Let’s say you are a first-time visitor to the Island. Like most people, you take the ferry to Vineyard Haven. As you approach the Steamship Authority landing you are dazzled by the sight of well-kept waterfront houses, lawns tumbling down to the sea, and antique wooden sailboats lying at their moorings. This is more than you could have expected. This is quintessential New England.
But when you get off the ferry what awaits is culture shock of epic proportions: Whether by car, bike or on foot, you have hardly a choice but to travel the Island’s biggest eyesore — the infamous Beach Road. This main route to and from the Island’s port of entry should be a happy complement to the pristine harbor you just witnessed. But it’s the polar opposite — ugly, dilapidated, neglected, monumentally unfriendly to pedestrians and an imposing barrier to pedestrian access to the harbor. The stretch of road, with its tangle of overhead power lines, is quite simply the ugliest thing on the Island.
I can think of no better or more important thing to do for Martha’s Vineyard than to remedy this shameful and embarrassing situation.
There are two culprits in this debacle. The main one is a classic case of well-meaning but utterly misguided government regulation. In the mid 1990s voters approved new zoning regulations for the waterfront with the stated purpose of preserving Vineyard Haven’s working harbor. They say, in short, that everything within 100 feet of high water (which, as a practical matter, includes nearly everything on the harbor) must be “marine related,” thus ruling out such seemingly appropriate things as apartments, stores, eateries and hotel rooms. To add insult to injury, almost no parking is allowed, presumably to encourage walking and biking along the most hellish stretch of road on the Island. What were they thinking?
The folly of this is patently obvious. In the nearly 20 years since the new zoning was put in effect not one marine facility of any kind has been built or even proposed. Things just sit and deteriorate. Simply put, you cannot induce property owners to conform to government’s idea of appropriateness unless it is also in their private interest. The stagnation no doubt pleases the forces that oppose “development,” but it begs the question, why would a restaurant or some apartments along the water among the marinas and boatyards be such a bad thing?
The second culprit is inaction on the part of the legal steward of Beach Road — the Massachusetts Highway Department. It so happens that, after literally decades of neglect, the Highway Department has begun the process of planning certain improvements, including wider sidewalks and a bike path. This work involves taking property by eminent domain and moving the power lines to make way for the sidewalks. In short the State is about to spend a boatload of money on Beach Road. We need to step up and insist that we get more than half a loaf. Unless we wisely and closely monitor the State’s plans they will do a rote and minimal job. Unless the power lines are not just moved, but put underground we will miss a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Now is the time to piggy-back on the momentum provided by this serendipitous undertaking and repeal our counter-productive zoning law and replace it with less draconian, and more practical zoning aimed at preserving the existing marine uses but at the same time encouraging in-fill with apartments, offices, shops, restaurants and inns and yes, parking to serve these uses. Unless we change the zoning we can build sidewalks and bike paths and all the rest but we will still be stuck with a derelict Beach Road.
If we can accomplish all the above, then our only job is to get out of the way and let private enterprise build the picturesque and accessible waterfront we deserve.
Sam Dunn is the architect and builder, among many other projects, of Tisbury Marketplace on Beach Road, Saltwater Restaurant and MV Film Center in the Marketplace, and the renovations of Woodland Center on State Road. His latest project is a bowling alley/entertainment center in Oak Bluffs.