Answer the Water Street question


Which of these three is not like the others?

a) The Steamship Authority’s Vineyard Haven Terminal.

b) The Island Housing Trust’s (IHT) five-unit, affordable rental housing development at 6 Water Street, across from the Black Dog Bakery.

c) The Stop & Shop supermarket, as planned for significant construction and expansion.

The answer is “b,” but you guessed that.

There is not a more unambiguously business minded stretch of Vineyard road. There are no houses fronting on Water Street between the town parking lot at the north and Five Corners at the south, no apartments over shops, no houses converted to shops, no guesthouses, no B&Bs, no parks, no bike paths. Vineyard Haven’s large and growing resident population of turkeys stays away.

There are a lot of cars and trucks, most of them do-si-do-ing with the Steamship Authority 12 to 16 hours a day, 365 days a year. Many of the drivers are you and me.

You can rent a car, buy a pizza or a souvenir, a bagel, a donut, and a coffee, a tee-shirt or a stuffed dog. You can buy some windsurfing paraphernalia for the dude in you. And, you can do the marketing. You can get some food just as you get off the ferry or just before you get on. You can compare prices and maybe find what you want to eat tonight at the supermarket there rather than the other one. It’s open late and early, and though it’s old and small now, the owners plan for something sharper, brighter, bigger, and full of choice.

The expansion plan for the new Stop & Shop fits the neighborhood very well.

The Island Housing Trust’s plan for an affordable housing, loft type building on the tiny lot between the car rental place at the lip of Five Corners and the brand-new supermarket does not fit.

The trust got the gift of the decrepit house it intends to tear down and replace from Cronig’s Market owner Steve Bernier. Mr. Bernier made the generous, though tactically cold-blooded, donation, on condition that IHT could not monetize it by selling it to the Stop & Shop, a move that would have given the supermarket more elbow room for its business expansion and put some bucks in the IHT coffers. IHT thinks it’s stuck with the gift, and in its response to the Stop & Shop plan the tiny nonprofit, it turns out, has some sharp elbows of its own. In a Letter to the Editor [IHT schools Stop & Shop company, November 27], IHT, which has not yet designed or funded its proposed housing development, lectured Stop & Shop on how it might improve its plan and asked for some concessions that would enhance its five-unit residential building.

It is hard to imagine that a desirable residential experience can be shoehorned into a lot that long ago relinquished all claims to livability to the commercial hustle and bustle that surrounds it, and it may be that after all, the play is really to exact a few hundred thousand from the Stop & Shop company for the IHT developed housing, which the supermarket might then use to house its employees.

What’s utterly baffling is whether the gift of the property, with conditions, was actually an opportunity for IHT or a burden. Was IHT a beneficiary or a tool?

Vineyard Haven architect Jamie Weisman, who has developed a “concept” for the IHT development, limned the gambit in May.

“I think,” he said, “one thing we have to recognize is that this property was given to the housing trust by someone who wanted to prevent a larger store as a competitor, and I think the housing trust has created an opportunity to amplify mixed use in Vineyard Haven by suggesting that this be residential. So it creates the conundrum of how do you create residential in an urban or a town area?” Mr. Weisman also published a Letter to the Editor [Shop, no stop, November 27] last week, touting a plan of his that would have the town parking lot next to the supermarket become a mall-like shopping square.

How you do it might be the question IHT is asking itself, but why do it is the better question. The challenge for IHT ought to be, how do we get out of the obligation that comes with this gift? How do we avoid isolating five or more modest income residents in a residentially hostile commercial environment? Mixed use development has some appeal. Woods Hole, whose geographic focus is the Eel Pond, combines dwellings with commerce and big, stimulating scientific operations, not to mention the commotion of the Steamship Authority. In Vineyard Haven, apartments above retail shops have been happy confreres for decades. The same is true in Oak Bluffs. But the residential spaces are incorporated, they are not outliers. They do not answer the question posed at the beginning of this column. There’s some mixed use magic to successful mixed use development, not this one, small 5,200-square-foot disharmony.

The real imaginative opportunity is to find a way to flush the Bernier poison pill and allow the lot to be sold by IHT for commercial purposes (parking perhaps) — but not to Stop & Shop, if Mr. Bernier insists. Then the proceeds might be used for other IHT rental projects that have a greater chance to make their inhabitants happy.