After three hours of emotionally-charged testimony last Thursday both for and against the Bradley Memorial Church renovation project in Oak Bluffs, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission closed a public hearing on the project.
The commission is expected to begin deliberations at a June 19 meeting. The project — which includes affordable housing, artist work spaces and historic preservation of the Bradley Memorial Church, the first African-American church on the Island — is under review by the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI).
And over the last month it has become a lightning rod for controversy in the neighborhood.
On Monday the commission land use planning subcommittee will begin a post-public hearing review. The committee often drafts conditions for approval and makes a recommendation to the full commission.
Testimony was again mixed last week during a standing-room-only public hearing at the Oak Bluffs senior center; about half the 100 people in attendance were in favor of the plan while the other half were vehemently opposed.
“I am ashamed neighborhoods on this Island have to defend themselves against proposals like this that are simply too big,” said Wing Road resident Deborah Dean. “I agree we need to preserve our history, but what we don’t need to do is gentrify, urbanize and build out our neighborhoods in the process,” she added.
“This proposal will preserve a piece of our past — we have already seen too many of our important historical buildings torn down in the name of development,” countered Elaine Weintraub, co-founder of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail. “To lose this church would be devastating.”
Emotional testimony has come to define the project — also known as Bradley Square — since it was first proposed last year. Among other things, the plan calls for the old Bradley Church on the corner of Masonic and Dukes County avenues to be moved and renovated to create a cultural center with one residential apartment and an office.
If the plan is approved, two new buildings will be built along Dukes County avenue with five residential apartments in each. Ten of the eleven apartments will be sold at what are considered affordable rates under state guidelines. Four of the apartments are planned as live and work studios for artists. The Island Affordable Housing Trust plans to build the project, using John Early as a contractor.
The existing building on the property was built in 1895 as a mission to help Portuguese immigrants assimilate into society. In the 1920s it became the Bradley Memorial Church, the first African-American Church on the Vineyard where the Rev. Oscar Denniston led church services and lived upstairs with his wife and five children. The building has been abandoned for several decades and is in poor condition.
The Island Affordable Housing Fund, a sister organization to the trust, bought the property in June of 2007 for $905,000.
Proponents of the project say it is innovative in design and addresses key community needs, including affordable housing, artist work space and historic preservation. The Island chapter of the NAACP plans to lease office space in the cultural center. Project supporters include a small band of artisans who have formed a budding arts district along Dukes County avenue, and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Critics — most of whom are neighbors who live in the area — say the project is too big for the site and out of scale with the residential neighborhood. Available parking is a point of contention.
Thursday’s hearing started on a charged note when Oak Bluffs selectman Kerry Scott accused Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust, of misleading selectmen when he asked them to sponsor the project as a so-called friendly 40B project.
Chapter 40B is a state statute which allows developers to bypass most local zoning regulations, but 40B projects are subject to review by the commission.
Ms. Scott said Mr. Jordi told selectmen last year that his group would only use the 40B process as a last resort and did not use it to bypass any local zoning bylaws.
“I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in you right now Philippe [Jordi]; when you asked the board if we would get involved with a friendly 40B project you promised that you wouldn’t use it to skip over town zoning. There is so much I like about this project, but you make it hard to support this when you take steps that are tantamount to cutting the town out of the process,” Ms. Scott said.
Mr. Jordi appeared surprised and cited a letter from town zoning administrator Adam Wilson concluding the project should be a 40B.
He said using the 40B process was not meant to shut anyone out of the process. “To be honest, our preference is not to be a 40B . . . it is clearly not something that we are pushing,” he said.
Ms. Scott also criticized the affordable housing group for misleading voters at town meeting by telling them all the affordable housing units would have preferred status for Oak Bluffs residents.
But Patrick Manning, executive director of the Island Affordable Housing Fund, said Oak Bluffs residents would still be given preference for many of the units; he said there may be some confusion between preferred status and a resident requirement. Some commissioners said requiring all the affordable housing units to automatically go to Oak Bluffs residents might be unfair to residents in other towns.
“This committee is obligated to look at the regional benefits of a project,” commissioner Linda Sibley said. “I think where people happen to live today is often just a function of where they were able to find an affordable place to live,” she added.
Town resident Yann Meersseman said the arts district had too much influence and was seeking to hijack the neighborhood. “I can’t believe [affordable housing] would let another group use their project to push their agenda. If you approve this, then you are saying it’s okay for a few people to come in and decide what a street or a neighborhood should look like,” he said.
But proponents disagreed.
“Hijack the neighborhood — that has never been our intention,” said Sue Dawson, who owns a gallery in the arts district with photographer Alison Shaw. “Yes we have been exuberant in our support of this project, but that is because we see so many positives from affordable housing to [an office for the] NAACP to artist spaces. The idea we are trying to tell anyone what to do with their neighborhood is nonsense,” she said.
But Dukes County avenue resident Pat Tankard returned to the central theme for opponents: the project is too large for the proposed site.
“I’m certainly not opposed to affordable housing or arts, and I’m not opposed to this project . . . what I’m opposed to is the size,” she said, concluding:
“I don’t think it’s fair to portray anyone as discriminating against the art or the arts district because they feel it’s too big. All I keep hearing from the applicant is that we cannot downsize this, and I think that is the question we should be focusing on.”