Shenandoah looks to partner on harborfront proposal

Excitement, and some pointed questions, brewing on HarborWorks plans filed last week.


A new nonprofit unveiled ambitious plans last week for the redevelopment of several significant waterfront properties in downtown Vineyard Haven, and already Islanders and visitors have shared their excitement — along with some pointed questions — for the project. And one voice of support is standing out: the owners of the Shenandoah.

Representatives of Martha’s Vineyard Ocean Academy, or MVOA, owners of the tall ship in Vineyard Haven, are eager to find a new home for their topsail schooner. And they believe the HarborWorks project could be that home.

The Vineyard Lands for Our Community, or VLC, filed their plans with the Tisbury conservation committee and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection just last week for HarborWorks. 

Included in the plans are a public park and pavilion on what is now the private bird sanctuary Boch Park, the expansion and preservation of the wooden-boatbuilding business Gannon & Benjamin, new artist and work spaces on lots long owned by the DeSorcy family, approximately 250 feet of public beach access along the harbor, and a 90-foot pier. The MV Times building would also move to the Boch property if plans are approved.

The ink on last week’s paper had barely dried when the MVOA made it known that they wanted in on the ambitious plan. 

Leaders with VLC have welcomed the new idea with open arms, and say they wished they had approached them earlier.

“It was right there at our doorstep, but we were busy here on the beach checking this and doing that; we didn’t even look out into the harbor,” VLC board chairman and president Steve Bernier, former owner of Cronig’s Markets and current owner of The MV Times, said.

“Should the MVOA be a part of VLC? A wooden boat. The answer is, ‘Of course.’ It’s a no-brainer,” Bernier said. The boat is the ribbon on the package, or the icing on the cake, Bernier said: “It’s the thing that helps more people be involved in the waterfront.”

Ian Ridgeway, co-founder of MVOA and captain of the Shenandoah, approached Bernier early last week as Bernier — as he does every Monday through Saturday morning — was sweeping Cronig’s parking lot.

The MVOA team currently reaches the Shenandoah, which is moored in Vineyard Haven harbor, by a launch from the town dock in Owen Park. 

Ridgeway envisions that HarborWorks will be the base for parents to drop their kids off for a weeklong excursion on the Shenandoah, where the next generation of Islanders will learn navigation skills, teamwork, and how to haul sails. Details still need to be worked out about a building for MVOA to run their ground operations. The VLC board was set to meet Wednesday — after our print deadline — to discuss that.

“It isn’t in ink,” John McDonald, VLC board treasurer, and founder of a Boston-based investment firm that has funded affordable housing developments nationally, said earlier this week about the inclusion of MVOA in the project. “There’s a dock in our plan that would be ideal, and make a nice place for a public launch. It makes a lot of sense to shift the launch over.”

Ridgeway and Casey Blum started as students on the Shenandoah, and under the mentorship of Robert Douglas, who built and captained the tall ship, became shipboard educators and founded the MVOA, previously known as FUEL, in 2017.

Douglas, after 56 years as captain of the Shenandoah, donated the topsail schooner to the nonprofit in 2020. It’s currently trying to raise funds to replace the 60-year-old boat’s hull.

“[The harbor has] developed into a unique haven for sailors and traditional boat enthusiasts since,” Ridgeway said. “I see [HarborWorks] as a huge opportunity to safeguard and create a home for one of the most important cultural institutions in Vineyard Haven and Vineyard Haven Harbor.”

For the past six months, the VLC has worked to draw up the plans for this project. Now they may look slightly different with this new addition. Bernier is meeting with engineers and architects to discuss the new inclusion.

“Gannon & Benjamin is the backbone of the working waterfront, but they’re only known through the wooden boat world,” Cole Powers, VLC board clerk and secretary, owner of Powers Electric, and a tenant of the DeSorcy property, said. “Shenandoah has a network of 50 years of all the Island’s fifth graders.”

While the Shenandoah may be part of the plans going forward, the entire project still has multiple bureaucratic steps to go through.

“It’s fair to say there will be a Tisbury conservation commission hearing on the project in early July,” Phil Wallis, executive director for VLC, said.

The conservation commission meeting will give the public the opportunity to speak, though it’s likely it will refer the project directly to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission at that time, Wallis said.

While there’s been no official public hearing yet, there has been significant discussion about the project, especially from Islanders and visitors who see the proposal as an opportunity to increase public access to and awareness of the waterfront, as well as keep the coast from mainland developers.

The Island has hundreds of miles of shoreline, but only a couple of thousand feet can be used for boat craftsmanship and transportation. “If any goes to an off-Island company or big conglomerate, it’ll be gone,” said Powers.

One forum where Islanders started the public dialogue about HarborWorks has been on The Times comments page; many followed up with a Times reporter on their excitement and positive feedback on the project, as well as with outstanding questions .

“I’m very excited about it, and my fingers are crossed,” Anne Luzzatto of Vineyard Haven told The Times. “The nourishing lifeblood of our Island community would be with this project.”

The plans are respectful to Vineyard Haven Harbor as a working waterfront community, energize the Vineyard’s celebrated creativity by providing space and opportunities for artists, and the simplicity and thoroughness of the design will be an invitation to gather for those arriving on the ferry, whether you’re a first-timer or an old-timer, Luzzatto said.

“It would be wonderful for V.H. residents and visitors alike. The last thing we need is more commercial development. This would help keep our little Island the special place it has always been,” Mimi Torchin commented on last week’s MV Times article about the plans.

Many are also impressed by the résumés of board members behind the new nonprofit, many of whom are born-and-raised Islanders and longtime contributors to the community.

“That corridor of Beach Road is long overdue for a little love, and I’m encouraged at some of the respected names I’ve seen associated with this project. I trust that these smart folks can sufficiently address the environmental and other challenges that will present themselves, and although I’m sure the design will go through many iterations, I really like what I see so far,” Wayne Davey, third-generation Tisbury native and current seasonal resident, told The Times.

Leaders in the arts and culture community have also shared their enthusiasm for the proposal. 

“I’m super-excited about it,” Taylor Stone, who helps organize First Fridays, and is clerk of the Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District. The cultural district is a group of businesses and individuals working to increase community engagement with arts and culture. “It’s exactly what the cultural district wants to see … I can only see good things come out of it,” Stone said.

“I’m excited that I’m going to have a studio in the new building,” Althea Freeman-Miller of Althea’s Designs, one of the businesses that will be affected by the proposal, said. “I’m most excited that the harbor will be open to the public, and it’s saving special harbor space for the community. There’s nothing better than what the plan is.”

Still, there are some people who are wary about these new plans, and many of those concerns have to do with the environment.

Susan Desmarais of Oak Bluffs is a retired hospice bereavement counselor and longtime environmental activist. She recognizes that there’s a need for some enhancements on the waterfront, but is concerned that there are too many projects happening around the Island.

“We’re an Island for good and for bad,” she said. “It makes our resources finite … When you live on an Island, everywhere is your backyard, so we need to be a little bit ‘not in my backyard.’”

“It’s pretty on paper,” she added. “But have we thought about long-term consequences, and when it’s not a hot summer night, listening to a concert at the pavilion?”

Though Gary McGivney of Vineyard Haven thinks it’s an excellent idea, and hopes the Shenandoah will be included in the plans, he said sea level rise needs to be taken into serious consideration. He asked, How will we get to the buildings if the roads are underwater?

Ben Robinson, Tisbury planning board member, said he couldn’t make a value judgement until the plan is in front of the board, but said he thinks it’s a “necessary piece of redevelopment that needs to happen.”

Any engineering questions to do with sea level rise and storm or tidal surges need to be answered in any proposal, however, and he’s intrigued to see how this project will set a standard for what other projects have to look like.

But he questioned whether the town should do something really good that’ll last 20 years, to just become obsolete with rising sea levels.

“It’s a fascinating process, and I hope developers take time to think through that [the design] may be different by the time it’s over,” Robinson said.

The current proposal does illustrate that buildings on the HarborWorks property, three DeSorcy lots at 34, 42 and 46 Beach Road, would be elevated on pilings approximately nine feet from grade to accommodate sea level rise.

One Edgartown resident, Scott Patterson, told The Times, “I just think it’s silly to build in an area so vulnerable to rising tides. Seems like they’re in denial.”

Bernier acknowledged that everyone thinks because of climate change, this project should be “running for the hills.”

“But what do we do with that waterfront for the next 30 years before we have to run for the hills, and how do we use this project to learn how to work the waterfront on all of Martha’s Vineyard?” he said.

Some Island residents questioned how the nonprofit will pay taxes. Wallis told The Times that they’re not looking for an exemption, and are going to pay property taxes, and McDonald told critics online that the “VLC is proposing to pay our ‘fair share.’”

One critical Islander, John Packer, whose family has a long tradition of maritime business in Vineyard Haven, questioned how this project has to do with the actual working waterfront. 

“I see water-dependent use as boatyards, barge terminals, fishing boat dockage, ferries and such. It is also a place [where] watermen work … Things of this nature are water-dependent because they can be done no place else except where the land meets the sea,” said Packer. “I am unclear how artists, production studios, and newspapers are water-dependent.”



  1. So when the sea level rises, which it undoubtedly will, just look how accurate the predictions of Edgartown being underwater by now were, will we get to these buildings on stilts by boat only? Is 9 ft high enough? Surely the seas will someday rise well above 9 feet. Some people think that could happen any day now!

    • John– the only predictions about Edgartown being under water by
      now came from people who knew near nothing about the subject,
      or are made up lies by climate deniers trying to discredit actual
      scientist who have consistently underestimated the rate of sea level rise.

  2. VLC will pay it’s fair share in taxes according to whom? I am sure the Hospital thinks it is paying it’s fair share which they are not. These are all for profit companies hiding behind tax loopholes. Shame on them and us to allow this to continue.

  3. “I am sure the Hospital thinks it is paying it’s fair share which they are not.”
    Who pays the hospital taxes? The Tooth fairy? It’s customers?
    Is the hospital making a profit?
    Who owns it?

  4. Watch how fast the paper closes down comments, when they don’t like the no votes, but if the non profit owns newspaper ; they will only write a narrative that supports their
    Favorite nonprofit of the day..Maybe the waterfront shouldn’t be sold to a nonprofit
    How many feet up are we building won’t even have an ocean view.This isn’t for the little sailing community it is for someone’s private apartment and parking after the chaos it’ll be
    Run by a handful. remember, the enemy of good is better when somebody tells you they can make it better. They’re really stealing. You’re good.

  5. Fantastic concept on every level. As a practical matter it needs to be protected from sea level rise somehow. As a propery owner on Beach Road there are certain issues that need to be addressed. Mass DOT is incolved. We know that a plan for a raised road exists, we do not know the time frame. We can see sand and gravel accumulate and it may seem a small matter, but it is not small. There are issues with blockage of ductwork and water is backed up to the road and comes down from the highest points to the lowest and floods regularly. Mass DOT needs to be a partner of soome kind with shared authority so that the road can be kept clear of debris, sand and objects. It is a big deal. Other than this suggestion, the idea and focus seem just about as good as it gets.

  6. I think that part of the harbor could use a nice project.
    Especially if it’s privately funded and they are not tax exempt.
    I am in favor of putting G&B there. That is an appropriate
    use of this property and they are a wonderful asset to the town.
    The new idea to have the Shenandoah dock on the pier
    seems like a good one also.
    One other point I have never understood is why the town
    has kept the nice park that Ernie Jr. built years
    ago inaccessible to the public ?
    But that’s where the extent of my support ends.
    An amphitheater ? Really ? I haven’t read about how many seats
    are proposed,, nor do the developers ( or at least this paper) state
    how many parking spaces will be under these buildings.
    Parking might be adequate for G&B employees and their customers,
    Maybe even loading docks, but come on,
    Based on renditions in the June 12 th story. parking is pretty limited.
    Yeah, it’s all touchy feely to have parking under a building or 2,
    and have them on pilings with an art studio of course. Where’s
    the yoga studio ?
    But look at the pictures. Parking is clearly inadequate.
    Lets just say the amphitheater has 80 seats– I think a low
    estimate based on the drawings in the June 12 th story.
    Are there really an additional 40 parking spots over the needs of
    employees, etc. under the few buildings that are elevated?
    Sorry– the post office parking lot will be the overrun.
    Do the residents of V.H want another year of pile driving ?
    Would that be ok for an art studio when It was roundly criticized
    when a green energy company did it ?
    The renderings also have nice green sod all around, but you know,
    the first time that area gets flooded with salt water, it might not look so nice.
    How many chemicals will be needed to keep that area green? Or perhaps that’s
    plastic turf ? Not specified.
    And how exactly are they going to address the chronic flooding on Beach road?
    It’s currently only a foot or 2 above sea level.
    There are a bunch of things to be concerned about here. Don’t be fooled
    by glitzy pictures and lofty goals. Reality is in the details, and sometimes
    less is better. Of course that may not make as much money for the
    well intentioned developers, but it’s our town.

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