The Oak Bluffs select board put the kibosh on hopes to maintain diagonal parking at the north end of Circuit Avenue by accepting a construction bid for the town’s wide-reaching streetscape project.
At the board’s meeting Tuesday, the project came down to another close 3-2 vote, with board members Brian Packish, Ryan Ruley, and Jason Balboni voting to accept the bid and board members Gail Barmakian and Emma Green-Beach voting against.
Board members gave the public another opportunity to discuss the parking issue, and mulled over postponing the vote to accept the bid.
Ruley said he didn’t know what waiting another month would do at this point. “Delaying it a week is going to do nothing more than continue the emotional back-and-forth, and I don’t want to do that anymore,” Ruley said.
Ruley moved to accept the bid with the condition that an oversight committee advise the select board on details of the project.
Balboni said the world is moving toward pedestrian- and bike-friendly roads, and away from cars and carbon dioxide emissions. He said the town should move forward with the project. “We have too many cars on Martha’s Vineyard; that’s not going to change,” Balboni said. “There’s never going to be enough parking spaces down there, but there’s definitely not enough sidewalk down there.”
Conversely, Barmakian said it was completely within the board’s power to not accept the Lawrence Lynch bid.
“Your other avenue is to reject this bid, which we can do in the best interest of this town,” Barmakian said. “This town is [divided] over this, but one of the fundamental mistakes is that we didn’t allow this to go to ballot, which it could. If it went to ballot and the vote came out either way, I think you would lose a lot of that divisiveness.”
She added that she was “taken aback” that the discussion and possible vote of the project was even on Tuesday’s agenda, given the large public response at the special town meeting.
“There’s an elephant in the room of how we respond, if at all, to the outpouring of people, the whole issue with the project leading up to Tuesday’s town meeting,” she said. “Not giving the public any choice at all, it’s pretty insulting.”
Green-Beach said she voted no because she would have preferred another week to think over the project, but said the decision to move forward with the bid was a good decision.
Lawrence Lynch Corp. was one of 15 contractors that pulled applications for the project, but was the sole bidder, with a bid of $1.65 million to complete the Circuit Avenue portion of the project.
The Circuit Avenue portion is one piece of the town’s downtown streetscape project, funded by $2.7 million approved by voters at the 2020 town meeting.
The streetscape project focuses on Circuit Avenue North, Circuit Avenue South, Kennebec Avenue, Healey Square, and a portion of Lake Avenue. Designs and engineering were vetted by committees and public hearings, but the select board was nearly split when it voted 3-2 to approve the design. There has been almost unanimous praise and support for most of the project, which will include new widened sidewalks, trashcans, streetlights, and crosswalks, provide accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and redesigns Healey Square to get a brand-new look by removing the large planters at both ends and creating a sightline through to Ocean Park.
But plans to switch diagonal parking spaces on the northern end of Circuit Avenue in front of the Ritz and Giordano’s Restaurant to parallel parking spaces has ignited debate in town.
A cohort of parallel parking opposers filled a special town meeting last week to vote on a petition article that called for a ballot vote in the spring to decide the fate of parking on Circuit Avenue, but town counsel and the town moderator told the public the petition article was not legal, therefore making any vote moot. The moderator took a straw poll, which overwhelmingly rejected parallel parking on the busy Oak Bluffs street.
There were members of the public both in support and in strong opposition to the project.
Rich Weiss, a member of the town’s finance and advisory committee, said the wider sidewalks and parallel parking came as a surprise even to streetscape committee members.
“This is such a fundamental change to Circuit Ave. that everyone has known and grown up with,” Weiss said. “We feel like people on the select board should maybe try to recognize the process with the committee for something that would fundamentally change Circuit Ave. maybe should have been a ballot question. I hate to think it’s too late to go in that direction.”
Rebecca Everett said she thought that such a large project should be decided by ballot vote.
“I’m blindsided,” Everett said. “I hope you would respect the townspeople enough to put it to a written vote.”
Parks commissioner and former streetscape committee member Amy Billings said she was “flat-out against” parallel parking.
“People are being heard, but they’re not being acknowledged. You can listen to us complain all you want, but none of you have spoken back to us and tried to work this out,” Billings said. “Disappointing is the least of my emotions right now.”
Some were in favor of the change, including Nancy’s owner Doug Abdelnour. “There’s truly been seven years of this discussion, and at some point we need to make a decision to move forward. The overwhelming majority of businesses are in favor of this,” Abdelnour said. “I really hope you guys vote this through tonight, because every day that ticks by, it’s going to cost us more and more money.”
Kathy Laskowski said information on the streetscape project has been out and available for view. “To say you didn’t have a chance is really not fair,” she said. “I think it’s a good opportunity. I think we should be a pedestrian-friendly town.”
Ritz owner Larkin Stallings said the new sidewalks and parking would affect him significantly, but that he was in support of it.
After the board’s vote, Packish said he was “absolutely exhausted” from the process. “It’s been dozens upon dozens of this same meeting for a long, long time. As a person that’s been a part of this for eight years, every one of these, it drains you because you get the calls from the people that are against, that are for, all people you know, all people you respect, all people you want to support everyone’s position,” Packish said. “Unfortunately that’s just not possible from the seats that we sit in.”
Balboni added that he ran for the select board to do what’s best for the town. “I think we have to have general respect for people and treat each other the right way,” Balboni said. “I think being mean or nasty or degrading to people is not going to help anyone out in this process.”
Lawrence Lynch has 10 days from the board’s acceptance of the bid to begin construction. The project is expected to be completed in May.