From Montreal to Martha's Vineyard, from two languages to one, from urban to rural, from one island to another. Just two days into his first week on the job as the new executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, Mark London has developed a keen appreciation for plastic boxes.
"We're doing what I call the double Vineyard shuffle," he says, explaining that he and his wife are renting a house from now until Nov. 1 and then will rent another house for the winter before moving into another rental for the summer.
"We bought lots and lots of plastic boxes from Wal-Mart. They are very stackable, and because they are going to be our home for now, we tried to get them in colors that we like," he says.
The afternoon sun filters through the windows in the corner office on the second floor of the Olde Stone Building in Oak Bluffs. The office is quite bare, but probably not for long. Mr. London points across the floor to a plastic box, as if he just noticed it this minute. "How did that get so full of stuff in spite of the fact that I've just started? I don't know," he says with a smile and a shrug.
The soft-spoken 54-year-old Canadian architect and city planner was hired to fill the top post at the commission last month. His first day on the job was Monday this week, although unofficially he sat in on the regular Thursday night meeting of the commission last week.
Officially, he is no stranger to the Vineyard, having spent one month every summer on the Island with his family for the last 22 years. His two daughters grew up attending summer programs at the Chilmark Community Center - and he credits his wife, Linda Thompson, an American industrial designer, for bringing the family to the Island in the first place.
"When we got married, the deal I made with my wife was that if she was going to live in Montreal for most of the year, that she would get to spend at least a month in the United States, and it had to be by the ocean and it had to be where the water was warm enough to swim," he recalls.
When their oldest daughter was still a toddler, they consulted a map and found that the nearest place to Montreal that fit the requirements was the coast of Cape Cod. "We saw the two Islands and my wife said, ‘I've heard that Martha's Vineyard is really nice,' " he remembers. Their first summer the London-Thompson clan rented a house in Aquinnah, in an era when the rural outskirts of the Vineyard were quieter and less developed. After that, the family rented in Chilmark every summer, eventually taking the same place for the month of July for 15 years.
Call it fate that this year they rented in June instead of July. Call it serendipity that several summers ago Mark London decided to introduce himself to Robert and Linda Zeltzer on Lucy Vincent Beach. (His deadpan account of the unwritten rules at Lucy Vincent Beach: "On Lucy Vincent the rule is that wherever you put your towel the first time you go there for the summer, you are obligated to sit in the same place for the rest of your life.") Call it coincidence that he bumped into Mr. Zeltzer on the beach this June and Mr. Zeltzer, who is a member of the commission, happened to say that he was on the search committee for a new executive director.
Call it the end of the story that Mr. London applied for the job and got it.
Call it also the beginning of a new chapter at the commission.
Born and raised in Montreal, Mr. London began his college education at McGill and completed it at the Université de Montréal. He has an undergraduate degree in architecture and a graduate degree in urban planning. His early professional work was in the private sector and included work on a range of projects from the redevelopment of the Halifax and Toronto waterfronts to the renovation and expansion of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Later, in a 15-year career with the city of Montreal, his work included the redevelopment of the Expo 67 site and the redesign and reopening of the historic Lachine Canal.
And if all of this seems too urban to translate to Martha's Vineyard, take a closer look at the island of Montreal, with its rich history, culture, architecture and community.
He remembers something. "I keep forgetting. I want to look up the size of Montreal compared to the Vineyard. I am guessing it is double, but I am not sure. The Vineyard, of course, has much more coastline with all of its ponds," he says.
His wife is originally from Pittsburgh, Pa., and she earned her degree from the Pratt Institute. They met when they worked in the same architectural firm early in their careers. She also paints scenes of the Vineyard. "She used to work from photographs and now she won't have to do that anymore," he says.
Their two daughters are both grown. Alexandra London-Thompson is 25 and in London working on the second half of a master's degree in Shakespearean studies. Mr. London says her interest in Shakespeare was born on the Vineyard as a child attending the summer amphitheatre performances in Vineyard Haven. Natasha London-Thompson is 22, just finished her commerce degree at Queens University and is currently living in Boston and working for City Year.
His love of the Vineyard is shaped by his love of history and architecture. "I don't do boating or fishing," he confesses somewhat apologetically. "To me the Vineyard is just a wonderful place as a landscape and as a historical and cultural site. I like taking photographs," he says, taking a minute to talk about the new digital camera he now carries around with him.
Does he miss speaking French?
"I've only stopped a week ago," he says with a smile. "I must say that it simplifies everything [to only speak English]. Probably everything I have done in Montreal was 25 per cent harder because of the need to do it in two languages. I am relatively fluent in speaking French and I have to take a lot of extra time in writing. . . . It was a little like walking one of the land bank properties with a 10-pound weight strapped to your leg."
Mr. London is the former chairman of the Westmount Architectural and Planning Commission, an agency founded in 1916 to review and approve development projects for the city of Westmount, population 20,000, which was later annexed by Montreal. He says there are differences but also similarities between the two commissions. When he first joined the Westmount commission, he decided in the initial period to use his ears a lot.
"I listened for the first month or two, which is what I am going to do here," he says.
In Westmount, here is what he heard: "Everyone on the commission said they had no guidelines, and decisions were made based on a variety of factors. Sometimes when there were refusals, there were no reasons given, and that was an accepted practice. But as I listened I realized there was this whole jurisprudence of decisions that had never been codified," he says. Later he decided to write it all down. "I wrote them up and said, ‘Here are your guidelines; you said you don't have guidelines, but here they are.' "
About 15 years ago he wrote an essay for the Montreal Gazette about the Vineyard. "I can think of few places where architecture and planning have so successfully combined to create a harmonious environment, and many of its lessons are relevant even to a city as big as Montreal. . . . Martha's Vineyard has actually grown dramatically in the past few decades, but by managing growth carefully, Vineyarders have preserved the features which attracted people in the first place. Can Montreal do the same?" he wrote.
Today Mr. London sees the Vineyard through new eyes, but his outlook is largely unchanged.
"Obviously the Vineyard is an exceptional place and there is exceptional legislation in place to manage its future," he says, adding warm words of praise for both the staff and the members of the commission.
He concludes: "It is inevitable that a commission like the Martha's Vineyard Commission is going to be involved in controversial decisions. . . . Maybe though, we can improve the public understanding of what the commission does. And one big picture is that without the Martha's Vineyard Commission, Martha's Vineyard would not be what it is today.
"We lose sight of that if we are looking only at a gas station or a golf course, but we have to understand that zoning bylaws are not an adequate tool to manage development in an area as complex and sensitive as the Vineyard. You can't write everything out in minimum lots sizes and setbacks. And the best evidence is the Vineyard we have today."