Bradley Square plan sparks conflict
Organizers of the Bradley Square affordable housing proposal in Oak Bluffs will return to a continued public hearing before the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) next week with a modified proposal, reducing the original plan from 12 units to 11, increasing the amount of on-site parking, and preserving some of the trees. The public hearing is scheduled for Thursday, May 22, at 7:30 pm.
The project has sparked sharp opposition from some property owners in the informal "arts district." Sharp questions from several Martha's Vineyard Commission commissioners reviewing the project indicate it has some steep regulatory hurdles to overcome.
Underlying the debate over affordable housing is a strong current of friction in the neighborhood among long-time residents, and newer, arts-oriented businesses that compete for street parking, open space, and peace of mind in the densely settled neighborhood. The festering ill will has left housing advocates and town officials frustrated, neighborhood property owners angry, and the many families who need affordable homes waiting.
A partnership of affordable housing advocates, including the Island Affordable Housing Fund, and the Island Housing Trust, outlined their latest proposal in an informal session with the Martha's Vineyard Commission's land use planning committee on Tuesday. The $5.1 million mixed use development is planned for the historic Denniston property at the corner of Dukes County Avenue and Masonic Avenue. The revised plan would include two market rate units, and nine affordable units. Buyers would qualify based on their income, at prices ranging from $150,000 to $325,000. Four of the affordable units would be designed as studio spaces where artists might live and work, as well as display and sell their creations. Because of this and other proposed uses, project organizers may need zoning variances. Also included in the plan is relocation and restoration of the dilapidated structure that now occupies the lot. The building once housed Bradley Memorial Church, the first primarily African-American church on the Vineyard. It was also the home of the late Rev. Oscar K. Denniston, a prominent and respected local minister. The refurbished building would include a community center and office space.
Residents of the neighborhood, which has been identified in recent years by signs and other promotions as the "arts district," are sharply split on the Bradley Square proposal. While many actively support the project, Patricia Tankard, a retired resident of Dukes County Avenue, is opposed. "The problem lies in the establishment of an Art District, which consists of multiple small businesses that do not have sufficient on site parking to accommodate their patrons," wrote Ms. Tankard in a letter to the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
"I feel it needs to be scaled down," said Ms. Tankard, speaking by phone with The Times earlier this week. "In the summer, it's like a fight for parking spaces. They need to look at the bigger picture." She also voiced objection to singling out one profession for affordable housing. "Do we do it for teachers, do we do it for plumbers, do we do it for anybody else? No." asked Ms. Tankard. "It's not like we're saying affordable for families, it's an occupation. It's very shortsighted."
That view, echoed by several others, baffles artists and others who believe their galleries are a benefit to the area.
"I've lived in the neighborhood for 14 years," said Holly Alaimo, proprietor of the Dragonfly Gallery. "The group that has stirred this up is really opposed to the arts district. Their opposition seems totally unrealistic to me. Either they're opposed to affordable housing, or they just can't grasp change."
Thaw Malin III, a well-known painter who lived on Martha's Vineyard for three decades, is the kind of person the affordable "live/work" spaces are designed for. He says after several years of shuffling between winter and summer apartments and studios, he moved to Texas in 2005. He says he and his wife, a jewelry maker, could no longer afford the costs, or the disruption.
"We got to the point that we realized we were wasting more than a month just packing and unpacking. The summer rents are too high to get a studio space at the same time."
He is also concerned about density in the neighborhood. "I was worried about the parking too, it initially didn't look like they were allowing enough. I can understand where the old-time neighbors there would be upset, especially with gallery openings."
Several backers of the project contend that the crux of the dispute is competition for commercial use of property and resources. Some of those who are most vociferous in their opposition were involved in various offers and negotiation to sell their own property to the affordable housing developers.
"I have been appalled at the lack of respect and integrity shown to the abutters and residents in the neighborhood," wrote Don Muckerheide in a letter to the Martha's Vineyard Commission. He also accused backers of waging a political campaign of disinformation. He wrote that some property owners have been "subjected to lowball insulting offers for their homes, so low you would have to leave the Island, and treated as if their quality of life is irrelevant."
Mr. Muckerheide has proposed a separate condominium development on his property at 114 and 116 Dukes County Avenue. His design includes two on-site parking spaces for each of the proposed 10 units, and he says it complies with all current zoning regulations.
"Why is this (Bradley Square) project exempt?" said Mr. Muckerheide to the Times this week. "It sounds like four more mini-galleries for the neighborhood. Where are you going to park? That project is going to affect the business community on this street forever. Everybody else has to size their business according to what fits. They're consuming all of the off street parking in the entire neighborhood. Future growth in the legitimate (commercial) properties is going to be more difficult."
Taylor Montgomery owns property on Warwick Avenue that directly abuts the proposed development. "While it is clear that the basic intent of this project is well meant, too much of a good thing can be bad for a neighborhood as a whole," wrote Mr. Montgomery in a letter to the commission. "Maximum density is not appropriate to our Island community."
Backers of the proposal are clearly frustrated at the opposition from neighbors.
Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust, is concerned that there is some sentiment on the Martha's Vineyard Commission to reduce the size of the project. He says that could make the project impossible to build.
"We do not overinflate the numbers with density," said Mr. Jordi. "We don't go in high, expecting to compromise. That's what a lot of developers do. It's not the way we work. Reducing the proposal's size at this point would mean additional financial conditions.
Mr. Jordi says backers are committed to raise $1.7 million to subsidize the project. Oak Bluffs town meeting voters authorized $400,000 from Community Preservation Act funds for the project at their annual town meeting in April.
"The project we're presenting," said Patrick Manning of the Island Affordable Housing Fund, "is more than fair, and also the only project that is financially sustainable." He says eliminating half of the proposed units would reduce construction costs, but not the price of the land. "It's the land cost that drives any project. Whether it's a for-profit project, or affordable housing, it's all about the land cost."
The developers see the proposal as a responsible effort to preserve an historic property, create community space, and provide affordable housing. In response to questions from the Martha's Vineyard Commission, they say that current zoning regulations would allow removal of more trees, demolition of the Denniston building, and construction of four to five three-story buildings totaling 28,000 square feet.