By now it’s old news that Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop is not endearing himself to Bayonne residents or their city officials. In a bizarre twitter storm last week, he bashed “Bayonne box” homes and the town that made them famous.
Fulop recently issued a six-month moratorium on the demolition of one-to-four-family homes, echoing Jersey City Heights residents’ claim that developers who are building updated versions of these homes are wrecking the character of the neighborhood.
“These were two rhymes about dating, but I guess it applies to Bayonne Box architecture as well,” Fulop tweeted. “Exit 14A stay away. If it’s in Bayonne, leave it alone.”
While folks in both towns know about the beef, the story of the box goes largely undiscussed. What does Bayonne or Jersey City have to do with this boxy architecture?
In the box
The “Bayonne Box” is the name given to mid-twentieth century, freestanding, two-to-four-family homes.
The name presumably stems from the buildings’ flat, minimal exterior surfaces. The structures tend to fill as much of the zoned plot of land as is legally possible, often removing backyards to make room for a parking space in front.
The term was popularized partly by urban planners in Newark in the late 2000s when the city was 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 were critical of the inefficient “sliver side yards,” between the structures that are not wide enough for practical use and could even become a fire hazard.
The most desirable existing urban housing stock remains the same across the country—pretty brownstones and row houses. But in Bayonne, the boxes,complete with ample interior space and parking sufficient to raise a family, are increasingly valuable as the region moves toward density in most new construction.
The style is associated with Bayonne because of the city’s history as a military base. In the decades following World War II, soldiers needed two things: housing to raise a family and cars. The box helped to serve both of these ends, but the design is now anathema to the walkable, mixed-use urbanist design vision of many residents in Jersey City and throughout the urbanized county—and country. That vision stands in stark contrast to the car-dominant model on which the old boxes were built.
“It’s one thing to make fun of a building design. It’s something totally different to insult the people that live inside them.” – Bayonne City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski
The Heights issue
The term was reinvigorated by Mayor Fulop after his executive order regarding the demolition of one-to-four-family homes in the Heights. The problem there is that many properties are being purchased and demolished to construct new two-to-four family homes that take up as much space in their zoning plots as is legally allowed. What would otherwise have been a front yard is paved over to make room for parking space. Some builders and property owners have sued the city over the ban.
Many Heights residents advocate for more walkable communities. They also want to preserve the historic structures and characteristics of the neighborhood, where the mayor happens to live.
The demolition ban is meant to put pressure on the Jersey City Council to decide whether to amend a 1991 ordinance that requires residents to seek permission to tear down buildings older than 150 years unless the structure is deemed unfit for occupancy or in danger of collapsing. The city council is determining the extent to which well-built and maintained homes are being targeted for demolition in order to make room for new, boxy, setback structures that ape the traditional Bayonne box.
Bayonne officials, who are less than a month away from a municipal election, have demanded an apology from Fulop.
“Our city is in the middle of a total revitalization, with new developments bringing in millions in new tax revenue and creating a brighter future for our community,” said SecondWard Councilman Sal Gullace “The last thing we need is a neighboring mayor reinforcing old stereotypes and publicly attacking our city’s image, and I expect Mayor Fulop to apologize.”
“It’s one thing to make fun of a building design. It’s something totally different to insult the people that live inside them,” said Bayonne City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski in a press release.“You would think that the Mayor of Jersey City, one of the biggest [cities] in the state, would have other issues to deal with besides insulting thousands of Bayonne residents.”
Fulop did not issue an apology but tweeted, “You all need to lighten up and take a joke.”
It’s also politics
The Bayonne box dustup may reveal something else boiling under the surface.
Mayor James Davis and the three council people who issued the demand for an apology are running for reelection on May 8. Davis reportedly is supporting incumbent Tom DeGise in the election for County Executive. Fulop, along with Union City Mayor Brian Stack, Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, and West New York Mayor Felix Roque is trying to unseat DeGise.
To become chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, Stack needs to rack up committee votes; Davis currently controls the Bayonne committee votes. If Davis loses his mayoral bid to challenger Jason O’Donnell, O’Donnell would control the committee votes, which could help Stack become chairman in a vote scheduled for June.
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.