A Boom Is Changing Edgartown (Again)


The sound of hammers and saws pulses through downtown Edgartown. Morning calm is broken by a foreman yelling instructions to a team of roofers and by the beeping of a delivery truck backing into a driveway with a load of lumber. A lane of traffic on Cooke street has become a parking lot for workmen reporting to one of three project sites in a single block near Pease's Point Way.

"It's looks like the Big Dig," said one contractor, Norman Rankow.

A housing boom is jolting Edgartown's village center - a surge in construction activity concentrated in 30 square blocks. Architects, builders, pool installers and landscapers are rushing major projects on 20 properties - far more than in any winter season in memory. A building boom in a village that has essentially been built out for decades means gutting, stripping, hauling away or simply tearing down old houses; that's the case in 15 of these projects. What then emerges, for the most part, are immaculate replications of period homes - Colonials, Greek Revivals, Victorians - designed to look as if they've been here a hundred years.

These new structures are bulkier, taller and closer to neighbors' windows than the houses they replace.

In half of these current projects, the new house will be twice as large as what was there before.

Some say this rash of construction activity is improving the town. Some say it's changing the town, and not necessarily for the good. Almost all say there's no going back.

"It's happening in a lot of communities built a long time ago. People are buying mediocre and outdated properties and rebuilding or entirely replacing what's there. And they're spending a lot of money to do it. This is a different era," said David Thompson, a real estate broker with LandVest and a Fuller street resident.

"A lot of the homes seem too large, but it's all perfectly legal. You might not be happy having two and a half stories towering over your one-story bungalow, but that's the way it is," said Peter Van Tassel, a downtown resident and member of the historic district commission.

The surge in activity follows a pattern that has been slowly spreading through downtown streets the last few winters. This season's pace is expected to continue as downtown becomes more attractive with each of these renovation projects.

"It's the classic New England port town, and it improves all the time," Mr. Thompson said.

The result continues to hook deep-pocketed mainlanders shopping for a seasonal Vineyard home.

"I liked that people hung out on the benches. It's so cozy," said Barbara Jordan, who rented a house on North Water street for many summers before buying another one nearby.

Ms. Jordan wanted her kids and grandchildren to walk to town for ice cream whenever they wanted.

Scott Gieselman, former football player and Houston businessman, likes the idea of keeping his car parked during weekend visits.

His summer guests can take the Pied Piper ferry to Memorial Wharf, then walk to his Pease's Point Way house. In less than a 10-minute stroll, Mr. Gieselman and his friends can be sunbathing at Fuller street beach, having morning coffee at Espresso Love or enjoying dinner at one of more than a dozen downtown restaurants; he could do none of this from the Major's Cove house he owned until last year.

It's the Economy

Downtown's real estate market escaped any damage from the crippled national economy; the stock market slump may, in fact, have helped fuel this building boom.

"If you have money, plunking it down on Martha's Vineyard, especially in-town Edgartown, is about as safe an investment as you can make," said Mr. Thompson.

Rarely does a village property sell for less than $1 million. With most new buyers tearing down or completely overhauling the house, that price reflects land value alone.

Some of the new owners, having shopped for a home in other port communities, say the steep prices are worth it.

"When we sold our first house in Edgartown [off Planting Field Way], we looked off-Island, thinking there would be better values. But when you compare the Cape to Martha's Vineyard, it's like night and day. We felt that staying in Edgartown was a better choice," said Jeff Clutterbuck, now building a new house on South Summer street.

The purchase price is only the beginning. Even the smaller construction projects cost $1 million, contractors said. Throw in a carriage house and swimming pool, and the bottom line jumps to $2 million. Seven of these projects entail a pool; at least half have carriage houses.

And as more and more homes are renovated, neighbors often follow suit, embarking on projects of their own.

"It's a chain reaction, a domino effect. When someone renovates a property, a neighbor is not afraid to make that kind of investment," Mr. Rankow said.

Cost may be irrelevant to many new buyers. They want all the extras - the pool, the three-car garage, the cobblestone pavers, the playroom, the seven-foot privet hedges, the detached bedroom. They order as much as they can fit on these postage-stamp size lots.

"Up until the 1990s when there started to be this mad accumulation of money, people still paid attention to what things cost. Now, it doesn't seem to matter. Kids used to have bunk rooms, now they have en-suite bedrooms," Mr. Thompson said.

Ample houses on small lots, of course, has been the pattern of development in downtown dating back to the whaling days. Until the late 1980s, when the town adopted a 10,000 square-foot minimum lot requirement in the village, downtown had been divided into 5,000 square-foot lots. Five-foot setbacks now apply to the sides and rear property lines, and houses need to be in line with neighboring houses or meet a 20-foot front setback. Newer houses often push the limits of the lot, filling in yard space with all the extras.

"Pretty soon, when you walk downtown, it will all be asphalt. The Island will one day sink with all the granite paving stones," said Margaret Steele, co-chairman of the historic district commission and a resident of Cottage street.

The Renovation Game

The three-story colonial now perched on 132 South Water street looks nothing like the one-story bungalow that sat atop the hill for the last century. But the building department called the work that Colonial Reproductions planned a renovation.

Permits for new single family homes are a precious commodity in Edgartown these days. The town has limited the number of building permits issued annually, and contractors compete in a lottery drawing each month for one of the 84 permits available this year.

Mr. Rankow, owner of Colonial Reproductions, didn't want to wait. So, instead, he called his project a renovation and tweaked his building plans to meet the required standards. So long as Mr. Rankow agreed to salvage a quarter of the existing house's exterior walls and keep the same number of bedrooms, the job qualified as a renovation. (He also kept his name in the new construction lottery, and his name eventually came up. Ironically, by then workmen had installed some of the old walls in the new structure. Getting the permit, however, did allow him to increase the number of bedrooms to five.)

"Is the building cap working? No, people find a way to move ahead with their work," Mr. Rankow said.

Mr. Rankow - who along with Michael Donaroma built this house on speculation - knew it would be a headache to save much of the old 1,300 square-foot house. Like many village homes built around the turn of the last century, it was showing its age.

"The house was simply not salvageable. It had been added onto so many times," he said.

"Restoring old houses is sometimes a double-edged sword. When you are working with a dilapidated house, the cost of reconstruction is more than starting from scratch. The rest gets torn down because it's not worth it. It's simply cheaper to rebuild," Mr. Rankow said.

Many embarking on major restoration projects in downtown typically find more challenges than they bargained for. Bug infestation, dry rot and weak underpinnings are common. Deferred maintenance is to blame, and the new buyers are paying dearly.

The plumbing in Ms. Jordan's North Water street house, formerly a captain's shop, was so antiquated, she said, that only one person could shower at a time. She envisioned tearing out a large section of the existing house, saving one wing and adding on another section. But once her contractor opened up the house, he found fractured support beams and plenty of rot. Fitting the old wing to the new addition became a restoration headache, she said.

Gary Maynard of Holmes Hole Builders, too, has a restoration challenge on his hands. Launching work on the interior of an 1838 house on School street, his crew found a crumbled foundation. The house, formerly a Baptist church, now sits on stilts. The inside work is on hold until the new foundation is installed.

"It's unavoidable. You are throwing good money after bad if you don't work on the underpinnings. You have to deal with the underlying issues," said Mr. Maynard. His client was already committed to an interior overhaul as well as ripping out some historically inaccurate features added during prior renovations.

"It's like the tiger by the tail syndrome. You jump in feet first. Once it gets going, you just have to hang on," said Mr. Maynard.

Where We're Headed

It is now inevitable, some say, that something dramatic is about to happen to a property the moment it comes on the market.

"Doesn't anybody ever buy a house anymore and leave it alone?" asked historic district commissioner Andrew Leslie during a meeting last month. He already knew the answer.

Lately, every applicant before the commission is seeking permission to give the old home a facelift. They want attics as living space, new second-story decks with a water view, a backyard carriage house.

The alterations come one property, one request at a time - one tree cut, one water view blocked, one more curb cut. Several property owners this year sought permission from selectmen to take down town shade trees because the footprint of the new house encroached upon them.

"People are maximizing their square footage on these small lots. They're wanting to replace these trees with what they think is a perfect tree in a spot that they choose," said Stuart Fuller, Edgartown tree warden, who is responsible for more than 900 shade trees the town once planted. The town has no say over removal of any other trees on private property.

In the house itself, what is lost along the way, some say, are the bumps and warts that tell two hundred years' worth of stories.

"When the houses are redone, they lose some of their character. It loses its sags. I like all the bumps - they are like lines on someone's face," said Tommy Fisher, a lifelong resident of downtown Edgartown. "You really can't build something that looks old. You really can't. It becomes like a movie set. Something is lost."

That something - Arthur Railton, a 30-year resident of South Summer street, said - is charm.

"Each of these little things extract some of the charm. Pretty soon, we'll be toothless," Mr. Railton said.

But alarm over lost character typically subsides, Mr. Rankow said, when the construction is complete and a showcase historic reproduction remains.

"There is sensitivity because it's new. It's the shock value of us going in, making a mess and making a lot of noise. But if we've done a good job, a year later, people drive by and think it fits right in," said Mr. Rankow.

No one disputes that, by and large, downtown looks better these days. The beautification, they agree, is due in large part to newcomers undertaking renovation jobs on neglected properties.

"Thirty years ago, there were many more haunted houses - derelict houses, obviously in need of a paint job. Now, some people are thinking these houses are a little too well maintained," said Mr. Van Tassel.

It is a difficult balance to strike, Ms. Steele said.

"There's a tightrope walk between preserving the character of the historic downtown and letting [the new property owners] create a home," she said.

And many understand that as much as they'd like to see the turn-of-the-century cottages and 1950s bungalows forever be a part of village landscape, the value of the land beneath them is too great a lure. So, those mourning the changes to downtown carefully pick their battles.

"The town can't be preserved in amber. It's a living, growing, breathing town. We just need to make sure that as things happen, it happens in a harmonious way," said Ms. Steele.