MVC opens public hearings on Martha’s Vineyard Museum

New data are presented and public weighs in on  high profile project.

The old Marine Hospital overlooking Vineyard Haven Harbor is the new site of the Martha's Vineyard Museum. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

In the first of what will apparently be a series of public hearings, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) began its development of regional impact (DRI) review for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum (M.V. Museum), before a packed meeting room on Thursday night.

Phase one of the high-profile $21 million project involves renovating the three-story Marine Hospital, built in 1895; the demolition of a brick addition built in 1935; and the construction of two new buildings with a total area of 10,000 square feet. A new, 10,000-square-foot gallery wing and 800-square-foot connector will be built in phase two.

“We’ve been working on the concept for almost five years,” architect Conrad Ello of Boston-based Oudens-Ello told commissioners. “All new buildings will be deferential to the historic building. Preservation of the 1895 [appeal] has been central to the design.”

Mr. Ello said the four brick chimneys will be restored, and most of the exterior, including the copper detailing, ornamental trim, and cedar roofs, will be period-appropriate. He described the Marine Hospital as “quite glorious in its simplicity.”  

The U.S. Marine Hospital was built when Vineyard Sound was still known as the second busiest waterway in the world, after the English Channel, and Vineyard Haven was visited by more merchant mariners every year than any other New England port except Boston. The federal government sold the building to the Seamen’s Friend Society in Boston in 1952. In 1959 it was leased by the St. Pierre family to house their summer camp, the St. Pierre School. It closed in 2007.

Traffic and nitrogen issues

Planning concerns stated on the MVC staff report included impact on abutters, traffic impact, noise, and nitrogen loading in Lagoon Pond, which is already classified as “impaired” by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Mr. Ello said when the current archeological excavation is completed, plans are to plant “substantial vegetation” to create natural sound-deadening boundaries with abutters. All vegetation will be native species. Mr. Ello added that exterior lighting will be minimal “to preserve the dark sky.”

M.V. Museum executive director Phil Wallis said he expects foot traffic to be between 50,000 and 80,000 people per year over the next 10 years.

Bill Scully, from Westford-based Green International Affiliates, presented commissioners with an overview of a recently completed vehicular traffic study.

“There’s not a lot of models on forecasting vehicle traffic for museums,” he said, listing a number of variables including type of museum, number of staff, and frequency of private functions.

Mr. Scully said the study focused on the impact on Lagoon Pond Road, Skiff Avenue, and Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road.  

Mr. Scully said Five Corners, the most accident-prone location on the Island according to Massachusetts Department of Transportation statistics, would not be severely impacted. “We all know Five Corners. It can be confusing and hectic, even today; it certainly is in the summer,” he said. “We’re not adding a significant amount of traffic to that condition.”

According to MVC traffic data, between 2,000 and 3,000 cars use Lagoon Pond Road and Skiff Avenue during the summer. “It’s still a very manageable road for site access,” he said. “They will still be low in volume.”

Mr. Scully said improved sidewalks along Lagoon Pond Road and improved signage for bikers would help reduce vehicle traffic.

Skiff Avenue resident Frank Daly expressed concern about vehicle traffic colliding with increasingly heavy turkey traffic in the area.

Nitrogen mitigation is still up in the air. Although the Tisbury sewer advisory board and Tisbury selectmen have approved a tie-in to town sewering for the museum, voters still have to approve the decision at special town meeting on April 25.

Chairman of Tisbury selectmen Melinda Loberg, speaking on behalf of the board, enthusiastically supported the project. “The town is so excited you have chosen to come to Tisbury and renovate this amazing building. It’s going to stand at the gateway to the Island. We’re totally on board with this. It offers challenges and some opportunities, which we are embracing, enthusiastically.”

Ms. Loberg, also chairman of the sewer advisory board, said the town had plenty of capacity to handle the flow from the museum. She said that the sewer advisory board and the selectmen were in favor of it.

“We just got the material, and we’re just beginning this discussion,” MVC executive director Adam Turner said. “This is a big project. It’s an important project. We’re not going to complete this discussion in a two-hour window.”

Commissioners voted unanimously to continue the public hearing at their regular meeting on April 6.

The current timeline has construction beginning next month and reaching “substantial completion” by March 2018.  

There is another town meeting vote that may pose a hurdle to the museum’s completion. This week, a group of Aquinnah residents successfully petitioned selectmen to include a nonbinding warrant article asking townspeople if they want the Fresnel lens, which is a centerpiece of the M.V. Museum, back in Aquinnah.

One of the new buildings, the Fresnel Pavilion, is to be built specifically to showcase the historic Fresnel lens that shone in the Gay Head Lighthouse for 100 years, beginning in 1855. Before being shipped to the United States, the Fresnel lens commissioned for the Gay Head Light was exhibited at the 1855 Paris Exhibition of Industry, and won first prize.  

“We didn’t discuss any specifics, there was no petition,” Aquinnah selectman Jim Newman told The Times. “It was about process. We just said if this is what you want to do, fine.”