Oak Bluffs talks of preserving, buying Bradley Square site

Nearly a year after the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF) abandoned the controversial Bradley Square mixed-use development in Oak Bluffs, town officials have taken steps that may lead to the town gaining control over the land and the historic building at the Masonic Avenue site. But, the town’s gain may mean a significant loss to IAHF.

The fund’s executive director, Ewell Hopkins, contends that the maneuvering depresses the value of the property, delaying or preventing offers that IAHF hopes to entertain from several potential buyers. The fund put the property up for sale to recoup part of its $1.2 million investment in the affordable housing project.

At its meeting last month, the Cottage City Historic District Commission moved to incorporate the property into the district where it now has jurisdiction.

The commission completed a preliminary study and submitted its request to the Massachusetts Historic Commission. Commissioners scheduled a public hearing in March to gather testimony on the proposal. In the legal advertisement, the commission describes the land as parcels 193 and 195. Those parcels are the site of the ill-fated Bradley Square project. The building on that property housed the first African-American church on Martha’s Vineyard and was also the family home of the Rev. Oscar Denniston. The building has been vacant for nearly three decades.

Value shopping

Frustrated and worried at the move to amend the boundaries of the Cottage City district, Mr. Hopkins says such actions blunt the efforts of IAHF to shed the property and its underlying mortgage.

“That’s causing any kind of offers in February or March not to happen,” Mr. Hopkins said. “Anyone in their right mind is going to wait until that hearing.”

He said he reached out to every Oak Bluffs board with an interest in the property, but received little response.

“I am tremendously frustrated by the lack of cooperation I’m experiencing from the town of Oak Bluffs, to attempt to establish a true market value for this property, so it can be determined what the options are for the town of Oak Bluffs and what are the responsibilities of the fund.

“We are the owners, we have responsibility. The town has greater interest and greater good concerns about the property, and we’re not talking to each other. I have reached out to every town body that I could, to determine how we can better work together.”

Mr. Hopkins said he is certain he would have received offers on the property, but the town’s new involvment concerns potential buyers.

Commission members dispute the suggestion that a historic designation would devalue the property.

“That’s a logic I don’t understand,” Dave Wilson, chairman of the Cottage City Historic District Commission, said. “Generally historic buildings are desirable. The question is, is the building preservable? I believe it is. It’s really impossible to look at the building and say someone would not buy this or would buy this. It’s partly economics. It’s partly the right buyer.”

The commission considered including the property in its district as early as 2004, according to meeting minutes. The latest move comes after Mr. Hopkins asked for a permit to demolish the Denniston building, in order to clarify how potential buyers could use the property. Commission member Renee Balter said the commission’s interest is in preserving the building.

“Ewell Hopkins made it known that they would like to tear the building down,” Ms. Balter said. “That’s the only signal that we’ve gotten.

“Think about the testimony, think about what people said when the Bradley Square project was being proposed. People came out of the woodwork to talk about the historic value of that building. You can’t have it two ways. If it was historic then, it’s historic now. It still has that same significance.”

Over the line

The boundary of the current Cottage City Historic District lies on the western side of Circuit Avenue. It includes a large part of the downtown area from Farm Pond to Circuit Avenue, but does not include the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association campgrounds. The district is based loosely on the original plans of landscape architect Robert Morris Copeland, who envisioned a residential resort with many public parks.

The Cottage City Historic District Commission must issue a certificate of appropriateness, by majority vote of the five member commission, before any demolition or exterior construction on houses, porches, garages, sheds, fences, signs, walls, post lights, or above grade terraces can begin.

“The historic district [would have] a great deal of power actually, to say what can and cannot be built on that site. It can also have something to say about demoliton and rebuilding,” Ms. Balter said.

The site intended for the Bradley Square development was once two lots, later combined by IAHF for the purposes of its development plan. It is at the corner of Dukes County Avenue and Masonic Avenue. The corner lot was zoned as part of the B-2 business district. The lot that borders Masonic Avenue was zoned residential.

During the permitting process for the now-abandoned Bradley Square project, the fund combined the parcels into one lot, and that is how it stands now in a legal sense, according to Mr. Hopkins. However, the fund is marketing the property as two separate lots and would seek to subdivide the parcel back to its original lots if a buyer wanted to split the parcel. Oak Bluffs town counsel is currently researching issues surrounding the lots.

The lots would not be contiguous with the current Cottage City district. Since it was formed in 2003, the commission has never reached out to incorporate a very small parcel into its district, though it is common in other towns to have non-contiguous districts, according to Mr. Wilson.

The Cottage City Historic District Commission waded into controversy earlier when it moved to add the North Bluffs neighborhood to the district. That action gave the commission jurisdiction over the property of Joseph Moujabbar, who was building a controversial garage and apartment structure. The commission eventually issued a certificate after Mr. Moujabbar revised plans for the garage.

Affordable action

The Oak Bluffs affordable housing committee is considering a move to acquire the property with Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds, for a scaled down affordable housing development. The committee members have discussed preliminary plans and opened the subject before the Community Preservation Committee (CPC), which recommends what projects to fund. Town meeting voters have the final say.

The affordable housing committee has made a formal request for $400,000 in CPA funds, to be allocated to the newly formed Oak Bluffs Affordable Housing Trust. The CPC has not yet acted on that request. While affordable housing committee members said the request is not tied to any specific project, they have considered using those funds to revive an affordable housing project on the Bradley Square property. Spending money from the trust would require a vote of the affordable housing committee, which act as trustees.

“This is the sort of thing we could do,” affordable housing committee member Jim Westervelt said. “If the property was out there, we would have funds available, rather than wait six months for a town meeting.”

Voters have already authorized $400,000 of money allocated for affordable housing for the original Bradley Square proposal. The Fund spent about $50,000 of that amount during the design process. It is unclear whether the balance could be used for a different project on the same property.

“We’re all waiting for word from town counsel to see if the money that was allocated from CPA (funds) can still be used by the affordable housing committee for something on that site, but much smaller,” Mr. Westervelt said.

Mr. Hopkins noted that the CPC last year unanimously rejected the fund’s request for $400,000 in additional money from funds allocated for historical preservation. That decision, in part, prompted the fund to abandon the project and put the property on the market. He said the affordable housing committee’s request for CPA funds further clouds the fund’s effort to recover a portion of the money contributed for the project.

“What’s going on with Bradley is a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt that is artificially depressing the value of the property. I’m trying to preserve the public and private contributions by collaborating with anyone who wants to discuss the future of the property. Ironically, the only people I can’t work with, is the town of Oak Bluffs.”

The fund is financially strained by the mortgage of approximately $700,000 on the property, and is depending on the cooperation of its bank to modify terms and the repayment schedule. Mr. Hopkins said the bank will not extend its cooperation forever, and the IAHF may have no option but to default on its mortgage, which could result in foreclosure. He sees something darker in town officials’ talk about acquiring the property. He said no one from the town has approached him about buying it at market value.

“It’s obvious they don’t want to buy it from us,” Mr. Hopkins said. “I am very concerned that the town of Oak Bluffs would allocate money for Bradley Square anticipating the failure of the fund to hold onto that property.

“If you’re not talking to the owners when you’re considering amassing funds, then the only logical conclusion is that your plan is based upon the current owner’s failure to retain the property. You’re anticipating a distressed sale situation.”

Issues, no answers

The direction of the debate over housing on Martha’s Vineyard frustrates Mr. Hopkins. He characterizes Bradley Square as positioned well down the list of issues on which he wants to focus time and effort. He said there are solutions to local housing issues, but no defined process to pursue those solutions.

“I would rather be talking with Oak Bluffs about their plans for that 26 acres in the Southern Woodland,” Mr. Hopkins said. “If there is no housing as part of that plan, fine. But if it is housing, I have plans and sources of funding I’d like to articulate to them.

“This isn’t a pipe dream. I have real money identified, that I have my fingers on. I’m not talking about a vision of what I would like to create, I’m talking about identified funds that we could apply for if we reach an agreement about what we want.”

Mr. Hopkins said the fund had very good fundraising success in the final months of 2010, when many contributors traditionally make donations before the tax year ends. With those donations, the fund paid most of its overdue bills from various Island vendors. It also made good on its commitment to the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority rental assistance program, which subsidizes rents for low-income residents. The fund was late with payments beginning in November of 2009. Until now, was unable to meet its commitment beginning in January of 2010. Beginning July 1, the rental assistance program is now funded entirely by individual towns, much of it through CPA funds.

New proposal

Against the backdrop of all this, Donald Muckerheide, who owns nearby property on Dukes County Avenue, has proposed a new development for Bradley Square. Mr. Muckerheide wants to develop two 12-unit apartment buildings. One would be located on his commercial property, the other on the Bradley Square site. His plan would require moving or demolishing the historic Denniston Building, which he contends would be prohibitively expensive to restore.

Mr. Muckerheide proposed the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority should develop the properties by securing a $3 million mortgage that would be repaid with rental income from the 24 units over a five-year period. He proposes all Island towns contribute a total of $2.2 million CPA funds to finance the rest of the $5.2 million project.

Mr. Muckerheide said the result would be a steady source of income for the housing authority for the foreseeable future, generating as much as $25,000 in income once the debt is retired.