Donna Leon and Susan Phillips, co-owners of Phillips Hardware, and architect Chuck Sullivan went before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) last Thursday to present their plan to demolish the existing 8,500-square-foot building and replace it with a three-story, 18,000-square foot mixed-use building, with “top-of-the-shop” apartments. It was the first public hearing for the project, which is under review by the regional permitting body as a development of regional impact (DRI).
The building at 30 Circuit Avenue was originally built as the Oakwood Hotel in 1880. In 1928, Phillips Hardware store began operations on the first floor, with the family living above.
Mr. Sullivan showed the commission the exterior plans of the new building, designed to evince the spirit of the Oakwood Hotel. The updated interior would better serve the hardware concern, and the apartments, which they plan to rent year-round, would serve to provide much-needed rental housing in Oak Bluffs. Ideally the Phillips owners would like to build four two-bedroom and four one-bedroom apartments on the third floor, replacing 15 Lilliputian apartments, some still with the original gaslight fittings, that are now used as storage spaces. The new 5,000-square-foot basement would replace the current 290-square-foot basement, and more than compensate for the loss of third-floor storage.
The owners intend to keep some of the units for employee housing, which will satisfy the MVC affordable housing requirement.
“It’s two blocks from a hub of public transportation, two blocks from the Steamship dock; it’s a great location for smart growth,” MVC DRI analyst Paul Foley said.
MVC executive director Adam Turner asked how construction and demolition will be staged and how the work will impact the neighborhood.
Mr. Sullivan said that to minimize the disruption on Circuit Avenue parking and traffic, the Reliable Market parking lot will be the staging area. Demolition and excavation will require seven spaces; construction will take up four spaces. “They’re in general agreement. It’s just working out some of the details and some of the dates,” Mr. Sullivan said.
After a lengthy discussion that underscored the vagaries of “top of the shop” zoning bylaws in Oak Bluffs, the commission voted to keep the comment period open until the next DRI public hearing on Thursday, Oct. 6.
Mr. Sullivan told the commission that the 12-bedroom plan has been approved by the wastewater commission. However, building inspector Mark Barbadoro recently informed them that town bylaw limits them to three apartments.
“Three apartments with 12 beds doesn’t make any sense,” Mr. Sullivan said.
The “Conversion of Existing Three-Story Building to Apartment Units” states that an existing three-story building “may be converted to apartments with a maximum of three apartments for the first 5,000 square feet of lot area, and one additional apartment unit for each additional 1,000 square feet of lot area.” The bylaw also stipulates that each unit has at least one off-street parking space — not a practical consideration in the heart of parking-challenged Circuit Avenue.
“Under the current zoning we could do ‘hotel use,’ which would allow the eight units, but would limit the term of that rental to six months per calendar year,” Mr. Sullivan said. “So we’re submitting the original plan, with eight units, and hope the zoning will get changed, or through 40B, which wouldn’t limit us to six-month leases.”
40B allows developers to bypass local zoning restrictions when providing affordable housing in communities where 10 percent or more of the housing units are not designated for low- and moderate-income housing. Oak Bluffs is at 5.6 percent, according to the 2015 housing inventory done by the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA).
“40B takes quite a bit of time,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Our hope is that in April, there will be some changes to the bylaw.” Mr. Sullivan said that the new store and the shell of the building will be the first phase of construction, and that the apartments wouldn’t be built for at least another year after the store is completed.
It will be a long row to hoe for the hardware merchants. Mr. Sullivan said that the permitting process has pushed demolition to next year, as close to Columbus Day as possible. “The building permit is contingent on the fire-sprinkler plan, which is contingent on the structural plan, which is contingent on the fixture plan. We’re trying to limit the amount of money that is invested in this project, prior to having permits, and you guys are the first step.”
The size of the new Phillips Hardware building harkens to the “Cottage City” era, when Circuit Avenue was lined with three- and four-story Victorian hotels — which does not sit well with the owners of the Arcade Building, across the street.
Co-owner Laurence Hardoon read a letter from architect and fellow co-owner Donald Comer that concluded, “The size and the bulk of the building proposed for the Phillips Hardware site has the potential to adversely impact the essential qualities of the street and the district,” and he urged the MVC to move ahead cautiously, “move us toward a mutually beneficial synthesis.”
Mr. Hardoon said he and his partners invested a great deal of money to restore the Arcade Building, which is the only building on Circuit Avenue on the National Register of Historic Places. “It was the first commercial building on Circuit Avenue,” he said. “We have some concerns. This project is literally in our back yard, so to speak.”
Mr. Hardoon said in addition to concerns about traffic and noise, the Arcade will lose its view of Ocean Park. “This has never been closed off in the entire history of the building, as this enormous project proposes to do,” he said.
Mr. Hardoon also said the plan to expand to the size of the former Oakwood Hotel would be out of character with present-day Circuit Avenue. “The reality of big large boxy buildings on Circuit Avenue is not part of the character of the street anymore,” he said. “It will actually degrade the character of the street.”
Mr. Hardoon also said that approval of the new building would set a precedent on Circuit Avenue: “How do you say no to the Corner Store if they want to add three more stories to their building?”
“This is exactly what was recommended by the Streetscape Committee, top-of-the-shop housing, with the hopes that you will rent to people who don’t have cars and can walk to work,” Oak Bluffs business owner Amy Billings said.
Ms. Billings is also a Streetscape Committee member, and the parks commissioner for the town. The Western Auto store on Circuit Avenue has been in her family for over 50 years. “I think it’s encouraging that they are finally going to clean up the building. I wish I could do something with my building, because it’s another eyesore in Oak Bluffs. I would hope you approve this. It’s exactly what we need in Oak Bluffs.”
“Is there anything we can do to facilitate their permitting process, where we don’t discuss what happens other than the store and the overall square footage so they don’t get nickeled and dimed to death?” Trip Barnes, commissioner from Tisbury, said. “It’s a wonderful thing they’re doing here.
They’re trying to do the right thing. I think we should, as a board, try to ease them along.”
“It doesn’t look like they’ll be able to start construction until next year,” Fred Hancock, commissioner from Oak Bluffs, said. “I don’t think a few more weeks is going to hurt.”
Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Chuck Sullivan as Chuck Williams.