Montclair Residents Speak Out Against Historic Designation For Wheeler Street Neighborhood

Is history about buildings or people and how does a historic designation actually keep that history alive?

These were just some of the questions and concerns residents raised during an opportunity to give feedback to the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission on December 10, regarding the possible historic district designation for the Wheeler Street neighborhood.

The Wheeler Street neighborhood surveyed is bounded by Woodland Avenue, Willowdale Avenue, Lincoln Street and Maple Street and includes Wheeler Street and Monroe Place, according to the architectural survey (maps courtesy of HPC).

Residents from that neighborhood wondered why their homes and neighborhood were being considered for a historic district designation and expressed concern about how a designation would impact their ability to improve or sell their properties.

Gay Overbey Cole didn’t want her house, which has been in her family since 1947, deemed historical because “I want to do what I want to do to my house. If I want to put up some bricks and put my little flowers in front of my house, I want to do that without paying $100 per application if I want to change the steps.”

Overbey Cole said she was not only representing 26 Wheeler Street but also 33 Woodland Avenue, the building which houses the Montclair Women’s Community Circle, a women’s club, and was, according to Overbey Cole, the first African-American-owned building on that street.

33 Woodland, the building that houses the Montclair Women’s Community Circle

When he renovated #5 Wheeler Street 10 years ago, Paul Weingarten said the entire block was derelict.

“We don’t want anyone telling us what we can do and cannot do in our homes. We don’t want you, Ms. Bennett designating these homes. You hired an academic interloper to search for rationalizations,” Weingarten asserted. “How much is she being paid from the $25,000 grant so that you all can disrupt the community. She does not even live in Montclair and none of this board lives or has property in this proposed district and will never feel the consequences of your actions.”

Weingarten questioned why the buildings and neighborhood were even being considered historic.

“Nothing much happened here. People went to work and came home. Most, most, most of them are dead. You can’t designate a historic district by culture when the culture is not unique or special. Where is Lincoln’s log cabin? Where’s Lincoln? All you have is good, honest, ordinary folks in historically conventional working class houses,” he added.

Latifah Jannah wanted more explanation of what a designation would mean for homeowners and how it would affect anything she might want to do to her home.

Jannah said she understood there to be history in the neighborhood but asked “how do we preserve that without doing something like this?”

She added there were a lot of questions that people have that need to be answered.

Kathleen Bennett, HPC chair, said there would be more answers in January, but in the mean time, she directed Jannah and others to information on the township’s website.

“I can assure you that we have absolutely no control over exterior color,” Bennett said, adding that the evening’s meeting was just an opportunity to take in everybody’s opinions.

Sandy Castor spoke on behalf of her parents who own 27 Wheeler Street. She asked whether the Historic Preservation Commission was stepping beyond what they are designated to do in this case as it pertains to Wheeler street and expressed disappointment that there has not been a two-way conversation about the possible designation.

“Is this a play on trying to maintain affordability or is this really to preserve the historic nature of Wheeler street? If we are talking about the historic nature of Wheeler Street, it goes beyond the structure,” Castor said. “It goes to the people. The people are the culture. It’s not the structure, it’s not the sticks that make up the homes.”

The public hearing on the Oakcroft and Wheeler Street nominations will continue at a meeting of the HPC on Thursday January 9, 2020. The public hearing will be held at 7:00pm in the Council Chambers of the Montclair Municipal Building.

View a recording of the December 10 HPC meeting here.

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  1. Thank you for your comments and insights, Ms. Overbey Cole. Well put. Keep the government out of our personal business and out of our pocketbooks. If we do that enough, my-oh-my, our taxes could even go down!

  2. I am against this historic designation of the Wheeler Street neighborhood for a host of reasons, but any financial burden is not one. The financial arguments are superficial, not well-thought out and bizarre.

    The bizarre argument was from two property owners who feared their properties could appreciate in value if designated and incorrectly believe their property taxes would go up in the interim. FYI, I don’t believe the properties will appreciate because of a designation, but they are not going to depreciate either.

    The argument of being subjected to the $100 HPC application fee is pennywise and pound foolish. If designated a historic district, many improvements would benefit from the less stringent Rehabilitation Subcode rather than complying with the standard building codes. This covers inside and backyard improvements that doesn’t involve the HPC!

    OK, that leaves the big renovations, tear-downs, etc. Well, guess what? This neighborhood, like the rest of Montclair, is subject to the recently approved Demolition Ordinance. If an owner of a historic property, whether in a district or not, removes more than 50% of the building, it is subject to an HPC review. The good news is the property owner doesn’t have to pay a $100 fee.

    This proposed district overall does not meet the historic designation standards. It is just that simple. It lacks cohesiveness. Some parts of it do rise to the standard, but for distinctly different reasons – which are incompatible and irreconcilable. This is essentially why so many property owners have strong reservations or are out right against it.

  3. Preservation of existing neighborhoods and the established social fabric need protection. Affordable housing efforts in Montclair should focus on re habilitating and re purposing existing buildings in their original neighborhood contexts and avoid creating affordable housing in new redevelopments in random neighborhoods.

  4. Please do not make the affordable housing argument as it relates to neighborhood historic preservation districts. They should not be conflated. Historic designation of a property or district has very specific criteria for review. It’s based I understand on federal and state criteria standards. Other than the HPC, our Planning Board and town Council seem to continuously ignore and forget about those standards when they make decisions. Instead they use all sorts of other evaluations…economics..helping the family etc. Unlawful and wrong.

    Affordable housing here costs local taxpayers money…from the loss of tax revenue…possibly from more kids in the school who do not even come close to paying the taxes from collections on the affordable units that cover their school budgets. Remember, there is no free lunch in life. So how much tax subsidized, affordable housing our local community provides is a debatable question. Lack of overall affordable housing…given US poverty and low incomes is really a State and Federal issue. It can not only be solved on the backs on Montclair taxpayers alone.

    Those who argue for much more affordable housing here because of gentrification are repeating the mistakes that killed the tax bases in townships like East Orange. A moderate balance of affordable units is the correct policy…not just fulfill every well meaning liberal aspiration…on whose dime?

    Many of those who argue for more affordable housing do not even think there is a cost. They only believe that builders pay and take a haircut. Wrong. Tax payers cover the difference from lower valuation and revenue collection deficits.

    Remember, we do not live in a socialist state…no one is guaranteed to keep a home, a rental or move somewhere when demand pushes prices up to high…even if your family resided here for 100 years. That is just our system of economics. Is it better to maintain the existing diverse community fabric we have, of course? But there is a cost actually sometimes.

    So let’s not conflate historic preservation with more affordable housing. Separate issues. Historic designations actually create higher tax valuations and more revenues because the area or house is protected. aka Glen Ridge.

  5. I respectfully disagree. The affordable housing system must change and could and should be addressed by historic preservation as a priority to keep people in place. Neighborhood historic preservation districts must be set up to be able to maintain the existing social fabric of neighborhood. It must keep people in place rather than displacing them into new buildings in random neighborhoods. Seniors must be helped to age in place in their neighborhoods and younger family (or extended family) unit members shouldn’t be driven out.

  6. Sorry, frankgg. Seniors should not be “helped” to age in place. That wasn’t the deal. Remember, they were the ones who very selfishly voted their self-interests when they were middle-aged…and now they want to play the “I’m old” sympathy card? Hysterical! (in a late night, Colbert show-type of way). Wisdom can coexist with greed – it doesn’t replace it.

  7. FYI, seniors are often really horrible people that have just aged out. Do you think they became less horrible as they aged?

  8. I’m not picking on the Roman Catholics – I just know them better than the Protestants, Baptists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc.

  9. “ FYI, seniors are often really horrible people that have just aged out. Do you think they became less horrible as they aged?”

    —Rubacky had obliterated the Irony Meter with this amazing expression of self loathing…

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