A historic decision?

Divided council approves controversial historic district for the West Side

Despite protests of residents who feared they will be displaced, a divided City Council voted 6-3 recently to establish a West Side historic district. This is the first such district outside the downtown section of the city, and the first established in 30 years.
Supporters of the plan say it would protect the neighborhoods in the zone from large-scale developments of the type that are currently being planned for areas like Journal Square and McGinley Square. Opponents claim there is no threat of large development yet in the area and that the restriction would impose an additional burden on home owners and eventually drive people who rent out of the neighborhood.
Councilwoman Diane Coleman and councilmen Richard Boggiano and Daniel Rivera voted against the ordinance.
Council President Rolando Lavarro Jr., Ward B Councilman Khemraj Ramchal and several members of the council sent out a last minute appeal to the other members to support for the ordinance that established the West Bergen-East Lincoln Park Historic District.
This will be the first historic district outside of downtown for the city to nominate for inclusion on the Municipal, State, and National Registers of Historic Places, a significant first step in recognizing additional historic districts throughout Jersey City. The last historic district created by the city was Harsimus Cove, which was designated in 1983.

“I don’t think that the residents of Ward F were privy to a lot of this planning.” – Daniel Rivera
“Jersey City is a city of communities and neighborhoods that is rich with cultural diversity and history,” said Council President Lavarro. ”We have listened to what the community has said, and with this historic district designation, we will be maintaining the character and history of the West Bergen-East Lincoln Park neighborhood for generations to come. We have seen how the areas of downtown have benefited from historic designation, and as Jersey City continues to develop and grow, we want to retain our uniqueness while preserving our past.”

State approved it last year

Last October, the New Jersey State Review Board for Historic Sites designated Jersey City’s West Bergen-East Lincoln Park Historic District as a New Jersey historic district, with the district being recommended for inclusion on the National Registers of Historic Places.
In March, the Planning Board voted to recommend to the City Council the designation of the district, whose approximate boundaries are Lincoln Park and west Side Avenue to the west, Harrison Avenue to the south, Bergen Avenue to the east, and Fairmount Avenue to the north, along Kennedy Boulevard to Jewett Avenue and back to West Side Avenue.
The council delayed a vote on the ordinance twice, once because Coleman said passage would impose a financial hardship on people in her ward. While the proposed historic district is mostly located in Ward B, a one-block sliver is located in Ward F.
“This historic district is an opportunity for us to conserve our local heritage and maintain the infrastructure already in place,” said Ward B Councilman Khemraj “Chico” Ramchal, in whose ward most of the district is located. “We are seeing growth throughout the west side and we want to preserve the historic qualities of West Bergen-East Lincoln Park that make this neighborhood special.”

Not everybody agrees

Lavarro argued in encouraging the council to approve the ordinance that historic district designation has been used to preserve neighborhoods downtown, including Paulus Hook, Van Vorst Park and Hamilton Park.
But some residents noted a large displacement of the original population in those areas as poorer residents, in particular renters, are driven out by the increased property values and rents.
The distinction, opponents claim, would drive out poorer rental residences from the area in much the way similar designations did for the existing historic districts downtown. They also argued that the historic district would give too much power to local neighborhood associations, pitting neighbor against neighbor.
“The transparency on this issue was horrible and I fight for the community,” Boggiano said. “Believe it or not, most were against this. I am big on history but this was wrong to shove this down people’s throats.”
Councilman Rivera said he voted against the ordinance for several reasons.
“First, I think that residents should have information so that they can read on how the structure is being implemented,” he said. “I don’t think that the residents of Ward F were privy to a lot of this planning.”
He also said the ordinance would affect a number of homeowners that are retired and cannot afford the type of changes that would need to be made to comply with the historic district.
“Probably one of my most concerns is that downtown when I was growing up was a huge Latino neighborhood and because of the implementation of the historic zone a lot of Latinos we’re not able to keep up,” he said. “So a lot of them sold their properties abruptly. Maybe they could have held on to get some more money value. Others simply just lost their homes.”
Rivera said he agreed the historic distinction would help make the West Side beautiful.
“I’m a big fan of preserving something that’s beautiful, however, I think the structure was not correct in my opinion for all the constituents,” he said. “I will make sure that the historic and planning divisions of the city follow up with what they said when they said that there are many programs that can help some of the indigent homeowners, predominantly retired seniors with fixed incomes.”
Lavarro, however, argued a historic district designation would not increase property taxes in the area and would not result in a burdensome process for renovations.
Taxes do not increase on homes located in a historic district, he said. Insurance costs do not increase and only approximately five percent of residents would require approval by the Historic Preservation Commission for home renovations.
Mayor Steven Fulop supported the ordinance.
“This is a landmark moment for Jersey City, as this will be the first historic district created in over 30 years and the first outside of downtown,” he said. “We are looking at relief measures for homeowners as well to make sure that all the current residents benefit and nobody gets left behind. This is a huge win for Jersey City.”

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.

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