Editorial : Whither Bradley Square?
News this week that the Island Affordable Housing Fund,Island Housing Trust, and Habitat for Humanity of MV, the nonprofit organizations that have joined forces to develop Bradley Square, on Dukes County Avenue in Oak Bluffs, have placed the site on the market is distressing in multiple ways.
The decision reflects the impact of the struggle on the developers, who had thought to accomplish a goal they had every good reason to think would enhance both neighborhood and town, and to do so in accordance with their affordable housing missions. The effort over more than a year, in consultation with neighbors and town and regional officials, was conceived as a mechanism to broaden participation and support for the concept, as well as a way to solicit good design ideas from those who would eventually live with the built result. It worked. That design plan process, conducted diligently by the nonprofit developers, earned approval from the Martha's Vineyard Commission and substantial financial support from Oak Bluffs voters.
Nevertheless, hurdles remain, time passes, no Islanders requiring affordable shelter have been housed, and substantial money is spent monthly, not to build the project, but to keep it in the wings, in hopes that it will soon get to the building stage. Consequently, a substantial affordable housing effort, in the planning and approval process for nearly a year and a half, and now facing uncertain fate before the Oak Bluffs zoning board of appeals and then perhaps a legal assault from virulently opposed neighbors, bleeds funds it might otherwise put to good purpose.
This page has never argued that the views of neighborhood opponents of what may be called life changing projects, whose scope and impacts will certainly be significant, ought to be discounted. Indeed, they ought to be taken into account, as has been the case with the Bradley Square design and approval effort. But, ultimately, the views of neighbors, both opponents and supporters, must not govern entirely. What must govern is a broad agreement on the wisdom and value of a neighborhood-changing development such as this. We have already registered our enthusiasm for the project. It is handsomely designed. It promises to enhance and extend the efforts of some business and residential neighbors to improve, brighten and enliven a neighborhood that has been neglected and whose future is unclear. It is a plan that serves multiple interests, including housing, the arts, historic preservation, and the elevation in simple architectural quality that is at once in harmony with the neighborhood, and fresh and new.
Bradley Square also compares favorably with the Muckerheide affordable housing proposal, just down the street, large, barely designed, and unlikely to be approved as it is. The neighborhood, naturally enough, looks at the two at once. One large but thoughtfully and handsomely designed with the community in mind. The other large but haphazard in concept and apparently barren of any effort to harmonize with the neighborhood. Oak Bluffs has a chance to declare in favor of one, a model for what may be imagined for the neighborhood and elsewhere in town, and against the other as unworthy in its current form. Or, the town could declare itself inhospitable to either the wholesome or the negligible.
Are there legitimate questions? Of course there are. For instance, ought three nonprofit organization to have set out to satisfy such an array of objectives as have been designed into this project? Does it ever make sense to subsidize affordable housing to the tune of $170,000 per unit, when more, well designed, single purpose housing might be undertaken on a $40,000 subsidy per unit basis? Should time ever be wasted in the effort to step up the stock of affordable housing, when a site and a project are not wholeheartedly embraced in the opening rounds of the effort? Would limited funds be put to more efficient use where they may be deployed more or less instantly? And, apart from master plan dreams, do town by town realities imagine and support such developments as Bradley Square - with sewering expansions, water line expansions, sidewalks, bike paths, public parking, public transport?
There is also the question of leadership. Apparently, among the five Oak Bluffs selectmen, one, Ron DiOrio, has been a vigorous supporter of the project. Another, Kerry Scott, has opposed it. The other three have not stepped up to their leadership responsibilities to consider this project and its promise for their town and to encourage or discourage the developers, as they may. Now is the time - and it's late in the game - for each of these officials to take an unambiguous stand.
Finally, it is apparent that the Bradley Square developers have been assaulted by a small, semi-organized band of opponents. It has been shocking and painful for them, but it is unsurprising really. If Vineyard development debates may be characterized in any way, they may be credited with a free swinging viciousness that ought not to advance the positions of the critics, but often, sadly, does. The question for Oak Bluffs - for the selectmen, the zoning board of appeals, for voters as a whole - is whether Bradley Square is a step forward for the town and the neighborhood. If it is, as we believe, now is the time for leaders and townspeople to put themselves forward on behalf of this project.