The Menotomy building project will move to the next phase of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) development of regional impact (DRI) process after a tense public hearing Thursday night struck nerves over affordable housing.
Thomas G. Ward and Carol L. Hulak sold the historic Kennebec Avenue building that houses the Red Cat to Chilmark resident and Los Angeles record producer Gary Jones, operating as GJ & BP Holdings LLC, for $690,000 in November. Oak Bluffs selectman Brian Packish was a partner in the transaction.
The proposed building was designed by architect Chuck Sullivan of Sullivan and Associates, after meeting with Jones, Packish, and Red Cat owners Ben DeForest and Sarah Omer.
The owners quickly decided on a full demolition and construction of a new building, after reviewing the dilapidated condition of the current building.
The new building is being dubbed the Menotomy, which comes from Menotomy Realty Trust, the former ownership. Plans include having the Red Cat Kitchen operate on the first floor; four single-bedroom, market-rate apartments on the two floors above; and adding a basement for storage.
While the building is not in the historic district, it does abut it. With that in mind, the new building was designed with historic features, to fit in with the character of the town.
It will also be ADA-compliant, and reduce the number of restaurant seats from 55 to 52.
The Carpenter Gothic/Campground style building was built in 1858, and is listed on the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS).
At Thursday’s meeting, Packish made his case to the commissioners that this was a project to maintain an important community restaurant, made financially viable with the construction of the apartments.
But issues arose with the project’s planned market-rate apartments, which will be rented out as vacation rentals in the “near term,” according to Packish.
“Personally, I feel like the units should be used for affordable housing or for [workforce housing],” commissioner Ernest Thomas said.
Commissioner Josh Goldstein, who co-owns and operates the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven, took issue with the housing for the restaurant’s staffing, and wondered where staff who had lived in the building previously would go.
“Where’s your staff going to live?” Goldstein asked. “People have lived there for years; maybe they didn’t live there last season, but they were there the season before that.”
Packish asked if Goldstein had any affidavits stating that people lived there. The two then got into a back and forth about housing staff.
“Where is the staff going to live?” Goldstein repeated.
“Wherever they choose to rent,” Packish said. “Where does the staff of your business live?”
Goldstein said his staff lives in apartments that were approved by the MVC.
“How many staff and how many apartments do you have? Do you house all of them?” Packish asked.
“I have a lot,” Goldstein replied. “I don’t appreciate that attack, Brian.”
“I don’t appreciate your attack, and I think it’s directed at your relationship with one of the tenants,” Packish said.
Commissioner and public hearing chairman Richard Toole interjected and said the inside of the building was in a poor state. “He’s doing the town of Oak Bluffs a big favor by getting rid of this place,” Toole said.
Christine Flynn, the MVC’s affordable housing planner, told commissioners this was the first mixed-use commercial development under the MVC’s new affordable housing policy.
The project is calling for an additional 568 nonresidential square footage, which would require a $22,720 mitigation fee, based on the MVC’s formula — 568 x 5 (restaurant multiplier) x $8.
Packish argued that with his specific project, the additional square footage is not an increase in intensity or an expansion of use, but allows additional space for storage and the option of less frequent deliveries, which would decrease intensity.
“It’s confusing to me as to how we’re mitigating something where there’s no ability to document an additional intensity, or an additional harm to mitigate,” Packish said.
Flynn, after speaking with the applicants, estimated that the appraised cost of one of the proposed residential apartments could be $550,000, requiring a $220,000 monetary mitigation fee. The formula is 10 percent x four new units x the $550,000 appraised value. Combined, the total recommended monetary fee would be $247,720.
Packish requested to have both fees waived, and instead offered a one-time monetary mitigation of $50,000. He added that if he were to build a 12-room hotel, the MVC’s fee would be $50,000 less. He also said the project would not be able to offer year-round or seasonal housing.
“There’s a problem in the way the intensity factor is laid out [that the] policy created. And you’ve got to use it to figure that out sometimes,” Packish said.
Discussion then went off-topic, when Oak Bluffs affordable housing committee chairman Jim Bishop asked why the commission was recommending a quarter-million-dollar fee from Packish for one unit when the commission waived the affordable housing contribution for the expansive Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) project.
“You forgave [MVCS], who’s bringing in people who can’t afford to live here. There is no housing,” Bishop said. “You forgave that amount, and yet you want to put it on the next person down the line. I find that ludicrous.”
Commissioner Joan Malkin told Bishop the MVC looks at commercial developments differently than they do developments for nonprofits, such as MVCS.
“We had our chance with [MVCS], and we didn’t take it,” Toole said after banging his gavel to quiet the room. “We decided for reasons we all understand.”
Despite concerns with the residential component, there was an outpouring of support for the project, in written letters, public testimony, and by some commissioners.
Commissioner Clarence (“Trip”) Barnes III said the commission was lucky to have the project on the table. “I liked your honesty,” Barnes said. “The fact of the matter is you want to try and make some bucks with the apartments.”
Oak Bluffs historic district commission chair Pam Melrose said the commission supported the project.
Red Cat co-owner and chef Ben DeForest voiced his support for the project at the meeting, saying the building was in a rundown state, and needed to be replaced. “That building is no treasure. I love it, and I love its character … I can assure you it needs to be replaced,” DeForest said.
Over 30 letters of support for the project were submitted to the commission, including a letter from former Secretary of State John Kerry.
“The Red Cat has been a terrific presence in the community, and I know how hard you work to keep faith with the spirit of the Island and Oak Bluffs. The Red Cat is exactly what many of us appreciate as special on Martha’s Vineyard — great food, laid-back, casual, and honest Vineyard. I wish you good luck, and stand by to help as you go forward,” Kerry wrote.
The lone dissenting letter came from Mark Leonard, who also attended the public hearing. “It really adds to the stress on the community and the low- and moderate-income housing on the year-round residents,” Leonard said at the hearing. “What I would ask the commission is to restrict these units to affordable housing.”
Packish said the biggest challenge the commission faced was if the project should be driven by its contribution to housing, or will other factors be looked at, such as removing fossil-fuel use except for the kitchen stove, increasing meals tax, and replacing a dilapidated building on Kennebec Avenue.
Commissioners then closed the hearing, leaving the written record open until Feb. 27.