The Martha’s Vineyard Commission took testimony during a continued public hearing regarding the construction of five age-restricted, affordable housing units in Oak Bluffs on Thursday.
The proposal, brought to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission by Island Elderly Housing (IEH), is the third ‘Aidylberg’ building of its kind, with construction of Aidylberg I and II having been completed in 2006.
The land on which the units sit was previously subdivided by the former owner of the property, Marguerite Bergstrom — who had retained one lot for her existing house — and granted the rest to IEH with the intention of providing housing to senior citizens, as stated in the DRI (development of regional impact) project history.
Upon Bergstrom’s death in 2003 — and per her will — the existing house on the remaining lot was granted to IEH. Built around 1900, the 1,200-square-foot house is listed in the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS) as being “a significant part of the continued expansion of Cottage City.”
In 2019, a demolition permit was issued by the Oak Bluffs building department, and with a COVID-caused extension of the permits’ expiration date, the house was demolished in May 2021. The demolition took place without the approval of the MVC.
At the preceding April 7 public hearing regarding Aidylberg III, the MVC was tasked with discussing the retroactive demolition and proposed construction, making way for a stream of opposition from the commission.
Much of the concern raised by the commission involved the actual design of the building, and numerous commissioners pointed out that IEH had repeatedly ignored suggestions on a possible redesign of the units, in addition to not putting forth the effort to find less expensive construction alternatives.
Commissioner Ben Robinson, who said he had previously brought up some of the issues at the first land use planning committee (LUPC) meeting that ultimately fell on deaf ears, raised concerns about the amount of plastic in the construction plans, specifically the trim on the outside of the building. “It is a good cause,” said Robinson. “But it’s really unfortunate to be confronted with a choice between what is essentially wasteful architecture and that good cause.” There is a solution, he said, regarding a redesign; “it’s not that complicated.”
Commissioner Linda Sibley inquired about the possibility of saving money in construction to finance a redesign, adding, “ I don’t want to force them to do a redesign that they can’t afford.” Sibley also noted “at least one unnecessarily [nonnative] plant on the list” mentioned by DRI coordinator Alex Elvin, and suggested a closer look be taken at the commission’s landscaping policy. Commissioner Jim Vercruysse, white noting the importance of elderly housing, asked if there was documentation of construction techniques and layout details of the demolished house. “It was a beautiful little house, and I’m sad to see it go,” he added.
Though he described Aidylberg III as being a “great benefit to the Island,” Vercruysse said, “it is not aesthetically anywhere near as pleasing” as the original house.
Commissioner Michael Kim, who is an architect, had described the construction plans as “strip mall architecture,” and offered some background information on construction, cost, and design fees, in order to determine if a design would be financially feasible. “An architect’s fee, all phases, from programming through construction, for a project like this would be in the range of 7 to 12 percent of cost of construction.” he said. Kim added that cost of construction on Martha’s Vineyard this year is “approximately $400 per square foot, plus or minus 30 percent or so, and the cost of a redesign to a schematic level, which is what is required for, as what we see as a board, one-quarter of the architect’s fee.”
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable making these people totally redesign their project,” said commissioner Brian Smith, noting that Kim’s estimate seems low. In the event of the commission’s denial of the proposed construction, Smith said, “[IEH] can come back to us with what the objections to the project have been.”
During Thursday’s continued hearing, IEH’s attorney Peter Freeman advocated passionately for the construction. Having noted that the demolished house was riddled with water damage, he insisted that the goal of the project be realized. “Essential use of the space as designed really affects the quality of life of the residents,” he said, reminding the commission that the area surrounding the house is “not a historic district, it’s not on the National Register of Historic Places, and neither was the [demolished] building that had been there.”
Freeman acknowledged some of the commissioners’ design concerns, but insisted, “We don’t think that at this stage in the game, that such a major redesign is really called for.”
IEH board member Cole Powers, who also serves on the building committee, testified before the commission. While respectfully acknowledging the issues raised by the commission, Powers emphasized his own concerns. “We have a really bad housing crisis,” he said. “These are the boots on the ground right here. This is the impasse that has to become unjarred. If we have to go back to the drawing board with this … we [would have to] pull the plug on this.”
“We’re in two races,” Powers continued. “The [increasing] cost of materials, and the actual housing crisis … every day, there are people contemplating, ‘Do I sell my house and have to move off-Island to retire?’ We’re talking about multigenerational Islanders, and the only way we’re ever going to provide them a place to retire to is right here, right now.”
Powers pleaded with the commission: “I’m begging you all, personally, to think about the big picture here … this is incredibly important.” He reminded the commission that the proposal is not akin to “McMansion,” and does not hold any historical significance that could outweigh that of housing the Island’s senior population. “This is the best we could do with what we had. Of course, we’d like more units there, but we were restricted. So, we’re at the bare minimum of what we can pull off with the budget we have … I’m handing you guys the hammer and the nail. We’re at your mercy,” Powers said. “We have a golden opportunity for an Island elderly person to have a place [to live], and we’re going to have to pull the plug on this because someone doesn’t like the door knocker?”
The public hearing record will be open until May 12, and post-planning hearing, deliberation, and decision will follow.