It is a preservation crisis that is not limited to Jersey City but has struck nationwide. All too often, a development boom leads to a spike in destruction of historic resources. Developers will purchase a historic property and, taking advantage of overly permisive municipal zoning law, destroy the property and replace it with modern cookie cutter housing. Incentives for doing so include the ability to subdivide property, the ability to add units onto a property, or the misperception that historic properties are less valuable than their replacements.
Jersey City has been victim to numerous such “teardowns.” In August of 2006, Jersey City lost a circa 1840 Dutch house located on Sherman Avenue in Jersey City Heights. Despite legislation requiring City Council approval of demolitions for houses over 150 years old, the developer ignored a stop work order prohibiting the demolition. No penalties were assessed against the developer. More recently, in August of 2007, Christ Hospital demolished a 19th century Victorian style mansion over the outcry of the neighboring community and a strong recommendation against demolition by the city’s historic preservation office.
JC Landmarks has worked with local neighborhood groups to raise awareness about historic resources in each neighborhood and to mobilize against the teardown phenomenon. With the help of groups such as the Riverview Neighborhood Association and the Lincoln Park/West Bergen Neighborhood Association, JC Landmarks defeated proposed changes to the zoning code that would have encouraged further teardowns in “R1” districts. Subsequently, Jersey City’s planning office proposed, and the city council enacted, a more preservation friendly “R1A” zoning district to prevent subdivisions of large parcels in areas such as Greenville and West Bergen. The new legislation has already saved several historic houses that were slated for demolition prior to the change.
Although the new legislation is an improvement, the teardown phenomenon still persists. To further combat this citywide problem, the City should take the following steps.
- Pursue municipal historic designation for neighborhoods that are eligible for such status. Historic designation provides the strongest layer of protection against demolitions.
- Expand the “R1A” zoning to additional neighborhoods, particularly the sections of Jersey City Heights with oversized lots.
- Strengthen enforcement by following through with fines and/or criminal penalties for violations of the law or stop work orders.
- Require compliance with appropriate design standards for infill housing to ensure that such housing is compatible with a neighborhood’s historic character.
In 2007, Preservation New Jersey placed Teardowns (Statewide) on it’s “10 Most Endangered” list.