Soundings : Concerned citizens vs. the common good
Twenty-three years ago, a team of sociologists led by Robert Bellah, in a book entitled "Habits of the Heart," identified a new species of player on the American political scene: the "concerned citizen."
"Implicit in this designation," Bellah wrote, "is the idea that one can be a good citizen simply by being passively law-abiding, and that one need become actively involved in public issues only when one becomes concerned about threats to the interests of one's self and one's community."
We all know the type: the overnight activists who spring up, like mushrooms after a rain, to fight for their perceived interests, retreating to their reclining chairs when the battle is over.
Lately on Martha's Vineyard, the most common variety of concerned citizens jumping into the civic arena are those who begin by insisting, "I do believe in affordable housing" - and we all watch as the inevitable "but" limps toward us from the horizon.
It's almost too perfect that the group hastily organized against the Bradley Square project - the group that has accused the project's backers of being in it for selfish gain and predicted ruin to the neighborhood if this project is built in the form overwhelmingly approved by the Martha's Vineyard Commission - should call itself the Oak Bluffs Concerned Citizens Committee.
After sitting out a 15-month planning process that was remarkable for its transparency and openness, these Concerned Citizens are now rousing themselves to throw any available wrench into the gears - including threats of lawsuits - in an effort to derail one of the most exemplary community housing projects to come down the pike in years.
The sad predictability of these attacks on Vineyard affordable housing projects suggests that we're going beyond NIMBY and into the land of BANANA - build absolutely nothing, anywhere, near anything. But remember, say the opponents: we really, really do believe in affordable housing.
This flap over Bradley Square is difficult to decode, in part, because it's hard to know how much of it is about the substance of the plan and how much is about culture wars between the old-timers and a new generation of artsy types. (Consider, for example, the outrage at the fact that people were documented, on videotape, crossing streets during an arts district stroll carrying plastic glasses of pinot.)
There are rhetorical red herrings at every turn - the most tiresome of which, in my view, is the outcry over the innocent trees that will be slaughtered if Bradley Square is built. Give me an elm-sized break. But most misleadingly of all, the opposition to Bradley Square has tried to wrap itself in that most reasonable of all guises, the mantle of compromise.
Bradley Square is too much of a good thing, say the opponents - why not scale the project back a bit? And in a statesmanlike gesture on the night of a critical ZBA hearing, Richard Leonard, chairman of the Island Housing Trust, announced that his agency and the Concerned Citizens had agreed to enter into mediated talks in pursuit of a compromise.
I wish the parties to these talks all the best of luck. But I'm not hopeful, and here's why:
Because the central challenge of affordable housing is in the first word of the term, not the second. Housing on the Vineyard is abundant; it's the runaway prices that are gutting this community. To be specific, this is about the cost of land - in the case of Bradley Square, the cost was $905,000, and no amount of compromising at this point can change that number.
To make a project like Bradley Square work at a smaller scale, your only option is to toss in more subsidy - and I'm sure that if the Concerned Citizens stepped up to contribute, they'd be welcome to do so.
But if by "compromise," you mean simply reducing the number of housing units at Bradley Square from 11 to eight or nine, the effect will be exactly what the Edgartown ZBA achieved two years ago by trimming two houses from the Cozy Hearth project. That cut tipped the numbers from doable to un-doable, and killed the project.
The agencies behind Bradley Square recently put the property up for sale, not as a gesture of brinksmanship, but as a matter of financial prudence. All the design and planning costs already sunk into this project are unrecoverable, but there are monthly carrying costs, funds are limited, and there's so much important work to be done.
If the sole accomplishment of the Oak Bluffs Concerned Citizens is to kill the Bradley Square project, that would be a loss for the town, and an even greater setback for the Vineyard. Bradley Square embodies in many ways the sort of in-town, smart-growth project that incorporates good design, mixed use and even an element of historic preservation. In the real world, where nothing is ideal - okay, there's a parking problem - it has nearly all the qualities you could look for. The commissioners of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, in their 13-1 vote, saw this.
So if local politics can kill a project like Bradley Square, what does that say for the future of Martha's Vineyard?