During a three-hour Hoboken City Council meeting on Wednesday night, the council argued over a resolution for the city to negotiate with the owners of a historic church to keep them from turning it into condos.
The owners of the old stone 7th Day Adventists Church on Ninth and Bloomfield streets plan to carve out six condos there, but have pledged to keep the exterior structure the same. The proposed council resolution would ask them to preserve the inside for some sort of community use, and instead build more densely on property they partly own at 83 Willow Ave.
But critics of the proposal said that the owners have already said “no” to similar offers, and that the measure was only brought up as a political stunt.
Wording of the resolution
The resolution stated that the owner of 901-907 Bloomfield has partial ownership of 83 Willow Ave., a property currently being reviewed by the council’s Southern Development Subcommittee. The resolution suggests that the city negotiate for the property owners to “offset bulk” from the church to the Willow Avenue location, preserving the interior of the church for community space.
The resolution, sponsored by 1st Ward Councilman Michael DeFusco and 4th Ward Councilman Ruben Ramos, was denied by a 4-5 vote after some debate.
“The City Council knows that an adaptively reused historic structure can provide a dynamic community space for our young families, seniors and the performing and visual arts,” stated the resolution.
The church was erected in 1890 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
The 7th Day Adventists had been using the space until 2013.
At an Oct. 20, 2015 hearing of the Zoning Board, the board unanimously approved the property owners’ request to convert the church into six luxury condos after granting three variances.
“This is not an insubstantial effort that is going to be put into preserving what is a gem, and it is a very large gem,” said Zoning Board member Phil Cohen at the time.
The Hoboken Historic Commission approved the alterations to the structure in November 2014, according to testimony during hearings for the project.
Councilman Jim Doyle said during last week’s council meeting that the exterior of the building will be preserved and the “Hoboken Historic Commission has put onerous restrictions on this property.”
The existing plan will add two floors to the existing three-story structure and will have six condo units, which add up to approximately 12,000 square feet.
The buildout will cost over $1 million dollars, said architect Dean Marchetto of Marchetto-Higgins-Stieve under oath at the project’s initial August hearing.
The architect also plans to repurpose many of the churches historical aspects including restoring the existing European architecture and installing five or six of the church’s current stained glass windows as “wall art” in the condos’ lobby.
A plea for a community space
Hoboken resident Daniel Tumpson said he has advocated for the church’s preservation and use as a community space since hearing of its closing and visiting the space
“What I experienced on that first and only visit made a deep impression on me which has motivated my consistent effort to have 901 Bloomfield preserved and acquired by the city of Hoboken to be used for a public space,” said Tumpson.
Tumpson said the building is a “historically significant work of art”
“My immediate thought was that this historical structure should continue to be a place for Hoboken residents to use as a public space for meetings, presentations, performances, and as well as for quiet contemplation,” he added.
Tumpson said the resolution “has no downside” as it doesn’t obligate the city to acquire the land, just negotiate and work towards a compromise.
He suggested that transferring bulk isn’t the only option as the city could also buy the property outright, “using funding that may be obtainable from federal, state, and philanthropic private sources dedicated to preserving historic spaces to be used for public purposes.”
“This project is really scary for me,” said resident Mary Ondrejka. “I’ve wanted it to be saved from the very beginning. This is just another case where a very historic place has been overlooked.”
“I’ve seen the inside and it is beautiful, and it is painful to think it will be destroyed,” she said.
Resident Cheryl Fallick said she also supported the resolution and urged the council to consider voting yes.
“Eventually the historic character of this town will be two buildings, the library and City Hall,” said Fallick.
Mary Kelly, a resident of the 900 block of Bloomfield, said she and her neighbors collected over 200 signatures last December from residents in the area who didn’t want to see the building destroyed.
Resident Jim Vance said, “This building is remarkable, and if we have to shell out some money and be held at gunpoint to do it, then god damn it, let’s do it.“
Resident Dr. Dev Nayar said he represented other residents of Southwest Hoboken who would not like to see increased bulk in their neighborhood, as they already have traffic snarls and pedestrian safety issues in the area which would only be exacerbated by more residents at 83 Willow Ave.
Misleading the public?
DeFusco said he has been talking about the church for roughly a year and said the resolution “isn’t designating anything, but says we believe in this building much like we believe in parks.”
Councilman Ravi Bhalla said he doesn’t conceptually disagree with DeFusco, but planned on voting no.
“I will vote no on resolution tonight because it actually is a political stunt,” said Bhalla. “I was for it conceptually, but what’s being hid from the public is, the developer has no interest from an economic standpoint in what is on the table. ”
Rumors have swirled that DeFusco plans to run against Mayor Dawn Zimmer for mayor in November. In fact, he recently held a political fundraiser on the same night that Bhalla did.
Bhalla said the developers informed the council they were not interested back in December in a letter.
“People are being misled to believe this is something that’s feasible, and it’s not the case,” he added.
The Dec. 16, 2016 letter states, “The concept of increasing the density of the building to be built on the 77-83 Willow Ave. parcel is not practical because a number of floors would have to be added. The value of the approved project at 901 Bloomfield Ave. is so great that at least four additional floors would have to be added to the building on the redevelopment parcel. This would increase the building’s height by at least 40 feet. Construction of the 901 Bloomfield project will be starting without delay.”
Councilman Jim Doyle said “I’ve been thinking about the one long and hard because one might say, what is the harm in voting for this…but we have a party that doesn’t want to sell or give the property to us… it takes two to tango.”
“They have permits on the windows. The cow is out of the barn,” Doyle added. “The saddest part of this is people are genuinely motivated to preserve this building and they have been led to believe there is more of a chance than there is.”
“I felt like I was being duped into supporting this resolution.” – Peter Cunningham
“This is a property that maybe we have to pony up for if its something we really want to preserve,” said Councilman Michael Russo. “Maybe we do take it by eminent domain.”
Russo said. “The administration sometimes talks out of both sides of its mouth… in one instance added density and eminent domain are okay and at other times it isn’t.”
Councilman Peter Cunningham said it wasn’t until he discussed the resolution with Doyle that he learned of the December letter.
“I felt like I was being duped into supporting this resolution,” said Cunningham. “This is more than just a long shot.”
Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher said she would love to see all churches preserved but “at least we get the part everyone sees everyday.”
DeFusco said “I applaud Councilman Bhalla for mischaracterizing this as a political stunt I’ve been talking about this for a year… this notion of a political stunt is vile, it disrespects me… what do I have to gain from this? Other than to follow through on campaign promises to bring vibrancy to this city.”
Council President Jen Giattino said, “What bothers me most about this is giving false hope to something so many residents are passionate about. My heart wants to vote yes but my brain votes no.”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.