Island Housing Trust executive director Philippe Jordi went before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) last Thursday hoping that commissioners would not vote that a public hearing was necessary to demolish a dilapidated historic building at 55 West William St. in Tisbury.
The proposed project is considered a development of regional impact because the building is more than 100 years old.
Mr. Jordi told commissioners that the Island Housing Trust was scheduled to close on the five-bedroom, two-bathroom house, built in 1880, on July 25, contingent on percolation test results and approval of demolition.
Mr. Jordi said the demolition had the blessing of the Tisbury Historic Commission and Tisbury selectmen, on the condition it be replaced with affordable housing.
But the concurrence review did not go as Mr. Jordi had hoped, with all but one commissioner voting that the public should have the opportunity to weigh in on the demolition.
The commission asked for an engineering study to determine the viability of renovating the house, which Mr. Jordi did not have, and did not plan on doing.
Mr. Jordi expressed concern that the delay could scuttle the deal. MVC executive director Adam Turner promised to fast-track the hearing, and on Friday, it was on the MVC meeting schedule for Thursday, July 13.
But Mr. Jordi balked.
He told The Times on Friday that he was surprised at the MVC response, and rather than risk a long approval process, he felt housing resources could be better spent on less encumbered real estate.
“It was a pretty resounding no,” he said. “We wanted to put our toe in the water and see where it was; the answer we got was pretty clear. We don’t feel like we need to go full guns at this point. There’s still things we need to understand regarding encumbrances. We’ve got other fish out there that we’re trying to catch.”
IHT is eyeing some other properties on the market, and some that may be co-ventures with other organizations. Mr. Jordi declined to give specifics.
“We have to be careful what we do with our limited resources and time,” he said. “I’m guessing [the MVC] probably would have allowed us to do it, but they weren’t fully on board. It’s clearly an important, historic building in their eyes.”
Mr. Jordi said concerns about preserving historic trees on the property by Linda Sibley, commissioner from West Tisbury, were potential impediments to creating affordable housing at the site.
“If the property is encumbered that way, it’s probably not worth market value. We have to make sure if we have to unload the property, for whatever reason, it might impact the resale value,” he said.
Mr. Jordi did not disclose the amount of the offer that had been accepted by the West William Street seller.
Speaking to commissioners on Thursday, he asked that they consider the quality of previous IHT housing rather than require plans for a proposed development.
“To imagine us having to go through a design process for something that is unique and historically consistent with what’s there, that’s beyond our capacity,” he told The Times. “If we’re doing boutique projects, we can spend a lot of time on one property and do what we’ve done in the past, building five, six, seven units a year at the most. But IHT is trying to create 100 units by the year 2020. So we’re looking for that sweet spot, where we can go in, build these pocket neighborhoods without too much oversight and permitting, and be able to produce it economically, so people feel good about their donation of the grant money they put into it.”
Mr. Jordi said the West William Street property is ideal for affordable housing because of its close proximity to the downtown area, access to town water, and location outside a nitrogen-sensitive area — all goals stated in the recently completed housing production plan.
“I understand the commission is a regulatory body, but it’s also there to support the towns to achieve their [affordable housing] goals,” Mr. Jordi said; he stated he hoped to increase the pace of housing production by working on properties and projects that would not qualify as developments of regional impact, and would be regulated only by town government. Another scenario that could speed up production would be if individual towns and the MVC could decide on specific properties for affordable housing.
“We’re not going to invest in a structural engineer and historian to figure out if a project is viable. We have to assess the permitting process and future development whether it’s feasible with us. We’re trying to be more proactive. In the past, we’d be waiting around for towns to put out an RFP for town-owned land, or someone gave us a donation, or we worked with the Land Bank on a particular deal. If we really want to do four times what we’ve done, we have to go into the marketplace and look for suitable properties. We have another piece of property where our offer has been accepted that is less than half the price of this one,” he said. “It’s undeveloped, but there are other considerations.”
The recently created Make It Happen Fund will help finance property purchases from the open market. Mr. Jordi did not disclose the amount in the fund or the source of the funding.
According to the IHT annual report, it created six affordable rental units and renovated one single-family home last year, with $4.4 million in total income.
The West William Street deal still could possibly go forward, pending discussions with IHT attorneys, Mr. Jordi said.
Speaking to The Times on Friday, Mr. Turner solidly backed the MVC vote.
“The building is 120 years old. It’s very distinctive. It’s in a prominent location. It’s been on every map of the Vineyard since 1880. Of course there should be a public hearing,” he said. “To permit demolition without input from the neighbors and the general public is not consistent with what we do. That said, the commission values affordable housing as well. It’s very possible it would have been permitted, but the application was withdrawn. It’s entirely possible the commission would have come to the same conditions as the selectmen, but I respect his right to pull the application.”