MVC poised to approve Water Street affordable housing

At a public hearing concluded last week, green was the watchword in the commissioners’ discussion.

Illustrations of the proposed apartment building at 6 Water Street depict (at top) the view from the street, and (below) the south side of the building, which includes solar panels on the roof. — Photo courtesy of James Weisman/

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) wrapped up a public hearing in one session last Thursday night on a proposal by the Island Housing Trust (IHT) to build a six-unit affordable housing rental apartment building at 6 Water Street in Vineyard Haven. But not before the commissioners put IHT executive director Philippe Jordi, accompanied by IHT board chairman Richard Leonard, through the paces during a more than 90-minute discussion, and put off a decision by one week.

Most of the commissioners’ questions focused on the affordable housing project’s design elements, and particularly the lack of greenery on the 0.11-acre site close to Five Corners.

The MVC reviewed the affordable housing project adjacent to Stop & Shop as a development of regional impact (DRI). Approval could come tonight. On Monday, the commission’s land use planning committee voted to recommend approval with the condition that the MVC approve the final landscaping, architectural detail, and stormwater management plans before a building permit is issued.

Plans call for a two-and-a-half story, 3,600-square-foot building. There will be six 600-square-foot apartments, three handicapped accessible ground floor units and three on the second floor, each with one bedroom and one bathroom. Mr. Jordi said IHT worked closely with Tisbury’s Affordable Housing Committee, Planning Board, Historic Commission, building department, and Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to come up with the design

It is our intent to develop a project that contributes to the village of Vineyard Haven and the community’s critical need for year-round affordable rental housing,” Mr. Jordi said last Thursday night. “We ask that you close the public hearing and make your decision tonight, so that we have time for the Tisbury Zoning Board of Appeal’s public review process in advance of the state and local grant funding process this fall.”

Green versus housing

Commissioner Joan Malkin of Chilmark called attention to a bricked area on the plans that includes the development’s only parking space, to be used for deliveries, pickups and dropoffs only.

“What troubles me about this proposal, is there is no more real open green space,” Ms. Malkin said. “Is there any reason why you’re not putting a lawn or some sort of green?”

Mr. Jordi said the landscaping plans were not complete. With the building taking up 54 percent of the lot, he pointed out, “There is not a lot of lawn space to be had.”

Commissioner Clarence “Trip” Barnes of Tisbury asked about cost. Mr. Jordi said approximately $1.2 million has been budgeted for the six apartments, with an eye towards using modular construction.

That led to a question about the number of apartments from Commissioner James Joyce of Edgartown.

“It’s happening everywhere, in Edgartown, and all the towns, all of these downtown properties are being built up to the max,” Mr. Joyce said. “That’s what you’re doing here. I’m just curious why you’re doing six. Is it cheaper than four?”

Mr. Jordi said IHT originally considered five units. “If we really wanted to max it out, we could do nine,” he said.

“Do it,” Mr. Barnes said.

Mr. Jordi explained the decision to increase from five units to six involved several considerations. To start, when state officials reviewed the project as a 40-B affordable housing development, they said the units were too large for one-bedroom apartments, Mr. Jordi said.

Given the need for more housing, IHT decided an additional apartment would be a plus, and an even number of units would work better if modular construction is used. Most importantly, Mr. Jordi said, the state only considers rental housing properties or projects for funding that have five or more units.

“I guess my only other point is that if it was smaller, there would be more green space for people that are going to live there,” Mr. Joyce persisted. “They could actually maybe have a barbeque grill, have some space. The way it’s being set up, there’s no space for anything. It’s really like living in Boston. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I was just curious about the thought process.”

“It’s not West Tisbury’s Sepiessa,” Mr Jordi said, referencing an affordable rental housing complex adjacent to the entrance to the Land Bank’s Sepiessa Point Reservation. “It’s a downtown location; it’s similar to people who live above stores on Main Street; it’s similar to rental housing that we have actually not very far from this, across from the Thrift Store.”

“In all seriousness, I don’t see why you don’t do seven or eight if you can fit them on there,” Mr. Barnes countered. “I mean, if you’re going to put people down at Five Corners, and you’re going to make this commitment, then I would stuff it. No parking, no nothing.

“I’d go after old senior citizens,” he continued, drawing laughter from the audience as he added, “The grocery store is next door, the Steamship Authority is across the street, and they can die happy.”

Hearing chairman Linda Sibley of West Tisbury chided Mr. Barnes that the IHT asked the MVC to act on the project expeditiously in order to seek funding, and that he was asking them to redesign it. She then opened the hearing to comments from town officials and boards.

Pigeon holed

Although Tisbury building and zoning inspector Ken Barwick, who referred the project to the MVC, and Tisbury selectman Melinda Loberg were in the audience, neither responded. Dan Seidman, an IHT board member, asked to comment in his capacity as a Tisbury planning board member.

“We’ve looked at this project, and we believe it’s a good project in a good location,” Mr. Seidman said. “The emphasis today is on smart growth; you want to put density where density is.

“As far as if someone could have a barbeque,” he added, “we do have a deck, and there will be some green areas.”

David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes Housing Regional Housing Authority, the agency that will manage the property, added to the discussion on greenery from a practical standpoint.

I think more hardscape there is better, because I’ll tell you what, we’re going to be sweeping and cleaning, and I’d rather the guys not be trying to mow some eight-inch strip, so much as move potted plants or trees, or what have you in there,” he said.

Doug Ruskin of West Tisbury, who has worked in private and public affordable housing organizations for the last eight years, said he was surprised that the project went to a public hearing before the MVC. “I think everybody knows the vast need for housing on the Island and how ideal this site is,” he said.

Tisbury residents Ben Robinson and Hyung Lee criticised the building’s design. Mr. Robinson said the building’s interior design is “half-cooked.” Mr. Lee called the apartments “pigeon holes.” Mr. Jordi said the interior plans have not been finalized, and that IHT was only seeking the MVC’s approval of the conceptual design of the building’s exterior at this time.

Some greenness

Ms. Loberg waited until the end of the public testimony to offer her remarks. Selectman Loberg said she was speaking as a “private citizen.” Although her fellow selectmen, Tristan Israel and Jon Snyder, had voted on July 1 to send a letter in support of the IHT project, Ms. Loberg, newly elected in May, said she abstained because she didn’t know much about it. Since then, she said she tried to familiarize herself with it.

What I’m hearing from a lot of people is we’re trying to squeeze a ten-pound bag into a four-pound bag,” Ms. Loberg said. “I heard the same things being said as were said about Stop & Shop.”

Ms. Loberg questioned whether the project’s smart growth aspect should be shifted to mixed use, rather than residential. I wonder if it would be possible or even desirable to consider a mixed use here, put another floor on, and have multiple apartments and use the ground floor area for commercial use,” Ms. Loberg said.

Mr. Seidman took exception. “On the ten-pound, four-pound thing, if you look at downtown Vineyard Haven, this is an appropriate size building for the lots that are all along Main Street,” he said. “Look at any of those; they’re all tightly packed, with very little space in-between, and very little green.”

In final remarks from commissioners, Kathy Newman of Aquinnah went back to the building’s design. “Is there any way it can look less boxy?” she asked.

Get a bigger lot,” commissioner Doug Sederholm of Edgartown responded.

Mr. Jordi said that IHT had a design competition, and that the designs were driven by whether the building would have parking or not. We were looking not to create something new to downtown Vineyard Haven, but to have something that fit into the existing landscape,” he said.

Ms. Newman suggested adding some design elements to alter the boxy look.

It could add to some greenness if you had a tiny little outdoor space where you could put some green stuff,” she said.

Kathy, when we’re debating this we can decide how much leeway we want to give them,” Ms. Sibley said. “I happen to think the generic box is, in fact, traditional Tisbury architecture, so I don’t even agree with you. So then how would we decide what to tell them?”

Ms. Sibley closed the public hearing at about 10:25 pm.