A standing room only crowd gathered at the Oak Bluffs library meeting room on Tuesday afternoon, December 3, to hear recommendations from a panel of visiting experts on how to breathe new life into downtown Oak Bluffs.
The event was organized by Emmy Hahn from the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and Alice Boyd of Bailey Boyd associates. The panel included Dennis town planner Dan Fortier, Oak Bluffs SSA terminal architect and urban planner Steven Cecil; Wendy Landman, the executive director of WalkBoston; Elizabeth Worthbain, executive director of the Hyannis Business Improvement District; and David Colombo, president of the Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District.
It was a lengthy, spirited discussion, with members of the Oak Bluffs business community and town officials expressing their concerns and, in many cases, their pride in the town.
The takeaways from the meeting were several.
Increase community outreach
The packed room confirmed that community outreach was off to a good start. But in the opinion of Daniel Fortier, town leaders have to reach out more to build consensus for change. “We went high tech and low tech — social media and spaghetti suppers,” said Mr. Fortier, who in 12 years has helped engineer a turnaround in Dennis. “Almost every morning I was having coffee and muffins in someone’s home, answering questions. I’m amazed I didn’t put on 25 pounds.”
Mr. Fortier suggested that social media, in the case of Oak Bluffs, was underutilized in community outreach. “I use every tool I can to reach people: blogs, Facebook, Twitter,” he said. “You have to mobilize people who want change. Too many people sit on their hands because we as public officials don’t do enough to get the word out.” Mr. Fortier’s blog, in addition giving town updates, gives Dennis townspeople a chance to weigh in on topical issues.
His pitch to enhance social media outreach also sparked a conversation about the need to update the Oak Bluffs town website.
Simplify the approval process
“It shouldn’t be that you go through all these committees. Four is too many,” Mr. Fortier said, referring to the alphabet soup of committees that can weigh in on development decisions. ”You can have the best plans come to a halt if you can’t overcome a few objections,” added Christine Todd, executive director of the Oak Bluffs association.
Case in point, architect Phil Regan said there was a plan in 1992 to construct a boardwalk to connect the harbor and the Steamship Authority dock, similar to the current plan that was recently awarded a $2 million Seaport Advisory Council grant. “We had all the permits and the construction documents in place,” said Mr. Regan. “Then a couple of homeowners, the cab companies and bus companies objected, and it mysteriously evaporated at the last minute,” he said.
Add apartments downtown
An outgrowth of a streamlined approval process could be more “top of the shop” apartments, i.e. mixed use development that allows apartments to be built over downtown businesses. In her visit in September, Ms. Hahn said that one of the town’s best assets was the available living space in the downtown area. The idea had broad appeal in the room. “Housing for the younger generation has to be a priority,” said Mr. Fortier. “People who work there need a place to live. If you don’t get rental housing, you’ll have 60-year-olds serving 80-year-olds.”
Become more pedestrian
“Oak Bluffs is made to be a walking town,” said Wendy Landman of WalkBoston. “You have better bones than just about any community in the country. All you need is some little tweaks to make it an amazing place for people to come and walk.”
Ms. Todd suggested creating the equivalent of the Freedom Trail in Boston — an idea urban planner Steven Cecil strongly endorsed. “A freedom trail is a great idea,” he said. “You can create all kinds of trails with signage and use social media and QR codes. Don’t forget, the Freedom Trail was created largely to drag people in front of stores.”
“Good walking is good business,” said Ms. Ladman. “Listen to what realtors are saying. Walkability contributes to profit.”
Be more visitor friendly
“The town can be more inviting when you get off the boat,” said Ms. Hahn. “Right now, it’s a sea of asphalt. It wouldn’t take much to make someone feel like ‘wow, this is a really cool town here.’”
“There’s just a general lack of signage,” said Mr. Cecil. “The fact you can come off the boat, and there’s not a single sign for the town center is a problem. You have no idea where you want to go from any of the boat docks. Where’s the Campground? Where the carousel?”
Former selectman and downtown business owner Kerry Scott objected to additional signage. “John Newsom is more important than any sign,” she said, referring to the town ambassador in the visitors’ booth. “He’s better than the forest of godawful signs that we already have downtown.”
“If you didn’t live here all your life, you wouldn’t know where that info booth was,” countered Featherstone director Ann Smith.
Business owner Mark Wallace said that, signage aside, 80 percent of the people who come into the steamship dock are not going to Oak Bluffs. “Most people are on their way somewhere else.” he said.
Mr. Fortier suggested trying ways to keep people in Oak Bluffs for a while, regardless of their ultimate destination. “Tear up some of that asphalt where Edgartown vans are parked,” said Mr. Fortier. “Maybe they shouldn’t have parking spots. Make it so you have to go to town to get to a taxi. Your hotels and business are losing out because it’s easier for people to get into a taxi than to walk.”
Broaden the shoulder seasons
“This is a monster problem and I’m not sure it’s solvable,” said Mr. Cecil. “You’ve got a big location challenge.”
Citing recent success in Dennis, Mr. Fortier was more optimistic. “We changed zoning laws and let hotels have indoor pools and health clubs. Why not? Now we’ve got hotels asking to stay open year-round.”
Mr Fortier said that Oak Bluffs has considerable assets to draw off-season visitors. “Think about Black History month. This town was fully integrated long before the civil rights movement started. There’s history here with the Underground Railroad and the [African American] Heritage Trail. That’s huge. No other town in Massachusetts can claim that. You have so many pieces to your history you could be celebrating something every week.”
Look back moving forward
Several experts endorsed a conscious effort to reconnect with Oak Bluffs DNA and the iconoclastic spirit of the town. Mr. Fortier showed historical pictures of a Victorian downtown more than a century ago, looking more abuzz than it does today. “You have an interesting history of non-conforming conformists. That’s what you need to build on.”
“We’re the luckiest town on the Island,” said selectman Gail Barmakian. “We need to be different from Vineyard Haven and Edgartown. Vineyard Haven is the winter town, Edgartown is the summer town. We’re the funky town.” Many in the room agreed.
“You have an incredible set of resources,” said Mr. Cecil. “You are funky, in a cool way.”
“Instead of being wedded to ideas from the start, leave some flexibility,” said Ms. Landman, citing the recent experiments in New York City.
“A lot can be tested at low cost to see if it works,” added Mr. Fortier.
The parking situation on Circuit Avenue, one of the most discussed topics of the day, appears primed for experimentation.
“What if Circuit Avenue was a pedestrian street in the summer?” asked Mr. Cecil. “On a Saturday in July, the street is already a sidewalk.” Mr. Cecil noted that push carts would be an option on a pedestrian street. The irony was not lost on the selectmen, who have by and large opposed the the idea, although no official vote has been taken.
“By diminishing parking we enhance the downtown area,” said Erik Albert, proprietor of the Oak Bluffs Inn.
Other options like parking permits, parallel parking, and remote parking lots were also discussed.
Oak Bluffs association member Holly Alaimo suggested giving remote parking lots another try. “We tried the IT bus in the 90s,” she said. “There was parking at elementary school and a shuttle to downtown. I think some things need to be tried a little longer to catch on.”
Selectmen Michael Santoro agreed. “We didn’t give it a good shot,” he said. “This time around, social media could really help it.”
The meeting spilled well over the allotted time and with the off-Islanders nervously checking their watches, town administrator Bob Whritenour wrapped up the proceedings. “To fill a room on 1 pm on a weekday is a great start,” he said. “My head is spinning with all of this information.”
Mr. Whritenour said the board recently approved funding to move forward with a professional downtown development plan, but public participation will be paramount. “The days of closed meetings are over,” he said. “We’re going to use this information, and have a process that local residents decide.”
“This is a preliminary discussion,” said Ms. Hahn. “You as a town, have to ask yourself, what is your vision for this town?”