Wheeler Oakcroft
PHOTO COURTESY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION A photo of Wheeler Street. The neighborhood, along with Oakcroft Street, is being considered for Local Landmark status.

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Oakcroft and Wheeler streets could become Montclair’s two newest local landmark districts.

Residents of those neighborhoods, however, have questioned whether it will become more expensive or regulated to maintain their homes in a local landmark district.

Cultural resource surveys and draft nomination proposals for the two neighborhoods were prepared for the township by Margaret Hickey of Connolly & Hickey Historical Architects. The firm studied a total of 210 properties: 97 in the area of Wheeler Street and 113 in the area of Oakcroft Street.

The surveys and nominations were funded by a Historic Preservation Fund grant awarded to the township by the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office.

Wheeler and Oakcroft nominations were the focus of a Historic Preservation Commission meeting on Nov. 12, as the Historic Preservation Commission prepares to take a vote early next month to designate the area as local landmark districts.

HPC Chair Kathleen Bennett was the lone member of the HPC in attendance that evening. Also present was assistant township planner Graham Petto.

“It’s really interesting how both [neighborhoods] developed at the same time, but in radically different ways,” Hickey said.

THE NEIGHBORHOODS

Wheeler Street was a predominantly working-class neighborhood that sprang up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries around the strawboard factory founded by J.G. Wheeler along Toney’s Brook. The area was home to Italian immigrants who previously lived on Pine Street, as well as African American families who moved to New Jersey from Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina.

The Wheeler Street neighborhood covers Wheeler Street, Maple Avenue, Lincoln Street, Willowdale Avenue and Monroe Place. Maple Avenue School, now Glenfield Middle School, was built in 1896.

Upper and middle class families who began arriving in Montclair in the mid-19th century due to the expansion of the railroad took up residence on Oakcroft Street. The neighborhood, adjacent to Anderson Park, includes Brookfield Road, North Mountain Avenue, Edgemont Road and Princeton Place.

Petto said that Wheeler Street and Oakcroft Street are to be reviewed as two separate projects.

HOME MAINTENANCE WITHIN DISTRICTS

Under the town’s ordinance for alterations of a structure in a local landmark district, homeowners could be required to apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness when making changes to their facades, with plans being approved by the Historic Preservation Commision.

A Certificate of Appropriateness is issued for any major modifications to a house that can be visible from the street, including demolitions or additions, relocation of a structure, changes in the exterior elevation, any new construction of a principal or accessory structure, or the change of exterior signage or lighting.

An applicant will usually come before the HPC for a hearing, often with their architects, with construction documents and blueprints describing the extent and nature of the work, officials said.

A certificate is not required for changes to the building’s interior, any change not visible from the street, or the repair of existing materials or the replacement of existing materials with the same material.

As an example, if a homeowner is installing a new back deck that could not be seen from the street, or replacing a back door with a sliding glass door, that would not be subject to review, Petto said.

Like-for-like materials, such as replacing a slate roof with new slate shingles, would not be subject to review. The HPC does not regulate paint colors, but the HPC does have a palette of recommended paint colors.

Petto said the HPC wanted to make the process of getting house renovations approved as straightforward as possible for homeowners. “We’re kind of the first stop any time you hire an architect in town,” Petto said. Area architects are acquainted with the HPC guidelines, he added.

“The benefits [of historic district status] are really benefits for the entire town,” Bennett said. “We always talk about Montclair being a diverse town with diverse neighborhoods, diverse styles.”

Widespread development in Montclair, particularly along the Bloomfield Avenue corridor, is prompting residents to be concerned with neighborhood and landmark preservation, Bennett said. She also noted that historic district houses are likely to be preserved from being torn down, such as two recent demos on Lloyd Road, and replaced with something unsuitable for the area.

Bennett said there are no disadvantages to living in a landmark district. “Doesn’t everyone want to live in an attractive neighborhood, surrounded by attractive buildings that are characteristic of the neighborhood?” she said.

HOMEOWNERS’ CONCERNS

“Well, you know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” said one resident.

Some of the homeowners in the audience asked what the financial effects would be for district homeowners, including the increased costs of maintaining or repairing their homes in line with HPC requirements.

Gay Overbey-Cole, a Wheeler Street resident, said her block has seen a lot of changes in recent years. She has thought about adding on an addition to her house and elevate the roof, and wondered what district status would mean for those plans.

Petto said those changes would require approval from the HPC.

In addition, Montclair has been lobbying legislators in Trenton to ask the state to restore funding for historic preservation grant projects that homeowners could apply for, Petto said.

“Some people think it’s a negative,” said Andrea Webb, a realtor with Keller Williams, about a homeowners concern with limiting options on making changes to their house.

Historic status on a house means another layer of approval. “Which is a fair concern and a valid concern, for those who haven’t been involved in historic preservation,” she added.

But historic status for a neighborhood is positive, Webb said. For a neighborhood to get historic status, it means it’s special, she said.

Home improvement shows, blogs and websites devoted to historic home preservation has increased interest in the last 10 to 20 years, Webb said.

Webb always reveals a home that is in a local landmark district and what it means to changes to the exterior.

Planning board member Martin Schwartz, who is also a home restoration contractor, said Montclair’s charm and neighborhood character are one of the main reasons people purchase here.

In Glen Ridge, nearly the entire town is designated as a historic area, which means nearly every house in the town requires HPC approval for exterior renovations. And the real estate market there is booming, Webb said.

In towns such as Westfield and Cranford, mid-century houses were torn down to make way for “McMansions.” The result is a hodgepodge of housing styles that isn’t attractive, Webb said.

Cheaper alternatives like vinyl siding and plastic window frames wear out quickly, while materials that are more consistent with the house’s original design last longer.

“We’ve not done enough to educate residents, both new and old, on the benefits of preservation, that produce returns right back into their wallets,” Schwartz said.

On Dec. 10, the HPC will hold a public hearing, and take questions and comments from the general public. The HPC will then make a motion and vote on whether to send the historic district proposal on to the council. “That’s where the council kind of holds the keys on this,” Petto said. From there, the council and the planning board will decide how to proceed. The process is expected to take a few months, Petto said.

Montclair has four local landmark districts: Watchung Plaza, Pine Street, Watchung Plaza and the Town Center. The four were nominated for landmark district status between 2002 and 2012.