Originally an A&P, the Vineyard Haven Stop & Shop was built years before anyone on the Island ever contemplated problems with overcrowding. Water street once hosted a modest ferry terminal, a hot dog stand for tourists and the Smith, Bodfish and Swift farm and feed store. Today the hot dog stand is long gone, SBS has long since moved out of town to the State Road business corridor, and the Steamship Authority terminal was rebuilt and modernized many years ago to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of cars, tourists and Islanders that now use the ferry as a bridge to the mainland and the road home.
Now Stop & Shop, which has made a considerable business property investment in the area by buying up adjacent buildings, wants to rebuild the store into an elevated grocery complex twice its current size with a new parking garage at street level. It’s a large plan on a site that sits at sea level, very near the heart of downtown, directly across from the main port ferry terminal and a stone’s throw from the Five Corners intersection, a bottleneck for cars and trucks that confounds even the most sophisticated traffic planners.
At the conclusion of a third public hearing before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission last week it was evident that there are still major hurdles left to clear before any expansion can become reality. Size, scale, traffic impacts in the most congested area on the Vineyard and use of the municipal parking lot that lies directly adjacent to the store all remain unresolved.
Everyone agrees that the grocery store is long overdue for an upgrade. But the bar is extra high on this commercial project because of the sensitive and problematic location.
Longtime commission member Leonard Jason Jr. last week asked the question that has been on everyone’s mind: “Before we start killing each other here, have you thought of another location?”
The answer was no. Citing the commission’s own Island Plan, Stop & Shop spokesmen defended the in-town location as important to the vitality of the central business district.
Stop & Shop does not necessarily need to find a new location. What it does need to do is craft a plan that fits the needs and character of the Vineyard community as well as meeting its own business needs. And on that front more work needs to be done. The Tisbury historic commission has already taken a vote to recommend that the commission deny the plan on the grounds that it is too big. The town planning board has questions and concerns about how the project will fit with the downtown business district.
On top of that there is now growing confusion about how the town parking lot that abuts the store figures in the grocery store expansion.
An early version of the Stop & Shop plan called for making significant changes in the town lot. Closing Norton Lane, a narrow one-way street that leads into the lot from Main street, and razing the town comfort station that sits at the head of the lot were both under discussion.
Stop & Shop now wants to separate what happens to the town parking lot from consideration of the store expansion itself. Spokesmen for the store told the commission they want to work directly with the town to create a plan for the lot.
It is easy to understand why Stop & Shop might want to pare down the many thorny issues raised by renovating the store to ones over which it has more control. But like it or not, the store is located right smack in the middle of the gateway to the Vineyard, and consideration over its expansion has triggered an overdue discussion of what should be done to deal with congestion on Water street.
The town parking lot will inevitably be affected by an expansion of the store and cannot at this stage be simply carved out of the commission’s regional review. If Stop & Shop and the town want to try to negotiate a solution, the commission’s final review could be paused pending a recommendation on that issue.
The commission’s development of regional impact review process may seem messy and tedious at times — and it is. And Stop & Shop is in the unenviable position of having to deal with issues not of its own making. But the investment of time and effort to weigh competing interests can produce a better plan in the end, one that fits the needs of the town, the grocery store and the Island.