ENB withdraws major Oyster Bar redevelopment proposal

Edgartown National Bank has dropped plans to develop 57 Circuit Avenue, the site of the former Oyster Bar Grille. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The Edgartown National Bank (ENB) has scrapped plans for a multi-use development of the Circuit Avenue site of the former Oyster Bar Grill. The bank, which originally planned to build a new, three-story structure on the site, shrunk that plan to a two-story development, during the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) review process. This week, bank officials said ENB does not want to be a developer and now plans a scaled back renovation of the century-old building, including a new bank branch.

Edgartown National got the property last year through a foreclosure proceeding. The original plan was to demolish the building and replace it with a bank branch, retail space, and condominium apartments on the upper floors.

The MVC reviewed the project as a development of regional impact (DRI).

In a letter to the MVC dated June 18, bank president Fielding Moore said that ENB directors decided to withdraw the application. Mr. Moore stressed that the decision was not related to the often criticized MVC review process.

“This is in no way a rejection of the process or role of the MVC,” Mr. Moore wrote. “The MVC has worked very diligently with the bank and architect and all interested parties to craft a project that would benefit the community and address the many concerns surrounding the proposed new building.

“The Bank is not a real estate developer and by regulation cannot assume that role. Our simple and foremost priority is to relocate our branch at that location and provide for future expansion should there be a need. The bank intends to rent any unused space. With renovation, the existing one-story building is very adequate to satisfy our needs.”

Bank officials said they were aware from the start of their effort of opposition to the project and concern about the impact on the neighborhood.

“We don’t regret making that attempt, because we strongly support affordable housing and economic prosperity for the Island,” Mr. Moore wrote. “However we believe that the community, the neighbors, and the bank will be well served with a renovation of the existing antique one story building.”

In a conversation with The Times Wednesday, Mr. Moore said the delays and revisions were not a factor in the decision to withdraw the application. He said construction could not have begun until the fall, even if the MVC approved the proposal soon.

“The bank is not a real estate developer,” Mr. Moore said. “At the end of the day, we decided it would be best for everybody involved.”

The bank has made a relatively small investment in the planning and permitting process before the MVC, according to Mr. Moore. “A minimal amount — nothing compared to what we’ve got in the building,” he said.

Process problems

Oak Bluffs selectman Walter Vail said he sensed bank officials were frustrated with the long process. “What I’m gathering is the bank got a little tired of the delays, and probably just decided that the best thing to do is renovate the place and move forward,” he said. “What they had for a plan looked great.”

Mr. Vail was careful to stress that he had no firsthand knowledge of the bank’s thinking, but he said in general, the MVC process tends to discourage business development. “It’s a long process,” he said. “I think businesses that need to get moving, that need to put their capital to use and make some money, get a little frustrated.”

Chairman Kathy Burton said the economy likely played a role in the decision to withdraw the plans. “Economics being what they are, I’m not surprised they made that decision,” she said. “It may not have been worth it for them to do such a large project in this economy and expect to pay for construction with the sale of those market rate apartments. I might do the same thing if it were my building.”

The project was complicated by the small lot, and the close proximity of the street and abutting buildings. “Construction-wise, it was getting very complicated, having to put in a foundation, and how that might affect surrounding buildings,” Ms. Burton said. “I’ll look forward to seeing their renovation plans.”

Long process

The bank and its architect presented preliminary ideas in a pre-application meeting with the MVC staff on March 5. Over the next three months, the bank and its architect substantially revised the original plan, reducing the building from three stories to two, and reducing the number of planned apartments from four to two. They also made a series of smaller changes, in response to concerns from neighbors.

The plans met opposition from residents of the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association campground. Several residences directly abut the building. More than a dozen residents appeared at public hearings or wrote letters of concern on issues including the mass and character of the building, increased noise, parking, and traffic issues. Roof decks incorporated into the original design were a point of considerable contention.

Oak Bluffs selectmen wrote in strong support of the original proposal. “This development represents a significant private investment in the architectural infrastructure of our central business district,” the board wrote. “At a time when the recession has stifled economic growth to the point where many of our historic, commerce-oriented structures are starved for even the maintenance required to preserve their longevity, this project seeks to infuse much-needed capital into our downtown area.”

Selectmen Gail Barmakian, who was absent because of illness at the May 22 meeting when selectmen voted to send a letter of support, sent a separate letter expressing her concern.

“There is concern about the demolition of a building in our downtown which is over 100 years old and how the construction of a brand-new and massive building will affect the town’s character,” Ms. Barmakian wrote. “The representative from the bank mentioned Oak Bluffs’ need for housing in the downtown area. I don’t believe this to be true and question housing component (second floor) of the project. People want to know if it is absolutely necessary. The town needs affordable housing and should the housing component of the project go forward, the possibility of making one of the units affordable should be explored.”

This article was changed to reflect a clarification of Ms. Barmakian’s position. In her letter to the MVC, Ms. Barmakian advocated for an affordable housing component as part of the bank’s development plans.