Editorial : Bradley Square, absolutely yes
For a considerable stretch, including its intersection with Masonic Avenue, Dukes County Avenue in Oak Bluffs, as it runs south from its intersection with New York Avenue and the harbor and along Sunset Lake, is less prosperous looking than it ought to be. It's not at all the avenue its name suggests, though it could be. Indeed, significant parts of town, south and west of Circuit Avenue, offer promising neighborhood settings that, disappointingly, appear wilted and poorly tended, when the opposite ought to be the case.
And, it's not a story unique to this neighborhood in that town. A drive along Beach Road in Vineyard Haven reveals something similar: dreamy settings set back, really held back, by high taxes, benighted and smothering regulation, illusions posing as planning goals, and the consequent insufficient investment by property owners and by the town.
As is often the case, the leadership needed to transform such areas must come from neighbors, residents, and imaginative outsiders. Timid public officials aren't constitutionally equipped to do the job. That's why greater Dukes County Avenue is the arts district in Oak Bluffs. Oh, it's not the official Arts District, with a letter and number designation, such as B1 or R2. It's the creation of like-minded residents who wanted to make their neighborhood something more and better than it was, nicer to visit, to look at, to live in, and perhaps more prosperous and valuable.
Not all the neighbors, naturally. Who can expect everyone to see things the same way? But the art district was an idea that became a tender reality. It is young but could grow older, so that one day the town may name it and perhaps give it a letter and number on the zoning maps.
The Bradley Square development proposal builds on this good idea, really on the belief that a good idea is worth building on. It is a carefully constructed plan that acknowledges the character of the neighborhood, and not only the properties owned and occupied by the cadre of artists who live there. And the collaboration of Bradley Square developers proposes to enhance it. It is a sound, attractive, even elegant, proposal, whose development was comprehensive in its attention to the interests of neighbors and the community. It's challenging too, because it opens the way for other, fresh ideas to find a home in the same community. Which, by the way, is exactly what such neighborhoods in Oak Bluffs and elsewhere on the Vineyard need and might invite if carping, complaining, resisting change, and all these practiced ways of saying no and bleeding good ideas of their juice had not become the incessant and perfected Island art. For instance, why on earth should we reject non-native trees and plants which will flourish here, in favor of the familiar? Is this a plant museum we inhabit?
The Bradley Square project is a joint effort by the contractor John Early, a former Martha's Vineyard Commission member and long-time West Tisbury selectman, the Island Housing Trust Corporation, and the Island Affordable Housing Fund. The project includes affordable housing, historic preservation, the in-town mix of business and residential uses. The architecture, like the plan itself, is imaginative and innovative. The landscaping is smart and enhancing. The plan does not solve the neighborhood's traffic and parking problems. In-town density and mixed uses - both greatly admired by planners, land conservationists, and sustainability mavens - cannot reasonably be expected to solve such persistent and growing problems, as much good as they may do to slow growth in the less densely developed land elsewhere.
Besides their attractive vision, the developers of Bradley Square have a carefully refined and disciplined sense of the financial demands of this project, and the demands are considerable, even allowing for the significant subsidies which will underwrite this effort. Both because this effort has been a vast collaboration, not only among the developer organizations, but also among neighbors and associated interest groups, and because in the end the money has to come out right, the applicants for Martha's Vineyard Commission permission have made it clear that some changes sought by opponents, mainly focused on density and the size of the buildings, are not possible. Nor are they desirable. This is a good plan, a promising one for its neighborhood, for Oak Bluffs, and for the planning strategy that supports in-town, mixed-use development.