New Jersey often gets a bad rap, Bayonne especially. During the housing boom of the mid-2000s, which culminated in a global financial crisis in 2009, residents of Newark began associating their cross-river neighbor with a common boxy housing structure they viewed as anathema to their urbanist vision for Newark.
The “Bayonne Box,” a one- or two-family detached home, usually three stories, set back from the sidewalk for off-street parking, are bountiful in Newark, Bayonne, Hudson County, and many cities across the Tri-State.
The city of Newark was adamant about charting a new course in housing policy. It hosted a housing design symposium at the historic Newark Museum in 2007 titled “Transforming the ‘Bayonne Box’ into a new house for Newark.” Urbanists preferred newer, taller mixed-use buildings, the kind now standard in Bayonne’s development boom.
The most desirable existing housing stock remains the same across the country—pretty brownstones and row houses.
With the Newark revivalist movement came talk about changing the zoning laws to decrease required parking spaces from 1.5 spaces per dwelling to one, which it eventually did, as did Bayonne in June of this year.
The “Bayonne Box” became a case study in poor urban planning. If Newark residents envision a dense, walkable, public-transit-oriented city, then it’s true that the box stood in their way. Bayonne has a similar vision, but the box remains curiously absent from the discussion.
Design and Perception
The aesthetic appeal of the box is subjective, but its critics make valid points. The box, while creating off-street parking, discourages density, encourages vehicle ownership, can be an inefficient use of space, and a concentration of them can lead to traffic congestion and less-walkable communities. However, Bayonne built its boxes long before the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail was constructed in 2000, which opened the city to higher-density development. Newark, meanwhile, had long been a transit hub.
Boxes have long exterior walls with few windows. The space between the lots, called a “sliver side yard,” is so small that it’s virtually unusable except for trash storage, and wastes space. Think of how much space all those side yards combined would amount to.
Boxes have also become a bane for housing inspectors. Common box floor plans have large family rooms, or recreation rooms, that are independent from the rest of the house: ideal conditions for illegal apartments that pose serious safety hazards to occupants.
Bayonne residents never shared the same distaste for the box as those in Newark. On the contrary, Bayonne residents seem proud of their city’s architectural characteristics and embrace the suburban-urban lifestyle afforded by its vehicle-friendly philosophy. Sit in on any city council meeting where a new development is discussed, and residents will turn out in droves, arguing that new development doesn’t fit in a community of traditional Bayonne housing.
Birth of the Box
The box was not born from centralized urban planning, but rather from a strong demand for housing and vehicles in the decades after World War II. With the rest of the developed world buried in rubble, the Greatest Generation who fought the war took advantage of the booming economy. For the first time in American history, the average working family could purchase a home and a car, attend college, and move up the economic ladder. The favorable economic conditions gave way to the largest population boom in American history—the baby boomers. These new families needed housing, a lot of it, and they wanted cars.
This generation was also the last to embrace intergenerational housing. The younger generation would grow up to rent half the box, and eventually inherit the property altogether. The floor plans made ideal apartments for either generation, zoning laws be damned.
Over the next few decades, cities across the country built more housing without adjusting zoning maps to create larger lots. Developers were limited to building on standard 25-by-100 square-foot lots, which created the “boxy” shape. To accommodate the simultaneous explosion of vehicle ownership, boxes were set back from the street to replace what might have been a front yard with a driveway, a very different design than the traditionally more desirable brownstones and row houses that come right up to the sidewalk.
Density was not a priority of city planners at the time. Bayonne was much more spread out in the 1960s than it is now. Boxes were seen as a large improvement over the dense, yet decrepit, tenement buildings that were being torn down by the block to make room for boxes. This era saw a massive expansion of highways and disinvestment in public transit, making off-street parking more valuable than ever.
While boxes were being built, Hudson County was going through its own revival, centered on historic homes, termed by historians as the “Brownstone Revival.” Investors flooded into neighborhoods like Hamilton Park and Paulus Hook in Jersey City, and downtown Hoboken, to buy up existing housing stock. Meanwhile, boxes were marketed to the “working class.”
Newark has for a long time seen itself as a bona fide city, the largest in the state, a center of commerce and transit. But Bayonne has historically been comfortable in the grey area between city and suburb. It was not until 2000 when the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail connected Bayonne to the rest of urban New Jersey that residents and developers began thinking otherwise.
When the Dust Settles
When the housing market collapsed in 2009, much development in cities across the country came to a screeching halt, including that in Bayonne. Now, still in recovery, the housing market has changed. Most new developments in Bayonne are luxury rentals marketed to residents with above-average incomes, the antithesis of boxy houses designed to expand affordable home ownership.
Today, the Bayonne Box, the kind native to Bayonne, is more valuable than ever, as property values countrywide are at all-time highs. At one time, boxes were for low-to-moderate income blue-collar families. A box on the market only a few years ago may have attracted a couple of bidders and commanded a generous price, but now those homes have many bidders competing for a limited number of homes in Hudson County. Here’s the kicker—with driveways.
Homeowners whose taste in housing has changed over time have been modifying boxes across the county, tearing off plastic paneling and replacing it with a more stylish material, like wood paneling. They might replace the windows with bay windows, repaint the garage door, and tear off the black railing on the balconies in favor of something more posh. Some box owners convert the garage into small businesses, like a daycare or office. Design can only suppress utility so much, and the needs of increasingly diverse communities change. So, too, will the box’s purpose.
The alliterative Bayonne Box makes a good mark for new urbanists who prefer a bike lane to on-street parking, a light rail station to a highway entrance, or simply just enough housing to accommodate everyone. Here in Bayonne, residents are still on the fence.—BLP