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After 50 percent of Wheeler and Oakcroft street residents opposed a local landmark designation of their neighborhoods, the Historic Preservation Commission voted to pull the designations. Shwon is Monroe Place from just above the intersection with Wheeler Street. COURTESY HPC

By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Local landmark designations for neighborhoods on Oakcroft and Wheeler streets have been withdrawn — for now.  After meeting with opposition from about half of those homeowners concerned with property rights, the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission voted on Thursday, Jan. 9, to withdraw the historic designations for the two areas.

Contending they had followed all notification procedures for the local landmark designation process, commission members conceded in the end that clearer communication could be warranted in the future and withdrew the nominations. But chair Kathleen Bennett also said that they would revisit the designations of Oakcroft and Wheeler later in the year. 

Residents of the areas packed a December HPC meeting to speak out against the nominations, claiming the local landmark district designation would hinder their ability to upkeep or make changes to their homes by creating an expensive bureaucratic approval process, and also hurt the resale of the properties.

Currently there are four local landmark districts in Montclair where alterations of structures would fall under HPC review: Town Center, Upper Montclair, Pine Street and Watchung Plaza. 

Those landmarked historic districts are composed primarily of commercial buildings, except for the Pine Street district which includes some residential. The Wheeler and Oakcroft areas are mainly comprised of private homes. 

The commission received letters of protest from 61 of the 113 property owners near Oakcroft Street (54 percent), and 50 of the 97 property owners in the Wheeler Street area (52 percent), according to Bennett.

Historic properties in Montclair may be locally designated or listed on the National and/or State Register of Historic Places. Listing in the National and State Register is an honorary designation, and alterations to those historic properties do not require review by the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission.

Cultural resource surveys and draft nomination proposals for the two neighborhoods were prepared for the township by Margaret Hickey of Connolly & Hickey Historical Architects funded through a $25,000 Historic Preservation Fund grant awarded to the township by the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office.

The Wheeler and Oakcroft nominations were first discussed at a Historic Preservation Commission meeting on Nov. 12. The commission had sought to vote to recommend the designations in December, but after receiving complaints that a public notice dated Nov. 21 only gave nine days to protest in writing, Bennett said the hearings would be extended to Dec. 10 and conclude on Jan. 9. 

William Neumann of Preservation New Jersey spoke in favor of local landmark districts at the the Jan. 9 meeting, saying that homes within such designations “encourage people to invest and purchase historic properties because they know their investment is protected.” The oversight encourages better design and workmanship and cohesiveness of a neighborhood, he added.

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 that follow the town’s Historic Design Guidelines and with plans being approved by the Historic Preservation Commision. 

A Certificate of Appropriateness is issued for any major modifications to a structure that can be visible from the street, including: demolition or improvement of any structure; relocation of a structure; change in exterior elevation of any structure or any improvement by addition, alteration or replacement; new construction of a principal or accessory structure; and any change in existing or addition of new signs or exterior lighting. 

Changes to interiors, changes not visible to the public (other than relocation or demolition), repairs or exact replacements and paint colors would not require a certificate of appropriateness.

“Many concerns were raised over details to doors, windows, shingles, siding, HVAC,” which currently pertain to mainly commercial structures since the local landmark districts are currently comprised of businesses, said Bennett. 

The commission’s amendment review committee is currently looking at changing design guidelines to streamline the process and to eliminate some elements that currently require full review. The amendments are expected to be completed by June; at that point, the commission plans on revisiting the Oakcroft and Wheeler designations.

Vice chair Jason Hyndman wanted to table the vote rather than withdraw it, citing costs of the studies and providing notice for the meetings. Attorney Ira Karasick said that the commission would still have to re-notice regardless of whether it was tabled, or withdrawn and revisited in the future. The studies could still be used in the future, he said. 

Since the two areas have been researched and are considered potential landmark districts they would fall under the newly passed demolition review ordinance, which would require HPC oversight for a demolition permit for any home within the districts.

If the landmark designations were approved by the commission, it would still have to go through both planning board and council review as well. 

The Wheeler and Oakcroft neighborhoods developed at the same time, but in radically different ways.

Homes on Wheeler Street, near Glenfield Park, were built primarily from 1910 to 1930 around the former strawboard factory founded by J.G. Wheeler along Toney’s Brook, settled by Italian immigrants, and later by African American families who moved to New Jersey from the South during the Great Migration in the early 20th century. Forty-one percent of the homes are non-contributing, meaning they don’t fit into the historical designation.

Oakcroft Street, near Anderson Park, was home to many upper- and middle-class families who began arriving in Montclair in the mid-19th century due to the expansion of the railroad.