Downtown turnaround – planning the road back to a robust Circuit Avenue

Tourists stroll by a now shuttered Seasons Restaurant. Once a fixture on Circuit Avenue, the restaurant is for sale. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Oak Bluffs business leaders and town officials generally agree that Circuit Avenue, the town’s main commercial thoroughfare, needs some new energy. Some solutions may be found in what other communities have done to revitalize their downtown districts, as Oak Bluffs leaders attempt to chart a course to bring a beleaguered boulevard back.

“In business communities — big city or small downtown — you don’t see a situation of status quo,” Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour said. “Either there’s continued investment in the businesses and real estate, or things tend to slide. Communities that have been most successful have been able to attract private investment. That’s what it’s all about.”

Mr. Whritenour was the Falmouth town administrator for almost 10 years, before taking the reins in Oak Bluffs. During his tenure, Falmouth’s Main Street took on new life and now boasts a string of upscale restaurants and shops.

Although he strenuously deflects credit for that town’s transformation, he intends to follow a similar game plan in Oak Bluffs. “By initially attracting some public investment, Falmouth was allowed to stimulate private investment,” he said. “There was a publicly funded project to improve the sidewalks and streetscapes. They added lighting and benches, and it had a very nice impact. It stimulated property owners to step up and fix up storefronts. Then all of a sudden you see more restaurants and you see more people downtown in the evening. That’s an example of what we want to do here.”

Tisbury has more to do

Main Street in Vineyard Haven is often cited as a downtown on the rebound. Michael Levandowski, co-owner of LeRoux at Home, a mainstay business on Main Street for the past 17 years, says that while the street has improved in the past several years, there is still plenty of room for more upgrades.

“We look at Main Street as having some distance yet to go,” he said. “There’s still a need for more aesthetic improvement, and there’s some dilapidated properties that need attention. But we’ve definitely seen it improve since it hit an all-time low a few years ago. The installation of new sidewalks and street signs was a help. The selectmen have taken steps to make it more business friendly. In the old days business property was taxed at a higher rate, and changing it to the residential rate has helped quite a bit.”

At a tax classification hearing in March 2012, Tisbury selectmen agreed to eliminate a tax shift, implemented in 1986, that collects a larger share of the town’s tax levy from commercial and industrial real estate. “My partner and I own the Ben Franklin building,” Mr. Levandowski said. “We were able to do a lot of work on the building and put together a maintenance program with the money we saved. We take great pride in the building.”

Mr. Levandowski also believes the diversity of year-round businesses, and the sense of community they create, has helped Main Street recover. “We have some of the best stores on the Island — the book store, the drug store, the Green Room, Brickman’s — all year-round, viable stores that provide a sense of community. We don’t have as many gifty kind of stores. It’s not just about looks, it’s a combination of goods and services and a sense of community. Without a doubt, having a grocery store helps. I hope they don’t chase it out. If we lose the grocery store, it’s really going to hurt,” he said, referring to the contentious debate over the Stop & Shop expansion on Water Street.

Since he is both a landlord and tenant, Mr. Levandowski keeps a close eye on the price of commercial real estate on the Island, which led to a surprising discovery. “I think another reason Main Street is coming back is because of the rent structure. The rents here are substantially lower,” he said. “We did our own market study and found that Oak Bluffs averaged about 25 percent more than Vineyard Haven, and Edgartown was about 100 percent more. A commercial banker I know in town confirmed it.”

Edgartown wrestles with blight

All three down-Island towns have issues with dilapidated buildings on prime real estate in their downtown districts.

At the Edgartown town meeting this past April, a measure was passed, almost unanimously, that gave the historic district considerable teeth in dealing with the buildings in disrepair, which was essentially limited to one building. The by-law reads, “Owners of certain contributing buildings and structures in the Edgartown historic district shall provide sufficient minimum maintenance as defined herein, to keep such buildings from falling into a state of poor repair, as may be identified here and after by the Edgartown historic district commission rules and regulations.”

The law does not go into effect until it is approved by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. Due to an administrative error, it was only recently submitted to the attorney general’s office and has not yet been implemented.

“I believe once it’s been approved it will be used immediately,” said Edgartown building inspector Leonard Jason.

One option

Some communities have looked to the creation of a historic district as a means to revitalize downtown districts. One Oak Bluffs leader said he does not see it as a viable option.

“We’re not going the historical district route,” said Oak Bluffs selectmen chairman Walter Vail in a conversation with The Times. “We’re putting together a bylaw for the November 12 town meeting. We’re trying to put something out there that says we’re serious about having business owners take care of their properties better. Some are doing a great job, but there are a few in particular that are creating a lot of pressure, and people saying all the time ‘What are you doing about this?’ I don’t want to force people to do things that they ought to be doing on their own. But if we can’t get their attention, then we throw this bylaw out there, and we’ll see what our voters say at the meeting. But we’re not of a mind to tackle the historic district issue. That’s not on the drawing board at all.”

“Historic preservation has gotten a bad name because people think it’s too strict, and they don’t want to be fettered by government regulations,” said Marcia Cini, an attorney at Cini Miller in Edgartown. Before she passed the bar, she was director of Historic Salem and she was instrumental in a textbook case of downtown turnaround.

“I think making downtown [Oak Bluffs] a historic district is a great idea. There are preservation tax credits and they are significant if you just stick to the standards, which are basically just fix it or replace things in due time. There’s a great deal of fear of the government telling you what to do. I think the lack of information makes people reluctant.”

Ms. Cini said she’d mount a campaign to get all the public money available, which includes historic credits and grants. “Downtown Oak Bluffs may not qualify as a historic district, but I would look at all public avenues,” she said.

“The creation of a historic district is a long-term discussion,” Mr. Whritenour said. “I would welcome that dialogue down the road. But there are more immediate steps we’re taking. There’s a grant program at the state level that provides matching funds, whether to develop new signage or completely redo the facade of a building. That’s an example of action the town can take in the short term. You have pubic investment, you match that with private investment, and then you begin to see some baby steps towards physical improvements, and that will stimulate even more private investment.”

To that end, Mr. Whritenour has successfully lobbied the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development to send a delegation to Oak Bluffs. On September 30, they will to tour the town and consider funding improvements on Circuit Avenue and in the Oak Bluffs business district, through their signs and facades program.