A consultants’ report delivered to Oak Bluffs officials Monday as part of an ongoing planning process described the town as a primary trade area, one that is growing, aging, and becoming less seasonal in its mix of homes. The 29-page study delivered via teleconference to members of the Oak Bluffs Downtown Streetscape Master Plan Committee (DSMPC) and town and Island officials also included recommendations for invigorating the downtown area.
Town officials and attendees were presented with a trove of information in the two-hour meeting hosted by consultants from Horsley Witten Group to share the data from a recent economic study and to discuss results of the initial public outreach survey done by the newly formed DSMPC in late July.
In comments after the meeting, DSMPC member Brian Packish told The Times, “I think it’s a good start. They gave us some solid information and some good suggestions. Now we as a group have to discuss what we like and what we don’t, and keep the process moving. A lot of the big concerns, trash, parking, sidewalks, were also big issues in the 1998 town master plan. That was almost 20 years ago. I think it’s time we make some real progress.”
He said the DSMPC will have an open meeting at 1 pm Monday at town hall to talk about the results.
The DSMPC held its inaugural outreach event on July 23 and 24, to elicit opinions from visitors, seasonal residents, and Islanders on how to revitalize downtown Oak Bluffs. The survey was also available until Aug. 22 on the DSMPC website.
At Monday’s meeting, Jon Ford of Horsley Witten Group shared the results with palpable excitement. “We had 542 responses to the survey,” he said. “That’s record-breaking, even for Horsley Witten.”
Mr. Ford said 70 percent of the respondents were year-round residents, 23 percent were tourists, and seasonal residents filled out the remaining seven percent.
“There was consistent optimism among seasonal residents, which was a little bit surprising,” he said. “The top priority of respondents, across the board, was that the town had to preserve its historic character and the vibe of downtown.”
“There’s also a need to carve out more in the public realm. By that I mean places to sit down and relax in the downtown area,” Mr. Ford said.
Unsurprisingly, decrepit theaters and town cleanliness were also high on the list of concerns. “Garbage and litter have been a hot topic for many years,” he said.
The town beaches were also frequently mentioned, according to Mr. Ford; however, this survey was focused on the downtown business district.
“Healy Square, or as many know it, Post Office Square, is a valued downtown asset that many respondents cherish, and also feel can be improved. It’s a great space,” Mr. Ford said, likening it to the increasingly popular “pocket parks” of urban-planning argot. “It can be expanded and enhanced.”
The surveys showed other long-standing issues, walkability and parking, remain high on the list. Parking, access to town, and circulation, especially the congested and narrow sidewalks, were repeatedly cited as problematic by respondents.
“There’s also clearly a need to get around by car and for better parking,” he said.
Mr. Ford said that a conversation with Police Chief Erik Blake yielded one possible win-win tactic. “Meters are much simpler parking management. Chief Blake said it’s a lot less man-hours than chalking tires. Assuming half the downtown is metered spaces six days a week, from 9 to 6, the four-month gross revenue is $150,000.”
With regard to the downtown parking issue, Mr. Ford proposed, counterintuitively, to reduce parking spaces on Circuit Avenue. “We can lose 18 spaces on Circuit Ave. and gain 10 on Kennebec,” he said. “This would also make room for more outdoor street space on Circuit Ave., and more room for Healy Square.” He added that there are 600 parking spaces within a five-minute walk of downtown. There was also the suggestion to make parking on Circuit Avenue back-in only, still on a diagonal, to improve traffic flow and safety. “It requires public outreach,” he said. Neither suggestion was received enthusiastically.
The state of Circuit Avenue extension was again often mentioned. The major thoroughfare road from the harbor and from the passenger ferries is an anarchic mix of pedestrians and recently rented mopeds and cars, garlanded by drooping power lines. There are no directional signs and no designated sidewalks.
In what Mr. Ford described as “our biggest idea,” Horsley Witten suggested making Circuit Avenue extension one-way, leading away from the harbor into town, and possibly renaming it “Harbor Avenue.” The current right-turn lane off Oak Bluffs Avenue onto Circuit Avenue extension could be converted to parking. He also pitched the idea of street painting where Circuit Avenue and Circuit Avenue extension meet, and repaving the street with a porous material, as Provincetown did with their main street, since the road is in a floodplain area.
Mr. Ford was upbeat about the survey findings and the future of the downtown district. “We’re not re-envisioning,” he said. “We’re just recalibrating to make a great place greater.The bones are all there as we all know.”
Horsley Witten contracted Cambridge-based ConsultEcon to conduct an economic analysis of the Oak Bluffs business district to help inform the decisions of the DSMPC. The wide-ranging study included data on trends in the town and Island economy, demographic shifts, consumer-expenditure patterns and trends with seasonal residents and tourists. It defined the town of Oak Bluffs as the primary trade area, and the rest of Dukes County — the other five Island towns and 75 Gosnold residents — as the secondary trade area.
According to the study, the Island population is growing faster than the state as whole, and there will be an estimated 18,000 year-round residents by 2018. The 5.6 percent growth rate “is significantly larger than projected growth in Nantucket and Cape Cod, where population is expected to grow by 1.2 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively,” the report said. The projected population growth for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the same time period is 2.4 percent.
Two-thirds of the Oak Bluffs population is over age 35, and the median age is 46.2 years old. The household size in Oak Bluffs is less than the state average, which reflects an aging population and more seasonal residents retiring to the Island — a trend that is also growing on the Cape.
The median household income in Oak Bluffs is $68,405, lower than the median income for the total trade area, $71,083. The numbers also reveal a stark income disparity in Oak Bluffs — one-third of the town population earns more than $100,000 a year, while the second-largest income group is the 20 percent who make between $25,000 and $49,999 a year.
The study estimates that year-round residents spend roughly $52.5 million per year, on and off-Island, spending the most for food, motor-vehicle and parts dealers, and general merchandise, in that order.
In a trend that bucks the rest of the Island, seasonal residences in Oak Bluffs have declined from 56.1 percent in 2000 to 50.8 percent in 2010. “The expectation [is] that more seasonal homes will be converted into year-round residences in the coming years, and the demand for more year-round goods and services will likely rise,” the report says, noting again that the same trend is playing out on the Cape. “General merchandise and home improvement stores are opportunities that would better serve the growing resident market population and support more business activity in Oak Bluffs downtown.”
The ConsultEcon report stresses the importance of visitors’ arrival to the town because it sets the “tone and tenor for a visitor’s trip.” While the report credits the Steamship Authority for improvements to the terminal and adjoining streetscape, it describes the North Bluff arrival area as “chaotic,” adding, “When arriving at these passenger-only ferries, visitors are immediately presented with an array of opportunities to rent cars, mopeds and bikes, or take a tour or taxi, that signal that Oak Bluffs is a place of departure and not arrival.” The aesthetic and functional shortcomings of Circuit Avenue extension was an oft-mentioned topic in both studies.
“Wayfaring,” signage that helps visitors find their way to town and to specific attractions, was another frequently raised issue. The report suggested that in addition to signage, which should be designed in the Victorian spirit of old Oak Bluffs, “interpretive trails create an attraction for cultural tourists, who tend to spend more money during a trip than the average tourist spends.” It did not define “cultural tourists.”
The oft-trod issue of inadequate sidewalks was again raised. “Overall, the sidewalks in the Oak Bluffs Downtown are too narrow to accommodate all visitors at peak times, leading people to walk in the streets.” Suggestions were made to add more open space and public seating in the downtown area, noting, “Many visitors use the tree planters in the streets, which are in ill repair.”
To draw more visitors to the downtown area during peak season, the ConsultEcon report recommends hosting more midweek events. It also suggests adding under-represented stores like home furnishing and arts and crafts galleries. It concluded that the downtown could benefit with the addition of entertainment attractions, which “may include but are not limited to” nightclubs, amusements, a bowling alley, and a movie theater.