Show our neighbors in Montclair the respect we give to historic houses (Town Square)
By MAX GOLDMAN
Special at Montclair Local
I had the opportunity to attend the Montclair Historical Preservation Commission meeting on Thursday, September 23. The hot topic – and the subject of more than two and a half hours of testimony, questions, discussions and debates – was the demand for the demolition of a house on Union Street.
Clearly, the owners of the house are friends, and my wife and I logged in via WebEx partly out of curiosity to know how such things are handled in our city, and partly to support them – if not. than with our virtual presence.
Having now witnessed these proceedings, I beg you, dear residents: before you have ever had the misfortune of appearing before this amateur, unruly and capricious body, be careful. The way this commission behaves should scare any of us who own and reside in one of the city’s many historic homes.
As a background, the specific app was to demolish an admittedly beautiful 1905 house that suffered a series of particularly terrible cascading events. First there was a leak on an upper floor that a bad now bankrupt contractor fixed by carelessly opening plaster walls laden with asbestos. Then they blew up the HVAC system and powerful fans to dry out the house – spreading asbestos in every nook and cranny while the family was in residence.
Over the years, the family tried to fix it so they could go back to it, but every wall and ceiling had to fall, every corner cleaned to exacting standards, and even no expert can give them assurance that it would be without. danger for entrepreneurs. for work, let alone for the family. In fact, the house is literally “marked in red” as unliveable by the city. According to experts at the hearing, to ensure its safety, the house, already down to the posts, would have to be structurally gutted at an exorbitant cost – with deep uncertainty as to how much facade could even be preserved. This, after half the purchase price of the house has already been spent on attempted repairs.
Regardless of how each of us may have voted, the scary part is this: in the end, instead of going through the file in front of us and voting based on that standard-set data, several commission members simply chose to ignore it – damn the evidence. Instead of relying on the many written reports or expert testimony they received, it boiled down to the personal opinions – almost certainly held before hearing any evidence – of members Kathleen Bennett, Caroline Kane Levy and David Greenbaum who ultimately condemned the request. .
While several members – Jason Hyndman, Michael Graham and Stephen Rooney – seemed committed to an unbiased assessment of the evidence, the others allowed fanaticism to prevail.
“I believe it can be done,” a sentiment expressed by Commissioner Kane Levy during the proceedings, is an inappropriate substitute for expert testimony and detailed reports. Such a position represents a lazy standard which should not suffice for any judgment, let alone public.
If the commission wanted an expert to support them, it could have sought to obtain this input at any time before the hearing. Kane Levy, the commissioner most willing to substitute her beliefs for evidence, asked if the commission could get its own expert opinion – an unwittingly desperate and painful admission that they had not done their homework. Greenbaum categorically asked why he couldn’t demand that applicants submit a project for the house they would build after demolition. He did so on several occasions, even after learning that such a requirement was not part of the established application process and that it would be unreasonable to assess the request based on its absence.
A willingness and ability to pass judgment on the basis of the criteria Commissioners prefer rather than the data they have and a specific set of pre-defined standards should be unacceptable. If the commission intends to be taken seriously and its decisions stand up to further scrutiny, the whole business must be thoroughly reviewed, starting with its members.
In the meantime, our friends and neighbors have, for years, paid property taxes on a house they cannot live in safely, rent for the one they live in, and legal fees – all while enduring six moves. . Why? In this way, the Historic Preservation Commission can preserve the integrity of an asbestos-infested house in which it itself would not feel safe.
Presumably, the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission was nobly established to prevent the reckless demolition of our beautiful city’s ancient homes and to maintain its aesthetic character, not to force citizens to burn piles of money as we struggle to preserve old houses at all costs. If the commission is to fund indefinite construction expeditions, capital should be raised to support the cause. The commission should not be allowed to place this burden on the emotional well-being and wallets of well-meaning neighbors who simply want to live in their own homes in a city they love.
As this case and others like it make their way through their various administrative gauntlets, let’s try to show our neighbors at least the same respect that we show our homes.
Max Goldman is a resident of Montclair and a neighbor of the house at 109 Union Street, which the Montclair Historical Commission refused to let demolished.
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