Newark's Colonnade residents don't want to be fenced in

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on November 09, 2016

Left to right: Carol Bodine, Elaine Ellsberry and Carlton Tilley are among many residents at Newark's Colonnade Apartments who are opposed to the owners' plan to erect a 6-foot security fence and security booth on the property.

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Security versus aesthetics.

This is the issue heating up in a Newark historic district. Tenants of the Colonnade Apartments, two high-rise buildings designed by renowned architect Mies van der Rohe, are pushing back against the owners' plans for making the properties safer.

PF Holdings LLC, located on Hill Street in Newark, wants to cut down on trespassing and crime around the buildings, which includes residents being robbed in the common parking lot.

But the company's solutions have not resonated with tenants of the 22-story buildings, which are also part of the Colonnade Park Historic District.

No one smiled at plan No. 1: Construct a new lobby enclosure that creates one entrance for the two buildings, and erect a 6-foot wrought iron fence to match existing fencing on the grounds. In April, the owners applied to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for approval, because the city's ordinance only allows for a 3-foot fence

Three feet, six feet.  So what?

Residents pooh-poohed the idea, telling management that the buildings would resemble a prison and lose the open-ended walkways outside on the ground floor. They also believe the plan is ultimately a ploy to reduce the number of security guards — from three guards to two — if visitors are funneled through one main entrance for both buildings.

"Any kind of fence up there goes against what van der Rohe envisioned, which was to have as much open space as possible,'' said Matthew Gosser, an architect, preservationist and 20-year Colonnade resident. "Who wants to be penned into their own building?''

Because of the Colonnade's architectural significance in the historic district, the city's zoning office said PF Holdings had to make its case to the Newark Landmarks & Historic Preservation Commission before the zoning board could consider the fencing proposal.

The owners weren't convincing on Sept. 7. Commission members unanimously rejected the plan because it wasn't in keeping with the aesthetics that van der Rohe created for the Colonnade and the Pavilion, two similar apartment buildings down the street.

"He (van der Rohe) revolutionized the way you built buildings,'' said commissioner David Robinson. "It's all glass on the outside. He's the one that made that contribution to construction and design.''

PF Holdings, however, hasn't given up. They're back with another option that the city's zoning office will allow the zoning board to hear.

Plan No. 2: Keep the fence, and, rather than a new lobby enclosure, install a security booth to centralize the entrance of the two buildings. 

"Since there is a subsequent development application before the Board of Adjustment, the commission's jurisdiction over the application is limited to an advisory role and the Board of Adjustment may proceed with the variance application,'' N'dela Costley, assistant zoning officer, wrote in a letter to Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins. Her office requested a synopsis of the proposal.

Many residents are still not sold.

William Moffett, a regional vice president for PF Holdings LLC, tried to explain the plan to them during a community meeting last week. He said one unarmed security guard would be stationed at the booth during the day, while the other guard patrolled the buildings and the rear parking lot. At night, the armed guard covers both buildings.

Moffett said he wants to deter loitering on the grounds, because "there's some activity there I prefer we not have.''

Residents spelled it out — drugs.

They're sold on the grounds, and residents said they know people are getting high in the stairwell because they can smell marijuana in the hallway. That's why it's hard for residents to share Moffett's vision of a gated community, with additional surveillance cameras, better lighting and additional electronic swipe entrances on the property.

Gary Bootes, owner of Sterling Securities of Newark — the company hired by PF Holdings LLC to provide guards — encouraged residents to call him if they had information about someone selling drugs out of an apartment. He said he would get Newark police involved. Based on current staffing levels of Pf Holdings LLC, Bootes said he doesn't have any security coverage for the rear entrance to the building from the parking lot.

The fence and booth would help, he said.

Gary Tann, a longtime resident, said the booth should lower the number of trespassers, but he stressed that the owners have to do a better job of overall security. At one point, the sliding gate leading to the parking lot was inoperable for several days and cameras around the buildings weren't working.

Residents said strangers get access to the premises when the electronic entry on the rear door is not functioning properly. They acknowledge that some tenants also have left the door propped open, but said they believe what's needed is additional security for their buildings because there are several street-level entrances.

Tenant Carol Bodine suggested that revenue the owners receive from the large complex for rent is enough to hire more guards. Moffett didn't answer that question. He only said the project is a one-time expenditure and that rents would not increase.

"It's the beginning of the end for security and the beginning of the end for a fairly decent place to live,'' said Carlton Tilley, who moved to the Colonnade in 1991.

On Thursday, the zoning board will listen to the owners' pitch for the fence and security booth.

And residents will offer their two cents — for what they believe is a better quality of life.

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