Letter to the Editor: The Historic Preservation Commission Followed All The Rules

Let’s understand the factors that created, complicated, and guided the HPC’s reviews and determinations of the 109 Union Street application, now labeled a “toxic waste zone”, in finding the path forward.

In the first HPC hearing the members reached an unanimous decision – based on fact finding and guided by our ordinances – to deny the demolition. What the public should understand is the material facts for the justification of the applicant’s case for demolition did not, in my opinion, change with the submission of the second application. If the applicant had had a demolition expert testify then this would be an example of introducing materially new facts and further assist in the HPC’s findings.

While such demolition expertise is not required at a demolition hearing, I can’t explain the absence of the common sense need for such testimony, especially when taking a second bite from the due process apple.

What I believe has materially changed is various interested parties are trying to suggest the presence of issues of HPC character and integrity in handling this application. That the path to date has not been genuine, honest and respectful. I do not know if these are based solely on this specific application or a more generalized perception of the HPC. These words are now part of this application’s record and of a harsh, public rebuke. We can’t un-ring that bell, so now we should try to understand the genesis.

I certainly don’t understand. I have taken the Historic Preservation Commission to task many times over the years, both as a member and a resident onlooker. I often made my cases passionately, and harshly at times. However, in the decades since the HPC’s inception, I never doubted the character or integrity of this body charged with a thankless mission – one often unsupported by our property owners and our municipal government.

I don’t know these applicants or their named supporters. I do know their current attorney. I have followed their applications as well as the impetus in creating the demolition ordinance, the intent in its crafting, and the public process it was subjected to. As such, I say this is a flawed ordinance, both in it authorities and execution and it will require significant remedies by the Council. As to this case, I don’t think a remedy exists with an appeal to the Zoning Board. My reasoning anticipates conflicts hearing an appeal yet to be filed, but also derives from our existing ordinances and NJ Municipal Land Use Law.

We don’t need to fix the HPC’s character or integrity. We need to make public health and safety paramount in dealing with a highly contaminated site whether the ultimate determination is to rehabilitate or to demolish this structure. These are my two issues.

Frank Rubacky is a resident, a former member of the Historic Preservation Commission, and frequent commentator on Montclair’s land use matters.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Frank for following through with this thoughtful and informed op ed. The Montclair HPC is an outstanding team of professionals headed by internationally recognized Kathleen Bennett and Architecture Expert Thomas Connelly. They’re the best of the best.

    The Township Council should be more careful in recognizing that there are speculators who come in with the intention of demolishing old buildings and subdividing. Montclair is not the place for this because beautiful old buildings is the characteristic of our built fabric. This type of speculation should be done elsewhere.

  2. Frankgg,

    Speaking of the character of our built fabric, one – maybe a few – of our land use decision-makers saw the Seymour Arts District redevelopment as Montclair’s Lincoln Center. I can’t say if they were elected or appointed, or a mix. I just remember I laughed hard for quite a while.

    Now, after seeing the signage plans, the Seymour Arts District will now be co-anchored by the Summit Health Building with signage placed anywhere from 12′-80′ high (& a parapet line with another Verizon cell antenna array). The Summit Health Building faces onto the Wellmont Arts Plaza. (I’m pretty sure a share of the naming rights revenue on a Public Plaza wasn’t part of our deal).

    My point being that even when the Council tries to do the right thing and hire experts to write design standards for this redevelopment plan, it looks like this Council and the Planning Board are likely to ignore them. The usual: our land use actions move forward and leave the stated principles & priorities as orphans to be adopted by a future redevelopment project..

    This whatever you want to call this space is starting to remind me of The Short Hills Mall. But, wow, it did have potential for a fleeting moment.

  3. Not only is the look of the arts center out of character for Montclair but it’s also out of character for an Arts Center. Paterson has great arts spaces in abandoned warehouses, so does Venice Italy. Montclair has so many great old buildings with atmosphere to repurpose to inspire creativity.

  4. Mixing apples and oranges.

    Ours is really just a plaza. Now, truth be told, the arts plaza was suppose to have a “nooks & crannies” meets street performers feel. It was to be true to its modest size. Then it just became a waiting area for something happening nearby. The landscaping shrunk, the signage boldly encroached on aesthetics, and poof…a very pedestrian plaza.

  5. Here one example of the difference between a Planning Board and a Historic Preservation Commission. Quite a ways back, I made the mistake of approving a design change as a member of a HPC subcommittee…for which I was rightfully scolded. I was wrong because the HPC had a strong policy that design had to be approved by the full body, in a public hearing with the additional record-making and transparency. In my defense, it seemed a reasonable design change at the time, I was new, and the sun was in my eyes.

    The Planning Board treats signage as accoutrements to commerce, not design. They do this in subcommittees even when the design element being reviewed is called a Master Plan – for an entire development! Seriously. This is how they work. This is how redevelopment processes work…below the Council level.

    Furthermore, they do it with geographic blinders on. Blinders that say each application’s particulars are unique to that property. There is good and bad in that legality. One limitation is they haven’t the capacity or the means to consider design in the context of a block or neighborhood.

    And then we write a Redevelopment Plan, give various land use bodies their day on the dais, trot out pretty, utopian renderings, issue approvals and send the rest of the work to committees. We are all very proud. Visitors come to the retailers who have tenancy on the plaza. Tenants at both #6 and #8 Seymour Plaza. Another at #1 Seymour Plaza.

    Where exactly is Seymour Plaza?