Challenging the lack of historic preservation in Newark

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on May 03, 2016

The City of Newark of Newark installed this electronic LED sign without getting approvals from the Newark Landmarks & Historic Preservation Commission or the state Historic Preservation Office. The sign is supposed to display events taking place in the city. 

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Newark City Hall has a new bauble on its front lawn – an eye-catching electronic LED sign that, at some point, will display events taking place around town.

On the next block of Broad Street, a chunk of Newark's history is propped up  as though it's part of a Hollywood set. That would be the façade of the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, which served as the entrance to Newark's third train station until 1967.

But there's a preservation problem with these emblems of Newark's present and its past.

The City Hall sign is not supposed to be there and the city's landmark ordinance explains why. State laws do, too, as you will see in a moment.

As for the train station façade, those in the preservationist community say the same city and state regulations should have stopped the Newark Housing Authority, which is also a redevelopment authority, from selling it to a developer.

Let's deal with the sign first.

In the city's preservation ordinance, any project that alters the historical integrity of a landmark building or historic district has to undergo a review and gain approvals from local and state historic boards.

Well, Newark City Hall is a landmark listed on state and national registers of historic places.

The electronic sign, encased in some type of stone, clashes with the ornate BeauxArts-style building constructed in 1902. And, the city didn't get the okay to put the sign on city hall property from the Newark Landmarks & Historic Preservation Commission or the state's Historic Preservation Office.

Newark blew past both safeguards and has yet to say why.

Residents can't do that. If they live in a historic home or district, Interim Commission Chairman David Robinson said, residents must receive clearance from the Landmarks Commission before they receive a building permit to do any kind of renovation.

 "It pops up as a flag and the building department will say you need to get historic approval,'' Robinson said.

Apparently, this didn't happen with the sign. It's also not clear if the city sought site plan approval from the he planning board.

Robinson said he wasn't aware of the sign until he saw it on his way to a commission meeting recently.

He said its members, who have many other proposals to consider, have not gotten around to dealing with the electronic sign surprise.

But the state's Historic Preservation Office did address the structure in a March 21 letter to the city. Daniel Saunders, an administrator for the office, said the city did not get "prior written authorization'' and that it had to submit an application retroactively for a review hearing on the project.

Larry Hajna, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the city has reached out to gather information for the review, which will determine if the sign can stay or if it has to be modified or removed.

If the city doesn't apply – and it hasn't so far – there isn't much the state can do to make city officials submit to a review, except to remind them that they are violating the New Jersey Register of Historic Places Act.

"They (state) have no power,'' said Liz Del Tufo, president of the Newark Landmarks and Preservation Committee. "The only one who can take it down is the city itself.''

Not sure if that's going to happen. Haven't heard from Frank Baraff yet, the city's Director of Communication.

When Sharpe James was mayor, Del Tufo said, his administration hung a banner in front of City Hall that listed upcoming city events, something the sign is expected to do once it is programmed.

But after the preservation committee complained about the banner, citing the landmark ordinance, the city took it down. Short of that effort, Del Tufo said, somebody would have to file a lawsuit to make the city comply and have a hearing with the state.

A month before Newark was reminded of its responsibility about the sign, the state sent a similar preservation letter to the housing authority about the sale of the railroad terminal façade.

In the Feb. 8 letter, the state said the railroad terminal is located within the Four Corners Historic District and that any action regarding the property has to be reviewed.

NHA Executive Director Keith Kinard said the façade was sold for $480,000 in January. In its summary to the housing authority, 3Js Development Group of Morris Plains said it plans to have a jewelry store on the first floor and  offices or apartments on second.

With the deal done, Kinard believes the state's request for a review or hearing applies to the developer, not his agency.

"It would apply to us if we are in development mode,'' Kinard said.  "I don't understand the problem.''

Even though the property has been sitting vacant more than 20 years, Ulana Zakalak, a consultant in preservation circles, called the sale illegal.

"They can't do that,'' she said. "They have a responsibility for their landmarks. You can't do anything to that building (façade) until you get approval.''

Residents have to get the thumbs up, too. They just can't do it like the city or the housing authority.

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