Oak Bluffs report points to untapped business potential

Looking north on Circuit Ave., summer 2013. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

“The architectural heritage of Oak Bluffs is remarkable. Not only is this heritage the basis of a preservation that will need to be a continuing priority, but the heritage can also serve as an inspiration for the future.”

The future is the point of a 20-page consultants’ final report, which included the observation just above, that was delivered to Oak Bluffs town officials on January 28, by a group of consultants who came to town under the auspices of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), to make recommendations on how to breathe new life into the beleaguered business district.

To underscore this point, the report contains images of a vibrant downtown Oak Bluffs from the early 20th century, which contrast greatly from present day photos of a Circuit Ave that’s clearly lost its spark.

The report made detailed suggestions about how the town can be made more inviting to visitors, more conducive to businesses and more accommodating to residents.

The report is the culmination of a process that began with a walking tour of the town by DHCD officials in late September, followed by a peer-to-peer review on December 3 by town planners, architects, bankers, and other professionals with a successful track record in town revitalization. The group, assembled by Emmy Hahn (DHCD) and Alice Boyd of Bailey Boyd Associates, 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.

Lost picture show

The “sameness” of retail shops on Circuit Ave, i.e. the numerous tee-shirt and sunglass shops, gave Circuit Ave a feel more Hampton Beach than Martha’s Vineyard, the report said. More crucially, it said that while the renovation of Dreamland Ballroom was a shining example of what Oak Bluffs could become, the two dilapidated movie theaters close by are more representative of what the downtown has become. It went on to say the theaters are eyesores that deter foot traffic and set an overall dour tone to the entrance of the town. To address this, the report suggested the creation of a redevelopment entity “with adequate financial resources to quickly act to ensure vacant structures do not become a drain on nearby merchants,” and/or a “blight ordinance” to penalize owners of buildings left to deteriorate.

The report did not note the “blight ordinance” that was drafted for, and subsequently withdrawn from, the November special town meeting warrant. At their last meeting, on January 28, the selectmen passed along the creation of the blight ordinance to the town planning board, with the hope of getting it on the warrant for the upcoming April town meeting. In a conversation with the Times, chairman of the planning board John Bedford said he was not optimistic that a blight ordinance would be properly vetted in time for this year’s annual town meeting.

Broaden shoulder seasons

“As with nearby Cape Cod, there is little reason Oak Bluffs should not be considered an alternative to other vacations for Christmas/New Years family gatherings and school vacation alternatives to ski country,” the report states. At the December 3 peer-to-peer meeting, Dennis town planner Dan Fortier said that given the historic ties between Oak Bluffs and the African American community, the town could be an ideal destination in February for Black History Month. The Chili Festival was cited as a shining example of how to attract business in the off-season. “This one event reinforces many of our talking points, promote the off-season, use social media, and people will come.”

The report emphasized, repeatedly, the value of social media as an inexpensive and effective way to reach potential off-Island visitors and to direct them to Oak Bluffs businesses when they’re on the Island. It also suggested that providing free wi-fi downtown would encourage people to stay for longer periods of time.

It was also recommended that the town explore the possibility of extending the Steamship Authority (SSA) runs into the Oak Bluffs terminal deeper into the shoulder seasons, and possibly year-round.

The Times asked SSA executive director Wayne Lamson about the feasibility of the idea. “The last few years, there’s been talk about opening earlier in the spring,” said Mr. Lamson. “It’s always a possibility, but you have to justify the expense of splitting the crews and operating two terminals. Right now, it’s not cost-effective. In the winter, you’d have a lot of trips diverted to Vineyard Haven because of weather. It would also make it much more difficult to handle standby effectively.”

Be more welcoming

“Overall, the town needs to reconsider how the visitor is first greeted when arriving at the ferries,” the report states. “The concept of place is missing one arrives at the Oak Bluffs terminal area. The visitor is first greeted by a sea of asphalt. The first public building encountered is the Police Station, which does not send a ‘Welcome to Oak Bluffs message.’”

Lack of signage, “wayfaring” in urban planning argot, is cited repeatedly as a major deficiency. People getting off the ferries at the harbor and at the SSA terminal are given no direction to the downtown area or any specific destinations in town. “Despite its role as a major tourism destination, the lack of clear and useful orientation signage is striking,” the report states. It also said that the town can be made more pedestrian friendly by installing more benches and shaded areas.

It was again suggested that the town use social media and quick response (QR) codes to guide visitors around town and to reach them on the boat before they arrive. This could also help direct visitors to “lost architectural wonders,” like the Flying Horses, which the report describes as lost behind parked vehicles.

The report did not note that the town recently secured funding to construct a new boardwalk and seawall along North Bluff, which will connect Oak Bluffs Harbor and the Steamship Authority terminal. According to town administrator Robert Whritenour, the new boardwalk will enhance the pedestrian experience for disembarking visitors and should help guide traffic flow from the harbor to the downtown area.

The report also suggested the town make Circuit Avenue a completely pedestrian thoroughfare on an experimental basis by blocking off the street with portable planters. This could be done between 10 am and 2 pm on weekdays, or any hours or days of the week the town deems appropriate. It also suggested changing the existing diagonal parking pattern to a parallel parking pattern to give more room to pedestrians on the narrow, sometimes crumbling, sidewalks.

Zoning issues

“In general, the zoning [in the business district] is confusing and creates for a difficult path for new investment,” the report states. It cites as one onerous example where one change can require special permits that can trigger a review by the site plan review committee and special parking reviews by the planning board. “As if this level of review does not provide enough trepidation, projects may also trigger Martha’s Vineyard Commission Development of Regional Impact as well.”

The report also says that affordable housing for seasonal employees and residents is crucial to sustaining a healthy economy in downtown Oak Bluffs. It was suggested that greater emphasis be placed on developing residential “top of the shop” apartments over businesses in the downtown area. According to the report, this would also mean revising zoning laws that require dedicated parking spaces for downtown apartments, which would be physically impossible with the current regulations, without tearing down existing buildings.

The review board also recommended creation of a new “downtown zoning district,” a streamlined “one-stop” permitting process, and the establishment of architectural guidelines to promote the vision for the downtown and to reduce the regulatory hurdles.

Moving forward

The report stressed the importance of town officials engaging in discussion and the exchange of ideas with the townspeople by every means possible. It concluded, “This will not turn around overnight. As in other villages, the descent was long and slow. The climb back to prosperity need not be as long, but it will take time. Critical public/private discussions towards creation of a partnership must take place.”

The report’s last page had a reproduction of a painting depicting a Victorian era crowd filing into the original Dreamland ballroom — which is flanked by the Civil War statue on one side, and a bowling alley on the other.