co-owner John deBettencourt Tiernan.

“A sidewalk would be a big step in the right direction,” said selectman Michael Santoro, apparently not intending the pun.

As the tour wound down, Mr. Whritenour showed Ms. Hahn where the town plans to build a boardwalk, atop a new seawall, along Seaview Avenue, to promote foot traffic from the harbor to downtown. Ms Hahn noted that the town of Barnstable took a similar tack, and was very successful in “wayfinding” pedestrians to the downtown area.

The road back

The tour ended at the Lookout Tavern, where ironically, it was difficult to hear Ms. Hahn’s assessment over the construction noise from the new municipal fishing pier across the street.

“Today was about getting the lay of the land,” said Ms. Hahn. “The most positive thing you have going is your ideas and the strong level of interest. Consensus building is key. Do you want second stories on Circuit Ave. or not? You have so many positive things. Take the time at this end and do the consensus building.”

Ms. Hahn cited Hyannis as a town that has overcome infrastructure issues similar to Oak Bluffs.

“You have a really viable downtown,” she said. “But some key pieces are missing, a major restaurant being one of the obvious pieces. I’ve never seen anything like this: you have a quality downtown, beautiful buildings and three doors down, an empty building in disrepair.”

There was a strong feeling among many of the assembled that, now that the economy is recovering, it’s time be proactive about the dilapidated buildings. “Enough is enough,” said one business owner.

But Ms. Hahn suggested a different tactic. “Regarding the troublesome building owners, just step away from them,” she said. “Do what you can, begin a sign and facade program. You can embarrass building owners into doing the right thing. In the meantime, do what you can to move forward. Make it the best you can make it, and leave the hard sell for later.”