The needler in the haystack.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Are angry homeowners a sign of historic preservation's demise?

A mansion in the Hillside Avenue Historic District.

Angry Plainfield homeowners crowded last night's Historic Preservation Commission meeting, protesting a rumored new historic district and presenting a petition in opposition to Commission chairperson Sandy Gurshman.

Is this robust negative reaction a sign of
historic preservation's demise in Plainfield?

I wouldn't go that far, but it does seem that historic preservation is in trouble.


When I landed on these shores going on thirty years ago, I was thrilled one day to find Gail Hunton (now the HPC's technical consultant) photographing my West 7th Street Victorian for inclusion in a citywide study of historic buildings NOT in Plainfield's historic districts. (A copy of that study is available in the Planning Division and at the Plainfield Public Library.)

Moving out from New York City, we were part of a significant number of newcomers who were gambling that an investment in a Plainfield home would be paid off as the city recovered from the economic tailspin that had been brought about by the flight of downtown stores to Route 22 strip malls which was exacerbated by the riot of the 1960s.

Plainfield's historic districts (at that time Crescent Area, VWB, Hillside and North Avenue) were new, enthusiastically embraced, and held out the hope of being engines of Plainfield's recovery.

I think it fair to say those hopes were instrumental in driving Plainfield's real estate surge through the 1980s and 90s and into the new century.

But as real estate appreciated and handsome profits were extracted from homeowners' investments, Plainfield's situation changed.

Though issues persisted (primarily the public schools and crime), Plainfield was no longer 'iffy'. It attracted a far different clientele, many of whom were content to live in Plainfield and shop elsewhere, who did not use the public schools, and whose main concerns were neighborhood safety and cleanliness.

For those who lived outside the existing historic districts it is safe to say that historic preservation was not even on their radar.

This was a very different Plainfield from when the Historic Preservation Commission was established.

When I first moved here, one of the other enticements of historic preservation was the prospect of TAX BREAKS for preserving old buildings. Those tax credits have long fallen by the wayside, and with them any real economic incentive to get on the bandwagon.

The only historic districts in the community with active membership groups are Van Wyck Brooks and Netherwood Heights. None of the others has a real core group of advocates and supporters who maintain an organizational presence and have regular meetings and programs -- though Maria Pellum struggled in vain to get one going (again) in the Crescent Area.

Details of the Governor Runyon house in the Crescent Area HD.

There are probably many reasons for robust support groups to have fallen by the wayside -- issues may seem less urgent with the HPC to enforce the rules, people work harder and longer with less time for such activities, and the much-touted 'value boost' for historic properties seems to have vanished along with the overall market as we grapple with the Great Recession.

Meanwhile, the HPC, which has never really lived up to its mandate to EDUCATE around historic preservation and has never turned its attention to residential neighborhoods north of 7th Street (except for the proposed 'St. Mary's HD', which never came to fruition), seems to have come to view itself more and more as the arbiter of facade issues with properties in the existing districts, with occasional forays over issues with potential economic impacts (such as the case of the proposed Abbott Nursing Home expansion in the VWB district). And that's it.

It's almost as if there were parallel worlds, that of the HPC and that of everyone else.

So, when folks began to get the idea that a new historic district was in the works, and there was no communications effort (flyers, informationals, news items in the press) by the HPC, the stage was set for last night's encounter.

Discussion of the study proposal of an area roughly bounded (it seems) by Woodland Avenue and the blocks facing Kensington Avenue, and from Hub Stine Field to Watchung Avenue, broke out into the open at last night's HPC meeting.

The Commission did not seem to be prepared for the intensity of homeowner opposition to any proposed district.

On their part, many of the homeowners who spoke were uncharitable toward the Commission and its motives and misinformed or uninformed about the process in which the HPC was engaged, certainly making it difficult for respectful dialogue.

Where will things go from here?

The HPC has 'might' on its side. It has the power to study and propose a new historic district to the Planning Board, which would then have to decide to recommend its creation to the City Council.

Homeowners last night repeatedly used the word 'fair' -- or rather the LACK of fairness -- to describe their feelings about the current state of affairs.

Is it too late for the HPC to mount a communications and education campaign?

It may not be too late, but there may not be the will for such an effort (this is, after all, a volunteer group, with limited resources).

And, when all is said and done, will Council members be willing to commit to a district in the face of intense organized opposition by homeowners?

What do you think?

-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Rob said...

Nothing like creating more bureaucracy in Plainfield when the city can't handle the bureaucracy it has. Comments made on earlier posts about North Avenue by someone...perfect example. Why polish the floor when you have a steaming pile of crap sitting in the center of the floor that you refuse to clean up ???

Anonymous said...

Dan, it seems the HPC forgot or overlooked the first to-do of any successful project: identify all stakeholders and woo their support.

Peter Price said...

Hi Dan,
Thank you for an extremely well balanced view of what has gotten us to this juncture. I am really amazed at the lack of communication, transparency and respect that this whole effort has received by the HPC. I am also amazed that the HPC thinks that because folks don't attend their meetings, that somehow this equates to approval. People work and work hard and can not always attend evening meetings. If the HPC had a public forum on a date and time more convenient for most, I would almost guarantee a good turnout and robust dialogue on both the pros and cons. The current tactics only raise more questions and are truly counterproductive. I have spoken to many of neighbors on Martine and many were shocked to learn of these developments and the proposed district.

Anonymous said...

I am all for historic preservation. Plainfield should have more of it. But the HPC dropped the ball on the Tyler Mansion and I dont see them doing much more than what they can see from their own door steps. Our on neighborhood should be considered part of a district, but it isnt. And why not? Regrettably, I missed the meeting last night due to a family matter, but would like to know more of the details.

Anonymous said...

Did the wrong fliers go to the wrong groups ?

JMG said...

To Anon@2:29
You mentioned the Tyler Mansion, this is why historic districts should exist. The Tyler Mansion was not in a historic district therefore the hack job that happened happened. If it was in the district the HPC would have had the power to do something.

The historic districts are really the only thing Plainfield has left to attract people to live here.

Generally people are misinformed about the historical districts. Designation of historic districts was used as a tool to revive or halt the
deterioration of urban city neighborhoods.

Numerous studies have shown that historic designation increases property values and board reviews and oversight can also help increase values even more.

However, neighborhood change can affected by a variety of forces that occur independently of historic district designation. Economic and development pressures, shifting population trends, proportion of rental-to owner-occupied properties, crime, general appearance and overall perception all affect property values.

Most local historic districts have experienced improvement in the appearance of the area and an increase in home-ownership, and although it is not guaranteed, historic districts often have an advantage over other core areas in a city.

The HPC rules here are mild compared to some towns in New England where they even have a say in the paint color of your house, yet people continue to buy homes in those towns. The HPC wants to preserve what has made Plainfield Plainfield and that is its architecture.

Before people bash the HPC they should know what they are up against. They get no support from the current administration both policy and monetarily wise. A good example of this is what happened on North Avenue, for what the City spent on the demo they could have stabilized the building. They work on a shoe string budget. They in the past held some events at the library to educate people about the historic preservation movement in Plainfield, even one commission member paid for some printing of a flyer out of his own pocket for one of these events. Also they are not paid, they volunteer their time.

Could communication between the HPC and the homeowners of the proposed district been better? Maybe hopefully things can be straightened out.

I think if I were a homeowner in the proposed district I take a little walk in Van Wycks Brook or Netherwood Heights and chat with the homeowners there to see how they feel about living in an historic district I bet they will find out its not as horrible as they think. Just think one day they could have a Tyler Mansion next to them if they opt out of the district and then ask why did that happen....

PS for those who don't know where the Tyler Mansion (or should I say the former Tyler Mansion) is its on 7th by Plainfield Ave, you can't miss this architectural wonder.

Charles L. Hale said...

I am not up to date on my knowledge of all that has transpired relative to the continuing viability of existing (but inactive) historic districts or the formation of a new one, so my comments are of a general nature. We bought a derelict mansion (922 Central) in the VWB, and earned an award for being pioneers. After we began restoration, others in the neighborhood followed. Preservation is like a snowball gathering power as it roles downhill.

Preservation is VERY expensive. People do it partly out of love for an old home, but partly with the hope that when sale time comes, at least most of the investment can be recouped.

Preservation requires MOMENTUM (others in the neighborhood doing likewise.

Preservation requires RULES THAT ARE ENFORCED because not all "improvements" are consistent with the nature of preservation.

Preservation also requires an ECONOMIC CLIMATE such that people have money to invest in repairs.

Preservation requires an active neighborhood involvement for mutual support and encouragement. Unless these requirements are in place, a homeowner is foolish to pour money into a bottomless pit.

Plainfield has (IMHO) no asset more valuable than its grand old homes and neighborhoods. If they are not restored and preserved, Plainfield's future is dim at best.

CODE ENFORCEMENT is absolutely critical and must have the resources and clout to be effective. Old houses allowed to continue downhill will pull the city past a point of no return.

I have heard of people who resent the regulations (Plainfield's are mild, to say the least) because they want to make "improvements" or use their property in ways that are counter-productive to restoration, and they are stopped by the preservationists.

Folks, we can't have preservation without rules, and rules are the foundation, even when they limit our plans. Active enforcement of rules - though they limit our freedoms - also assure the ultimate preservation of our value. Can't have protected values without rules that sometimes chafe.

With the current economic recession and property values being especially jeopardized - it is urgent that we maintain the foundations of Plainfield's future.

AT THE VERY LEAST PLEASE PUSH AHEAD FOR CODE ENFORCEMENT because houses abused by overcrowding are being destroyed within - beyond reclamation.Until the economy improves this may be the best that we can do - but we MUST NOT DO LESS. DEMAND CODE ENFORCEMENT NOW.

Anonymous said...

You forgot to give credit to Bill Hetfield, who was instrumental in starting historic preservation in Plainfield and in creating the Crescent Avenue HD.

John Grady said...

Even though I moved over two years ago I still follow with interest events in Plainfield where I lived for over 30 years.
Anyone who was around in the late 70's will recall that the historic preservation movement had a strictly grass roots beginning. Citizens in various neighborhoods worked together to share information and provide the impetus to create the HPC. Some may recall Gail Hunton was there from the very beginning along with one of the assistant planners Gunthild Sondhi.
Over the years the HPC which became more empowered through ordinance changes did a great deal of good in preventing unsympathetic alterations and also providing helpful advice to homeowners. I think it safe to say Plainfield is a better place due to the efforts of historic preservationists.
One historic district failed from the very beginning - the Putnam-Watchung area. Why? It was architecturally relevant but homeowners had little or no imput in its creation.
Is it too late for the proposed new area? Absolutely not but it is essential for the residents to be involved in their own neighborhoods. Information flyers might help those who cannot attend meetings. A public meeting with a speaker from the State Office of Historic Preservation could be very informative. The wheel has already been invented. Just take a look at what has been done in the successful areas.
Fight the good fight.But remember you are all on the same side - figting for the betterment of Plainfield.

Bill Michelson said...

Bill Michelson said:

As an HPC Commissioner, I was very disturbed to be confronted with an accusation of taking official action without appropriate notice to those who would be affected. We haven't even had the basic presentation by our own historian yet, so there was nothing to give notice about!! Nonetheless we took the opportunity to explain the process to those who became worried by the hysterical false report of official action that wasn't scheduled. I won't name him here, but the person who fomented this rumor should be ashamed of himself.

Your comparison of the upcoming proposal with the account of past historic district designations was very thoughtful. I would like to defer further commentary until the HPC actually sets up the first public hearing. However for now, curious people can ask around the Van Wyck Brooks or Netherwood Heights districts, which were controversial when they were first proposed, and will find very few who think their formation was a mistake.

If we learned one thing Tuesday evening, it was that Marlborough Avenue, which I did not think should be in a historic district at all, should indeed be left out. But that's just my opinion, and the HPC hasn't had a chance to even address it yet!! Block by block, we will want to hear from any resident who wishes to express an opinion. But not in advance of putting an initial proposal on the table!! That isn't fair to the non-hysterical majority.

Dan said...

All -- Please be sure to read John Grady's comment. He was present at the beginning and spent untold hours preparing Historic District documentation and applications.

Also, of course, we remember Bill Hetfield's contributions.

Watch the Courier for an upcoming story by Mark Spivey on the historic districts, where more ground will be covered.

Anonymous said...

The HPC should accept and take responsibility for what just happened...There was obviously a lack of communication between them and the Hillside residents; but I believe this lack is endemic: the HPC should show more appreciation, support for and interest in what the owners are doing in the already designated historic districts; those owners who are trying to make their district historically designated; and, most important, be much more proactive in voicing the importance of HPC for Plainfield towards the city's administration and politicians.. (The Tyler mansion calamity: what a shame! could have been prevented) Regretfully, I suspect though that there is an inherent collusion, more or less below the surface, between many HPC members and the city's "leaders", and that includes a lack of really deep historic sense and support for the meaning and importance of our city's past and beauty, and its appeal to potential "out of towners" who woulod have the socio-economic means to preserve it!

Rob said...

As Charles L. Hale said..."at the very least push for code enforcement".
This is one of the saddest cities that I know of in so much that the city will chase homeowners down over an uneven side walk while their reasonably maintained home sits next to a shack for all intents and purposes in a city with a downtown looking like who did it and ran. If the landlords of commercial buildings downtown will not take care of them sue them to the point the city TAKES the building ( might as well put the lawyers we pay to good use )and GIVE them away at a bargain basement price to developers with a HOST of strings attached including: CLEANING IT UP AND RESTORING IT. Per the homeowners in Plainfield...what few of you vote you vote for the same people ( Jerry Green and Mayor Sharon now ) and expect this city to improve somehow??? If this city can't enforce codes OTHER THAN SIDEWALKS ( cause we all know, you need a nice even sidewalk when walking by a sh*thole rundown flop house and they don't even bother with sidewalks downtown I might add ...take a walk around downtown and see that easily ) there should be zero effort made by the city OR ANY COMMISSION to expand and increase scrutiny on the homeowners. If the city enforced the codes..they'd have more money...PLAIN AND SIMPLE.

Peter Price said...

Bravo Mr. Hale we need to insist on code enforcement now which gets to the very core of the matter. Some folks may think being designated an historic district automatically ensures that neglected homes will be repaired and fixed. Quite the opposite -- without a disciplined effort at really enforcing codes, our neighborhoods will continue to deteoriate -- district or no district. Plainfield should be the envy of every visitor that comes here, but we know it is not and code enforcement that is routine in many other cities and municipalities must become the norm here.

Rowand Clark said...

I was not at the HPC meeting but I suspect that the residents objecting to the area being designated as an historic district believe that the designation would limit their options to modify their structures but confer no benefit.

If that is their belief it is well founded in reality. The City government does virtually nothing to enforce existing property maintenance and construction ordinances. In the existing historic districts it is a common sight to see a preserved and well-maintained house adjacent to a rooming house which is surrounded by dead cars and very live barking dogs.

The governing officials are only to happy to place photographs of well maintained historic homes in their literature. (Photographs of drive-by shooting crime scenes, complete with yellow tape, numerous yellow markers of the spent cartridges, and of course, the sheet covered corpse of the deceased, would be more accurately representative, but I can understand why the officials choose historic homes instead.) But the reality is that the failure to enforce existing historic preservation and property maintenance ordinances within historic districts demonstrates that those who wield the real political power in Plainfield are at best indifferent to us and our wants and needs, and more probably hostile to our wants and needs.

By the way, yesterday (Thursday, 26 Aug) I mailed in my 3rd Quarter tax payment and then attended the Barclay's golf tournament at Ridgewood Country Club where I may have seen my tax dollars in action. There was a posh hospitality structure adjacent to the 17th green whose marquee listed the structures benefactors. One of the listed benefactors was "Plainfield". The tournament's web site describes the structure as "semiprivate hospitality structure, indoor climate controlled dining area and reserved seating."

If tax dollars were used to sponsor this facility I assume the rationale was that next year the tournament will be held at the Plainfield Country Club in Edison. I wonder who is in there sipping drinks? Any of you? Not me.

I fear that when the tournament is held in Edison next year some out-of-towners will drift into Plainfield's "free fire zone". Perhaps they will be lost, perhaps curious, perhaps in pursuit of a substance to enhance their viewing experience, perhaps in pursuit of paid female companionship. Hopefully, no one of them will become the victim of violence, but if they do enter the "free fire zone", even if they also see our historic architecture, I fear that the negative impressions formed in the "free fire zone" will predominate over any positive impressions formed elsewhere in Plainfield.

Dan said...

Rowand -- I am sure the 'Plainfield' sponsor of the hospitality tent was the Plainfield Country Club and NOT the City of Plainfield.

There may be a lot of foolishness at City Hall, but not THAT much!