Oak Bluffs downtown reboot gains momentum

Final public hearing with urban-planning consultants ends on an upbeat note.

Possible improvements to the North Bluff area include creating a small park, adding shade trees, and installing wayfaring signage and an information booth. — Photo courtesy of Horsley Witten

It’s a rare occurrence when a public hearing in Oak Bluffs, or in any town on the Island, ends with a robust round of applause from a packed house. But that’s exactly what happened at the conclusion of the most recent Oak Bluffs downtown revitalization confab organized by the Oak Bluffs downtown streetscape committee (OBDSC).

The 90-minute meeting marked the conclusion of Phase 1 of the downtown revitalization effort. It was the culmination of a year of community outreach and weekly meetings by the OBDSC, public visioning sessions, and two previous public hearings with Horsley Witten Group consultants, both of which drew overflow crowds at the Oak Bluffs library meeting room.

Jon Ford, engineer and project leader with Horsley Witten Group, opened the proceedings with praise for the OBDSC and for the Oak Bluffs community at large.

“I’ve never seen such a high degree of involvement in a town of this size,” he said. “My hat’s off to the downtown streetscape committee. They’ve done a wonderful job of outreach to the town, in person and on social media. Over 1,700 Facebook followers is very impressive.” Mr. Ford also noted there were already visible improvements in the downtown area, in particular the public bathrooms and the Strand theater. “We want to build on this momentum,” he said.

The information gleaned during the yearlong planning and outreach effort led consultants to recommend focusing on three areas — the North Bluff area in the harbor and Circuit Avenue Extension; Circuit and Kennebec Avenues; and wayfaring, e.g. signage that helps pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers find their way around town.

North Bluff park

The North Bluff is already slated for substantial improvement with a $5.6 million construction project, due to be completed by end of June 2016, that will buttress the crumbling seawall and create a boardwalk that will connect the harbor to the Steamship Authority ferry terminal. Mr. Ford showed site plans and sketches of the North Bluff area that would dramatically transform the asphalt acreage with its shadeless, spartan waiting areas, and bring order to traffic flow described as “barely controlled chaos.” New site plans showed added pocket parks and trees that shade clearly delineated waiting areas. “This way, people’s first impression of the town will be a park, not a line of buses,” he said. An oft-repeated word in the Horsley Witten Group presentation was “flexibility.” “Flexibility is a key component in all of our recommendations,” Mr. Ford said. “You can delineate waiting areas and pedestrian crosswalks with paint. Planters can define vehicular and pedestrian boundaries, and they can be adjusted easily. The term ‘master plan’ is misleading. This plan is the current vision that’s going to be a living document over time.”

The list of possible improvements for Circuit Avenue Extension, one of two roads that lead to town from the North Bluff area, started with a very simple idea: Change the name. “We found a lot of support for changing the name to Harbor Way,” Mr. Ford said. “Circuit Avenue Extension is very unpoetic.” Site plans showed how painted pedestrian lanes and planters, as opposed to more costly traditional sidewalks, could create a clear path from the Island Queen to the Island theater.

As things stand, a new and improved “Harbor Way” would still lead ferry passengers to the unwelcoming eyesore of the Island theater. Mr. Ford said a mural or a painted scrim could cover the unsightly exterior wall, and could be changed from time to time. “We did this with a parking structure at Mass. General, and it was very effective,” he said. “You have a very strong arts community here. You can embrace that in many ways.” Art installations at town entrances, uniquely sculptural bicycle racks, festively painted pedestrian crossings, and aesthetically pleasing temporary signage are also ways the artistic mien of the town could effect positive change at minimal cost.

Change a challenge on Circuit Avenue

“We’ve never worked with an old New England town that didn’t have parking issues,” Mr. Ford said. Outreach data showed the lack of parking and the narrow, grungy sidewalks are the biggest concerns about the town’s de facto main street. While the North Bluff area is essentially a blank slate, the potential for change on Circuit and Kennebec Avenues is much more limited. “We looked at widening the sidewalks by changing to parallel parking, and we heard loud and clear what you thought about that,” Mr. Ford said, eliciting a ripple of laughter from the room. Without a change in parking orientation, the potential for widening the sidewalks on Circuit Avenue is extremely limited. However, removing the current sidewalk and replacing it with painted “pedestrian lanes,” similar to those on “Harbor Way,” could create more room to roam. Painted pedestrian lanes could also create a continuous walkway on fragmented Kennebec Avenue. Tweaks to Healy Square, “the heart of the downtown,” included moving trees from the center to the edges so they “frame” the view rather than blocking it, and expanding the square with a “bump-out” into Circuit Avenue. The area would be designated by planters and paint, and would create more outdoor seating. New loading zones would be created on each side of the bump-out, according to the plan. While the suggested changes for Circuit Avenue would consume seven valuable parking spaces, changes on upper Kennebec Avenue could create four new spaces and a change from parallel parking to diagonal parking at the harbor could add at least 15 spaces, overall netting the downtown 12 new parking spaces. Another inexpensive, immediately actionable way to create more parking downtown is a coordinated program by merchants to discourage employees from taking up Circuit Avenue spaces.

Looking for a sign

There was a strong consensus among townspeople and consultants that the signage, also known as wayfaring, is a glaring deficiency in downtown Oak Bluffs. “It starts when people get off the boat,” Mr. Ford said. “Right now, when someone gets off the Island Queen, they have no idea where the downtown is, or where the Campground is.” The primary goal of a new wayfaring program would be to create clear linkages, for cars and pedestrians, between the North Bluff, Circuit and Kennebec Avenues, Ocean Park, and the Camp Meeting Association. Mr. Ford said that signage could be done on a temporary basis and tweaked over time before permanent signs, “historical in nature” are installed. Temporary signage was cited as another opportunity to embrace the local arts community.

On to Phase 2

“In my opinion, the next step is for the planning board to discuss the information that came out of this,” planning board chairman and OBDSC member Brian Packish told The Times. “We’re going to source some funding for a design phase; Alice Boyd will look for grants, and we’ll get the selectmen, the Parks Department, and anyone who cares about this effort involved. I’m very optimistic moving forward. Without the immense support of the community, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Ms. Boyd told The Times that $110,000 of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding has already been allocated for engineering plans. State and federal funds require a plan to be “shovel ready,” meaning the engineering has been done and the project can go out to bid.

“They did a tremendous job in the first phase; now the community and the selectmen have to decide what they want to tackle first,” Ms. Boyd said.

Fred Hancock, chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), one of several MVC commissioners in attendance, said he was impressed with the efforts of the OBDSC. “Their level of community outreach was outstanding. It clearly made a big difference,” he told The Times. “By taking on a big plan in phases, change can happen more quickly. As people see things improve, the effort will gain more momentum.” Mr. Hancock said that the MVC will not play a regulatory role in the downtown revitalization, but will act in a consulting capacity when requested.