By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair’s Historic Preservation Commission has approved the demolition of a home at 13 Wheeler St. — the first razing the commission has granted since it was given oversight of some demolitions in 2019.
And in the near future, the commission expects to hear more requests for demolition, according to Chairwoman Kathleen Bennett.
In February 2019, the township issued a stop on all demolition permits following public alarm over the razings of mansions on Lloyd and Undercliff roads, including one that dated to the Civil War. The moratorium continued until Montclair created a demolition review law in June of that year.
That law requires that before certain structures deemed to have historic significance can be demolished, a property owner must apply for a certificate of appropriateness with the Historic Preservation Commission.
It applies to properties listed in the 2016 historic preservation element of the township master plan and Montclair’s Historic Sites Inventory. It also applies to some structures in areas designed by the township as landmark districts, or that are being studied and considered as landmark districts, such as the Estate section and the Walnut Street district. In all, it pertains to more than 4,800 properties. In the historic preservation element, Montclair identifies 25 neighborhood areas and 13 individual properties potentially eligible for local landmark designation.
In its first review of an application for demolition in September 2020, the commission denied the request to raze a home at 109 Union St. The owners said it was beyond repair and needed to be demolished due to extensive asbestos contamination and shoddy renovations.
The commission’s second application, expected to be heard at its Aug. 26 meeting but postponed, was a request to raze St. Paul’s Seventh Day Christian Church at 205 Glenridge Ave. The church, built by Swedish settlers active in the building trade in 1896, was first known as St. Eric’s Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church. It is listed on the Montclair Historic Sites Inventory, but has been abandoned for decades. The applicant’s architect said that over the last 25 years the church has deteriorated to the point it is “not salvageable” and that excavation on a neighboring property damaged the foundation.
Ira Karasick, who is both the commission’s attorney and the township attorney, told the commission the criteria for demolition of any property would be the historic value and condition of the building, including its structural soundness and the technical feasibility of rehabilitation. Karasick suggested the commission require an engineer’s report describing the structural defects of a building being considered for demolition.
In response to the number of demolition requests, the Historic Preservation Commission has formed a new committee.
“With the number of demolitions that are coming up, we are looking at demolitions that could be considered demolition by neglect. I think we need to look more closely at a mechanism to address [these applications],” Bennet said about forming a new committee. “It’s a way to focus on what’s happening or about to happen.”
She said the commission hopes to have clearer answers when people ask, “Well, this thing has been falling down forever. Why can’t I do it [raze it]?”
Montclair Local on Aug. 26 filed a public records request for copies of demolition permit requests filed after Jan. 1 and is awaiting a response.
On Aug. 26, the Historic Preservation Commission heard its third demolition application, for the Wheeler Street home, which is within the Wheeler Street Potential Historic Resource Area.
In the end, board members voted unanimously to allow for the razing of the building, but agreed the new structure should reflect the style and scales of the neighborhood.
According to the applicant’s architect, Adam Lasota, water infiltration has caused mold and structural issues, and “haphazard” renovations and additions throughout the years have removed all historical features of the 1915 home.
“There’s no historical significance left. … Seeing the major structural issues, it is not fiscally feasible [to restore the building],” Lasota said.
A report by the board’s historical expert, Connolly & Hickey, states that owner Malgorzato Dolgan purchased the property with the intent to demolish the structure and build two new two-family houses.
In her application for a demolition permit, Dolgan said she recently purchased the property and that as a redeveloper of several other properties in the Wheeler neighborhood — both renovation and new construction — in her opinion “the home at 13 Wheeler is not an appropriate candidate for a renovation.”
According to tax records, Dolgan owns 27, 47 and 68 Mission St. and 10 Washington St.
She is proposing the construction of two new two-family homes with parking for four cars to replace the single two-family building at 13 Wheeler St.
“I am proposing the style of construction to be historically inspired. I am happy to work with the Montclair Historical Preservation Commission to arrive at a style and design that will enhance the neighborhood and serve as an example of redevelopment in this neighborhood,” Dolgan wrote.
The house was part of the Wheeler Street Intensive Level Survey conducted in 2019. As part of the assessment, the survey found: “Buried under the application of vinyl siding and window infills at the front porch, the original building exists based on the detailing of the siding. The additions are set to the rear, and although somewhat awkwardly positioned, show the early transition of the building as the addition, based on the foundation, was added before the mid-20th century but after 1933. The building would be considered a contributing resource in the historic district.”
But the Connolly & Hickey report noted: “The architectural homogeneity of the Wheeler Street neighborhood is diminished when a building is either radically altered or removed. The use of multifamily housing as executed in this area with its mix of two-to four-family units and mid-size apartments creates an interesting approach to addressing housing needs in the early 20th century.”
In April 2019, the owner of the properties on Lloyd Road, which spurred Montclair’s demolition review law, withdrew his application with the Zoning Board to build a 60,000-square-foot home there. The 28-acre property remains vacant.
In 2007, following the demolition of the Marlboro Inn, Montclair created a waiting period of one year for demolition permits. The rule delayed developers from razing homes that were 75 years old or older, and allowed permits to be deferred until the Historic Preservation Commission could investigate the history of the buildings, analyze their architectural features and consider whether they should be official, protected historic landmarks. In 2012, Township Planner Janice Talley suggested the rule be pulled due to changes made by the state to municipal land-use regulations. Talley said the changes made the local rule moot.
In 2018, over the objections of many residents and community groups who hoped to save the building, the former home of African American sports hero and business leader Aubrey Lewis was razed and replaced by eight single-family homes in the South End of Montclair. The developer attempted to sell the mansion for $10, but with the caveat that the new owner would have to move it within a quarter mile of its original 2.7-acre site at 44 Pleasant Ave. No one took the developer up on his offer.
Since 2019, the township has issued two stop-work orders on homes that had not applied for demolition permits, but were razed nonetheless. In April, a home at 515 Grove St. was razed without a permit, and in April 2019, a home at 10 Central Ave. was razed without a permit and during the demolition moratorium. In October 2020, the building department did expedite a demolition permit for 27 St. Luke’s Place due to unsafe conditions.