Oak Bluffs bowling alley rolls into MVC hearing process

The proposed bowling alley would be built on the site of a former laundromat on Uncas Avenue. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

MV Bowl, the bowling alley/entertainment center that developer Sam Dunn proposes to build in Oak Bluffs, was the subject of a spirited public hearing before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) last Thursday.

The commission heard testimony for and against the project, which would be located on the edge of the town’s business district. Owners of abutting residential properties opposed the project, highlighting noise, traffic impact, and the rowdiness that could result from having a full bar in the proposed building. The public hearing will resume next Thursday, February 20.

Up until last week, the project was rolling through the permitting gauntlet quickly. Mr. Dunn first presented his plan to Oak Bluffs selectmen on October 22. The planning board unanimously approved the plan on January 23 and referred it to the MVC as a development of regional impact (DRI), as required by several triggers in the project, including size.

As currently designed, the 13,500-square-foot project, on Uncas Avenue in a crumbling building where a long-vacant laundromat operated, will have 10 bowling lanes, a bar, a restaurant, two golf simulators, a game room, an event room, and two apartments that would qualify as affordable housing. Mr. Dunn estimates the cost of construction at $2.5 million.

After meeting with abutters, Mr. Dunn changed the site plan to move the parking lot and reduce the building from 15,000 to 13,500 square feet, trimming the proposal from 12 lanes to 10.

Abutters object

The MVC hearing room was packed Thursday night. Most of those who spoke were abutters from the mostly seasonal neighborhood.

“This is a quiet, quaint neighborhood. We don’t need loud, rowdy people spilling into the neighborhood at night,” said Byron Barnett, owner of an abutting property on Hiawatha Avenue. “I’m not against bowling, I like to bowl. But there is no reason to have a 62-seat full liquor bar.”

Mr. Barnett suggested that the entertainment center be built by the airport where it could be larger and have more lanes. He requested that Mr. Dunn pay for a detailed police officer during closing hours, and he thanked Mr. Dunn for flipping the site plan so the parking lot would not abut his property. Mr. Barnett also noted that the MVC twice denied commercial development at the location, in 1997 and in 1982.

“Our Island friends alerted us of this project. We knew nothing about it,” said Alison Stewart, co-owner of an abutting property on Uncas Avenue. Ms. Stewart and her sister said they had come from New York and Virginia to register their opposition. She echoed Mr. Barnett’s concerns about noise and rowdy behavior and said that parking was already difficult in the area and that the project would exacerbate the problem. She also expressed concern that the project would diminish the property value of the house, which is currently in the estate of her deceased mother.

Kathryn Sullivan, an attorney for Delaware resident Diane Streett, who owns an abutting property on Hiawatha Avenue, lodged similar objections, and added that without an increase in the proposed level of lighting, criminal activity could increase.

Donald Lambert of Oak Bluffs, owner of a commercial property on upper Circuit Avenue, across the street from the Uncas Avenue location, objected to the notion of a full bar. “I’ll have 10 cars in my own lot in the morning, because people were too drunk to drive home,” he said. Mr. Lambert noted that patrons of bars on Circuit Avenue often parked in his lot at night. He suggested a compromise of beer and wine only, to mitigate the potential problem.

Developer responds

Mr. Dunn, developer of the Tisbury Marketplace and several other projects, is no stranger to the MVC process. Thursday, he addressed the objections one by one.

“I keep hearing this project referred to as a ruse for sports bar,” Mr. Dunn said. “Why would we build one million dollars worth of bowling as a ruse? We assume there will be leagues, teams formed by businesses and friends, birthday parties, office parties and the like. High school kids can bring a date and not break the bank. Sure we’ll have a bar, and you’ll be able to watch a game, it’s an amenity. We’ve agreed to have last call one and a half hours earlier than law permits. If this place was a bar scene, it would be suicide to our business plan. People who get drunk and rowdy will have to go elsewhere.”

Mr. Dunn held up a petition he said contained the signatures of more than 500 Island residents who are in favor of the project.

“This was a total grassroots effort,” Mr. Dunn said. “It took on a life of its own.”  

Mr. Dunn noted that of the objection letters on file with the MVC, more than half were from visitors, not property owners.  

“Every commercial district ends somewhere,” Mr. Dunn said. “It seems to me that people who buy next to commercial property, especially one in this condition, must know it’s very likely something’s going to happen.”

Mr. Dunn also asked the MVC to consider his track record on the Island, particularly the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society theater in the Tisbury Market Place.

Christine Todd, executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association (OBA), said that Mr. Dunn had the unanimous support of the OBA.

“We feel it will bring something the town has needed for a long time,” Ms. Todd said. “This condition exists wherever commercial ends and residential begins.

MVC sets up the pins

MVC chairman Linda Sibley of West Tisbury said that Mr. Dunn needed to more specific about the number of events that would be hosted in the function room. Mr. Dunn had indicated it would average two a week, but Ms. Sibley said the definition would allow him to have an event every night in the summer.  Mr. Dunn agreed to come back with a more specific estimate.

With regard to the noise concerns, the MVC wants an independent consultant to evaluate the findings of Mr. Dunn’s sound engineer. One commissioner suggested that Mr. Dunn investigate bowling pins that are made of materials that reduce noise.

Commissioner Joan Malkin of Chilmark said that she had read a newspaper article sent to the MVC from an opponent that described noise and smoke from a hardwood grill in a bowling alley in New York City. Ms. Malkin said the article “gave her pause.”

Members from the MVC said they would plan a site visit at night to evaluate the lighting.

Based on staff reports, Ms. Sibley said a more detailed traffic study that incorporporated seasonal fluctuations would be needed and that a parking estimate would be needed also, for those times when the complex is filled to legal maximum capacity.

In a conversation with The Times on Friday, Feb. 7, describing the MVC’s request for more information, Mr. Dunn said, “I guess it depends if you want to evaluate a project up for a 100-year storm or evaluate it for normal conditions.”

Pro and con

A review by The Times of the written record submitted as of Thursday revealed that Mr. Dunn has generated support among year-round residents. The vast majority of 34 letters objecting to the project and on file with the MVC are from seasonal residents. The majority in favor, 59 of 60, are from Island residents.

Many opponents cite the unsuitability of the site and its potential to alter the quiet neighborhood.

Yoshino White, in an email dated Feb. 5, said, “This building is completely out of character for the proposed community and should be placed in a more appropriate location on the Island. Why not downtown in Oak Bluffs, why not Vineyard Haven or even Edgartown?”

Amy Wilkinson said she had spent summers in Oak Bluffs since 1967 and her parents purchased a home on Nashawena Park in 1969. “I am extremely concerned that if the bowling center/bar is built,” she said, “we will have problems with disorderly conduct by patrons when leaving the bar, which will inevitably include loud noise when we are trying to sleep.”

Several opponents highlighted the area’s connection to the Island’s African-American history. “It would devalue Highland Park which is part of the African American Historic Trail,” said Sara Farr.

Visitors to the Island also chimed in. In a letter dated Feb. 1, Robert B. Young of Wilmington, Delaware, a self-described “tourist and lover of Martha’s Vineyard,” said, “I hope you will really reject this proposal in favor of perhaps some other enterprise that would be less disruptive to the quaint, small-town atmosphere that makes Martha’s Vineyard so enticing as a vacation destination.”

Many of the emails in favor cited their support for a year-round family venue and Mr. Dunn’s track record. “We feel this would be a great benefit to the Island,” said June and Andrew Flake of Vineyard Haven.

“It will provide a healthy activity choice for the young people of our community and will help to keep seniors active and engaged with others,” said Stephanie Burke, vice president of the Boys and Girls Club.

Abutter Kim Nye of Oak Bluffs saw no problem. “It will be great to see the derelict properties across the street be replaced with a continued business district and something the Island will love,” she said.

Fred Mascolo of Edgartown added his take on the MVC process. “Please stop with the social engineering. You are a land use planning agency … Please do not debate it for six months so the people run out of money, and just approve it because how bad is bowling?”