Not What It Seems

Editors, Vineyard Gazette:

I suspect that many of your readers perceive the Bradley Square project as just another version of a classic Island tale: a nonprofit organization wants to build much-needed affordable housing and is opposed by disgruntled abutters and neighbors who fear that bringing in “these people” will disfigure the neighborhood and affect property values. Wrong.

In this case, the longtime residents of Dukes County avenue and surroundings are the ones being stigmatized, and affordable housing is used to mask the true objective of the project: pave the way for the conversion of the neighborhood into an Oak Bluffs future tourist destination.

As selectman Ron DiOrio clearly explained on Plum TV last January, the first floor live-and-work artist studios of Bradley Square are intended to complement the “already thriving Arts District” to create a critical mass of related businesses that will be used to attract more art-related private investments throughout Dukes County avenue. In addition, the proposed function hall and green space will become the theatre of “many exciting events,” while sidewalks (to be added by the town) will transform the area into a pleasant strolling experience.

Sounds like a brilliant idea. After all, doesn’t art attract tourism and isn’t tourism the economic bedrock of this Island? No doubt, but let me remind your readers that the arts district is a self-proclaimed entity in the hands of a few shop owners, and that as far as I recall, this plan has never been the object of a town meeting or vote. Note also that during his interview, Ron DiOrio not even once mentions the neighborhood’s residents, thereby adding credit to their claims that they’ve been deliberately excluded and are considered a nuisance to the project.

The question is not whether art and tourism is good for Oak Bluffs, but whether the profound and irreversible change of an entire neighborhood should be left to the sole discretion of one selectman and a handful of (interested) individuals. I don’t think so, considering how far-reaching the consequences of splitting up a commercial district can be. Judging from similar situations in Edgartown (the Triangle) and Vineyard Haven (upper State Road), an additional tourist destination in Oak Bluffs would undoubtedly impact Circuit avenue businesses and affect the town’s traffic and parking patterns. Sneaking this in bit by bit under various pretenses and using a “let’s get this started and see what happens” approach is irresponsible; such an ambitious plan requires careful analysis and strong community support.

Unfortunately, it seems that the people behind this project have no patience for planning and little taste for democracy. Instead of engaging the public and trying to build consensus, they’ve chosen to hide their intentions behind noble goals (affordable housing, historic preservation, African-American heritage), knowing very well that this would weigh heavily in the votes of the boards and commissions and that it would allow them to portray any opposition as insensitive, egotistical or worse.

Why Patrick Manning and Philippe Jordi have committed their respective organizations to support this masquerade remains a mystery (nonprofits aren’t supposed to serve private interests), but — short of insulting their intelligence — I can only assume they are fully aware of the project’s true intentions. Even more troublesome is that their presentation of Bradley Square as affordable housing for the benefit of Oak Bluffs residents, combined with the preservation of an historic African-American church was decisive in the town’s vote to allocate CPA funding, and that similar arguments were used to mislead the Martha’s Vineyard Commission into believing that this project was a purely local initiative presenting little impact beyond Dukes County avenue.

What we are witnessing in this project is the systematic use of fait accompli politics. Using half-truths and exposing little or vague details, each step forward strengthens the claim that it is now too late to change course. One can easily predict that using the same tactics, the so-called live/work studios will become tomorrow’s full-fledged retail shops (they’re already built), the low-key function hall and NAACP office will become tomorrow’s heavily-used community center (sorry, we came to realize that it was the only way to make this place economically viable), and some other neighborhood will become tomorrow’s satellite parking lot (you made us promise we would shuttle people in, so you can’t oppose this now).

Bradley Square is currently in the hands of the zoning board of appeals, which had already closed the public hearings when last Thursday its chairman was advised by town counsel to reopen them. I strongly encourage every reader who believes that back-room politics and deceit should have no place on the Island to voice their concerns at this new public hearing on Sept. 18.

It is high time for the Bradley Square team to clearly state their intentions. Either this is about creating a new tourist destination in Oak Bluffs, and the CPA funding and MVC approval votes should be recast in this context, or it is strictly an affordable housing project (accessible to any eligible candidates) combined with the preservation of an historic church (as a museum and/or NAACP office), and prior to zoning board approval the design must be reviewed in collaboration with abutters and neighbors to ensure that the scale of the buildings fit the neighborhood and that all necessary parking spaces are provided on site.

Yann Meersseman

Oak Bluffs

Worthwhile Project

Editors Vineyard Gazette:

Yann Meersseman continually writes letters suggesting conspiracy in the Bradley Square project. To insinuate that this worthy project was slipped into the neighborhood is to ignore the posted open meetings attended by neighbors throughout this past year. There were several televised commission meetings that responded to neighbors’ concerns including special studies for traffic and parking. Every question was answered and changes were implemented. Street setbacks were adjusted and an arborist was consulted. Consideration for design, detail and materials were addressed. Even the number of units was decreased. When all was said and done, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission voted 13-1 in favor.

I hardly consider this very lengthy process to be subversive.

Much negative rhetoric has been directed toward the arts district from people who still do not understand the need for a safe, pleasant pedestrian neighborhood with good affordable housing and the restoration of an historic place. It was the artists who started the petition to get the stop sign at Dukes County and Vineyard avenues and who wholeheartedly support the town’s request for sidewalks. After all, we are in a walk-to-town location. How do the dissenters not see the families walking from the harbor to Smoke & Bones at night or people walking through the Camp Ground to Tony’s Market? Maybe it’s because they do not live or work here! The efforts of our artist community is to improve the look and safety on Dukes County avenue. We should not bury our head in the sand. Projects are going to come to this last strip of B1-zoned property not yet developed. Think of what could be here — there are no regulations — how about a large restaurant with takeout or a car dump — it’s possible.

The arts district is nothing new; it has deep roots on Dukes County avenue. For 40 years Molly Kahn rented spaces to artists. In the 1960s Joe McCarran’s pottery studio was active with students and potters, Barney Zeitz’s stained glass studio was at 93 Dukes County avenue, printmakers lived at Periwinkle Studio, painters and writers lived and worked at the old Boston Bakery that is now Island Interiors, and art and music by Edie Yoder was at the Dragonfly along with many people who got their start in this location.

So yes, this is our neighborhood too. Respecting history should include all people who live and work in a neighborhood. The four live-and-work spaces at Bradley Square will continue to celebrate art history on Dukes County avenue and they will be qualified affordable housing units. The chance we have to save an historically significant piece of the Island and Oak Bluffs history, the Bradley Church, which was the first black and Portuguese church on the Island, is a treasure that should be carefully and respectfully restored to provide a cultural center for all people. To insist it become another condominium unit is to disrespect and disregard the history of Oak Bluffs and take the heart from this worthy project.

The tireless efforts of the Island Affordable Housing Fund and the Island Affordable Housing Trust along with banks, the historical society, the NAACP and the arts district have kept the Bradley Square project on track. To have the zoning board knock it out would be a travesty, and to question the integrity of supportive town officials and these institutions is truly an insult.

Holly Alaimo

Oak Bluffs