Parking and traffic continue to bedevil downtown Tisbury

Planning board members past and present said it’s necessary to look at how the downtown area functions as a whole.

Photo by Michael Cummo

More than a year ago, Tisbury planners envisioned making significant changes to the Tisbury Water Street parking lot, in conjunction with a proposal by Stop and Shop to rebuild its moribund market building. Opposition to the Stop and Shop proposal and the company’s decision to withdraw from the permitting process left parking lot plans wilting on the shelf.

Despite a 2007 reconfiguration, the lot, sandwiched between the Stop and Shop and police department, continues to suffer from serious traffic congestion, especially during the summer months when ferry traffic is heavy. Cars pull in and out of the upwardly slanted parking spaces, while drivers search for an open space. Many stop and wait at the slightest sign of an opening, causing cars to back up in a line.

Add to the mix heavy pedestrian and bicycle traffic, a public bathroom in the “comfort area” at the far end of the parking lot, and a bicycle rack wedged between a sign and a telephone pole near the lot exit next to the Stop and Shop entrance.

The parking lot was reconfigured in 2007 based on a design by former planning board co-chairman Henry Stephenson. Critics point to tight turning radiuses, particularly for pickup trucks, and confusing two-way traffic patterns. Eight years after the redesign, Mr. Stephenson said he thinks it was a “partial success.”

“It improved it visually, and it improved it functionally in a lot of ways, but it didn’t add to the parking; in fact it reduced it somewhat,” Mr. Stephenson said in a telephone conversation. “So that was sort of the tradeoff. Also I think the final design was a little different from the original plans. The parking got a little more constricted than it was intended to be. There were problems with it ultimately, the way the pieces came together. We could have done better on that.”

He said the main issue with the parking lot is the overlay of of interests, from Stop and Shop to downtown businesses and the ferry. He thinks at this point the issue lies with how the downtown area as a whole functions, rather than one parking lot. He pointed out that all the streets from downtown run toward the ferry.

“It’s essentially a roach motel,” he said. “You can get in but you can’t get out.”

Mr. Stephenson would like to see better use made of the park and ride lot. Reversing the direction of Union Street, now a one-way toward the ferry terminal, would allow for a more efficient shuttle service between the park and ride and downtown, he said.

“If you could make that work, you can add to the total count without overcrowding an already overcrowded situation,” Mr. Stephenson said. “Or if you’re a senior citizen and you want to go to the senior center and ride in and out of town without having to drive and look for a parking spot, it’s convenient to do that.”

He would also like to see better use of the former fire station lot. “What you really want is some more bike and pedestrian and park-like space that connects you to the Veterans Park, but that wouldn’t stop you from having a smaller parking area there for about 20 cars or so,” he said. “Right now it’s kind of just nothing, it’s just a big raw space left over from when they tore the firehouse down.”

He thinks paid parking would also ease congestion and deter people from parking for days while they travel off-Island. “How you do that is a hard question; not everybody wants that,” he said.

At this point, he can see the necessity to revisit the 2007 design.

“I think an update to the parking lot is necessary, but I think that there are an array of considerations, so when you update it you want to have an understanding of how the parking in and out of downtown overall is supposed to work,” Mr. Stephenson said. “Whether or not some of these things can actually work — can you really redirect Union Street, can you really put in a shuttle bus, can you charge for parking downtown or not — then you can decide, you know, maybe we should redo the parking lot this way instead of that way, and take into account bikes and pedestrians while you’re at it.”

Union Street redirected

In January 2014 Tisbury was considering a new design of the Water Street parking lot to include more vegetation, wider lanes, safer access for bicyclists and pedestrians, and more parking spaces as key elements. At that time, Stop and Shop proposed consolidating three abutting properties and building a new two-story market, and agreed to include the parking lot redesign and foot the bill as part of the project.

The supermarket proposed a new two-story, 30,000-square-foot market, nearly doubling the size of the current store. It would have included a 42-spot parking lot in an enclosed 16,500-square-foot garage on the ground level, and a loading area at the rear, fronting on the town parking lot. Stop and Shop offered to build a restroom in its building in exchange for removing the town comfort station as a way to free up space for delivery trucks in the municipal lot. The proposal was withdrawn due to concerns over the size, scope, and design of the project, among other issues. The nine-member town parking lot planning and design committee and the Water Street parking lot redesign went down with it.

Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande said the 2014 redesign was contingent on funding from Stop and Shop, which was lost when the market-expansion project fell through. He said the current focus is on better maintaining the existing lot.

“There is a demand for parking, and we created parking to alleviate some of that demand,” he said. “It’s temporary parking and it’s leased parking over at the old fire station site. It’s a traditional village development pattern, so we don’t have any real additional room to create parking in the downtown.”

He said Union Street will be redirected to run away from the ferry and toward Main Street on a trial basis, likely for the last two weeks of September. The trial will be implemented to see if the redirection can improve traffic flow in the downtown area and relieve congestion at the Five Corners intersection, as proposed by the Tisbury traffic safety committee (Police Lt. Eerik Meisner, selectman Tristan Israel, and planning board chairman Dan Seidman).

Mr. Grande added, “The only thing we’re looking at as a permanent improvement is the old fire station site and the prospect of creating connectivity from Cromwell Lane to the fire station site across to the bike trail path.”

Seasonal effect

Tisbury planning board chairman Dan Seidman said that there is the possibility the Water Street parking lot design will be revisited sometime in the future. He said issues with traffic and parking downtown depend on seasonality and time of day.

“There’s times of the day when you can go right through Five Corners and it’s not a problem,” he said. That changes when a ferry arrives, he said, and traffic backs up as drivers arriving and departing clog the roadway.

He said that in some ways the town is playing catch-up. “We’re working with, for lack of a better word, an antiquated town setup,” Mr. Seidman said. “This town was set up in the 1800s. It’s not going to function like a brand new town starting from scratch.”

He said the redesign of the steamship parking area and improved policing have helped with traffic in that area this summer.

“I believe by adding that second booth and manning it during peak hours, and taking out that little front section, which was used more by people going to Stop and Shop than by people getting picked up and dropped off, that it does seem to help with the traffic,” he said. “And also the police seem to be more on top of the situation both at where the boats come in and also at Five Corners, and that seems to be helpful.”

He’s not sure if redirecting Union Street will be helpful or harmful.

“Until we do it, I don’t know what the unintended consequences are,” Mr. Seidman said. “Traffic has to go somewhere, right? Whether or not dividing up that traffic works or not, I just don’t know.”

Mr. Seidman said that ultimately if a sufficient number of people thought traffic or parking was something to pursue, the planning board could revisit designs, and see if there is town support.