A reader writes to express his fears of Montclair’s histroric homes slowly disappearing:
It’s become an all too common site in Montclair. Take a left turn instead of a right. Drive down a street that maybe you haven’t been down in a while, and you notice, where a pretty Victorian once stood, you come across, well, something like this in its place.
It becomes scary for homeowners in their neighborhoods. My wife and I bought our house in a part of town where the homes were built largely from 1890 to 1910; most of them still resembling how they would have looked when they were first built. It’s a big part of why we bought here: charm. Yes, we pay extra for it, Montclair’s home prices, and taxes, are a lot more expensive than many surrounding communities, but its old homes and tree lined streets are a massive part of its draw. And it’s a major reason why New York City families have been moving here since the 1860s.
But most of you probably know this already. It’s likely a big part of why each and every person reading this decided to move here in the first place.
What I do wonder, is if most of you get the pit in your stomach that I every time a for sale sign goes up in your neighborhood. You start to get nervous. What will the new owners do with the house? Will they knock it down, and put a new, cheaply built multi-family unit in its place? Will it undergo a cheap and tasteless renovation by an absentee landlord, looking to turn the home into a cash cow? Will a huge McMansion be put up by a builder who has little concern for the atheistic of the neighborhood? Will my property value, and my neighbors’ property values, plummet because of what gets done to this house? Will this start a chain of blight and cheap construction in my neighborhood? Do you stop and think: how can this be allowed to happen, again and again, in a town with a history as rich as Montclair’s?
Teardowns aren’t a new thing in any historic community. Many towns, Montclair included, saw a good number of its old, grand homes get demolished, mostly from the 1930s to the 1960s, when many of these homes were old enough to be old, but not quite yet old enough to be historic. Sometimes an old Queen Anne made way for a modern ranch. Sometimes entire blocks were leveled to make way for garden apartments. Many of Montclair’s neighborhoods where this was done to excess have still never fully recovered. Many of its most sought after neighborhoods, are the ones that survived largely unscathed.
But many towns have learned from their mistakes, and now have rules in place to prevent exactly that sort of thing from happening today (more on that later). Montclair, it seems, likes to leave a little more to chance than other towns. There are a small number of historic protected neighborhoods, such as Marlboro Park or Erwin Park, but the vast majority of town is left to fend for itself, with little protecting its homes from the wrecking ball (you can see all of Montclair’s protected districts here: https://www.montclairnjusa.org/dmdocuments/Historic-District-and-Bid.pdf). The evidence of this becomes more and more apparent with each passing year.
Think about how you would feel, and what would happen to your resale value, if any of Montclair’s newest teardowns happened right next door to you:
Say hello to the newest home on Lansing Place, a charming little street in Upper Montclair (Upper Montclair, by the way, has almost no historically protected residential neighborhoods). Lansing Place is filled with small, but charming, turn of the century houses, one of which was recently knocked down to have this two unit condo building put in its place. (The home just to right of this one, in probably a smart move, was put up for sale immediately when the demolition happened).
Ironically enough, the house right across the street was beautifully and tastefully restored, after being almost condemned, just a year ago/
It would seem one of these two would be positive for the street. It would restore a home on the block, it would likely be bought by a young family who would care for it, and it would increase the appeal of the block, and the value of everyone’s homes.
The other, neighbors say, was done by a landlord who lives down in the Estate Section, who realized that since the town would do nothing to stop him, there was more profit to be made in knocking down what had been a single family home since 1905 and putting up two units in its place.
One would have been good for everyone, the other was done for one man’s good, at the expense of everyone else.
Not sure if this was a full on demolition, or just top to bottom renovation, but the principle is the same. Check out this house that just went up on Grove Street:
Stucco and foam in the front, and vinyl on the side, but what’s to stop the contractor from using the cheapest materials possible, when the town has no codes and regulations for working on its homes? What happens now to the values of the two homes next door?
Again, more on this below, but Montclair and its residents need to start making a decision on whether they’re okay with this happening in their town and neighborhoods. In other neighboring communities (including one just around the corner from this house) that protect their town’s architecture, character, and historic home stock, this wouldn’t be allowed to happen. Neighbors don’t have to worry about their own property value suffering because of what someone (who likely doesn’t even live in the neighborhood themselves) is doing to a home next door.
I have a hunch the owner of the charming colonial next door is wishing stricter rules were on the books.
And last, but not least, let’s look at the demolition of a 1960s split level on South Mountain Ave.
Now let me start by saying this, the reason a lot of these homes from the 1950s and 1960s exist in late 19th century neighborhoods to begin with is because, back then, a developer either knocked down or subdivided the property of an older home, with little care for the neighborhood’s architecture. Some of Montclair’s better builders have actually built new construction of the foundation of these out of place homes, that’s fits in better with the original architecture of the neighborhood. Seems to be a win for everyone.
For example, this incredible, newly built tudor (built by Classics Reborn) off of Park Street in Upper Montclair fits in seamlessly with the other tudors around it:
Or this newly built, beautiful home on Marion Road, which was built on the frame of a 1960’s split level by Oasis Architecture, fits in perfectly with the other early 20th colonial revival homes on the street:
But here’s what we have going up on South Mountain Avenue:
It’s still early, but it doesn’t bode well for matching with the home next to it, built in 1897:
And no, South Mountain Avenue, one of the country’s most beautiful and historic suburban streets, is not entirely protected by a historic district. Which means there’s absolutely nothing stopping a builder from putting whatever that is, next to this house above.
So while builders and developers slowly but surely chip away at Montclair’s homes and streets, what do other suburban towns in Essex County with historic home stock do? How do they battle this problem?
Well, let’s quickly look at a few, starting with Nutley. Nutley, save for two small dead end streets, offers no historic protection for its neighborhoods. Which is why it’s not uncommon to see sights like this, with new construction wedged between two of the town’s early Victorian homes:
Yikes. Compare that with Montclair’s neighbor, Glen Ridge, which has over 80% of its homes protected within the confines of its historic district (you can see the map here: https://www.glenridgenj.org/pdfs/historicdistricmap.pdf). As most of you know, teardowns and cheap renovations are not an issue in Glen Ridge. Homeowners can feel safe and secure whenever a house goes up for sale in their neighborhood. Their investment, and the town’s character, is protected. Historic Districts are one of the few legal means a town has to protect itself, and homeowners.
But some of you will undoubtly say, Glen Ridge is small, and mostly wealthy. What about a town that has more in common with Montclair? A town with a rich architectural history that spans from the 1860s to the 20th century, a town that prides itself on racial and economic diversity, and a town with a central business district that it’s trying to invigorate and grow. What about South Orange?
Along with Montclair and Glen Ridge, there are few towns as visually stunning and that have the rich architectural history of South Orange (As a bonus, South Orange, like Glen Ridge, is gas lamp lit, with all of utility poles located behind houses and off of the streets, leaving all of its roads tree lined).
So I took a look at their historic preservation committee, and here’s what I found (you can view the entire document here.
The document opens with this:
South Orange is a community in which its residents take great pride. Many of its residents speak of moving to the Village because of the historic character evident in both the downtown and the residential neighborhoods and the strong sense of community that is evident everywhere you look…This plan is designed to be a blue print for the Village to preserve its heritage while preparing for the future.
Further in the document is a map of the town’s historic districts. It encompasses about half the town, and almost all of its homes built between 1860 and 1930 (excluded in the Newstead section of town, largely built in the 2nd half of the 20th century):
South Orange, a town that has faced many of Montclair’s struggles, realizes that what has kept its town going for so long, and what keeps attracting new young families to it today, is its historic charm and character. What this means is that Victorian houses like this one in South Orange, don’t have to worry about what’s happened to the above homes in Nutley and on South Mountain Ave, happening to it.
And for those of who upset with Montclair’s Master Plan, check out South Orange’s plans for downtown redevelopment, which include clauses such as:
New buildings shall relate to existing buildings and other structures in the vicinity that have a visual relationship to the proposed site. Any new development shall attempt to achieve appropriate scale in relation to neighboring structures. Balance shall be achieved so that the new development will not overwhelm or be dwarfed by neighboring buildings.
So residents of Montclair need to think long and hard about the direction they want to town to go in. Are they okay with the Nutley model, with allowing builders and developers to do as they please with private property – are they okay with the things happening in the town as we speak – or will we take the route of towns like Glen Ridge and South Orange, and fight to preserve our town’s character, history, and its residents’ property values?
If you’re like most Montclair residents, and you live here because you believe we have something special that’s worth saving, I encourage each of you to reach out to the mayor and council, and demand that Montclair expand the number of historic districts, to stop the chain reaction of cheap construction and blight, and to stop Montclair from becoming just another suburban town in New Jersey.
You can find the e-mails for the mayor and the town council here.
Historic districts are really the only protective tool we have to save Montclair’s homes. It’s time we actually started to use them.