No place to call home


It may require the imaginative talents of architect Rem Koolhaas and a willingness of tenants to sleep with an Ambien drip to insert a desirable residential experience into a lot that long ago relinquished its claim to livability to the commercial hustle and bustle that surrounds it. If suitability for human habitation is not an important characteristic of affordable rental housing on Martha’s Vineyard, it’s news to most of us. At a brainstorming session recently, the Island Housing Trust (IHT) was looking for the right combination of design attributes and parking spaces for a multi-unit apartment building to replace the crumbling former residence that now occupies the space between the Stop & Shop and a car rental garage on Water Street in Vineyard Haven. Most of the attendees agreed that parking for tenants is the big problem, that and squeezing whatever turns out to be the maximum number of small dwelling units into the space.

But, perhaps the real brain-baffler is whether the gift of the property, with conditions, from Steve Bernier, the owner of Cronig’s Markets, was actually an opportunity for IHT or a burden. Was IHT a beneficiary or a tool?

Mr. Bernier, Times writer Janet Hefler explains this morning, “purchased the property and donated it to IHT a year ago, with the understanding it would be used for affordable housing. Mr. Bernier said he bought the property to thwart plans announced in the spring of 2011 by Stop & Shop Supermarket Company to expand its Vineyard Haven store.”

Architect James Weisman, one of several who have expressed interest in conceiving a solution, identified the problem rather explicitly.

“I think,” he said, “one thing we have to recognize is that this property was given to the housing trust by someone who wanted to prevent a larger store as a competitor, and I think the housing trust has created an opportunity to amplify mixed use in Vineyard Haven by suggesting that this be residential. So it creates the conundrum of how do you create residential in an urban or a town area?”

The conundrum could very well be for IHT, how do we get out of the obligation that comes with this gift to isolate four or more modest income residents in a residentially hostile commercial environment. After all, mixed use development has some appeal. Woods Hole, whose geographic focus is the Eel Pond, combines dwellings with commerce and big, stimulating scientific operations, not to mention the to-ing and fro-ing of the Steamship Authority. In Vineyard Haven, apartments above retail shops have been happy confreres for decades. The same is true in Oak Bluffs. But the residential spaces are incorporated, they are not outliers. There’s some mixed use magic to it, not one, small 5,200-square-foot odd note.

The real imaginative opportunity is to find a way to renegotiate the Bernier poison pill to allow the lot to be sold by IHT for commercial purposes (parking perhaps) — but not to Stop & Shop, if Mr. Bernier insists. Then the proceeds might be used for other IHT rental projects that have a greater chance to make their inhabitants happy.