In a barn burner six hour meeting Tuesday night, the Jersey City Zoning Board of Adjustment refused to allow the demolition of the historic St. Peter’s Prep buildings, upholding a decision made by the city’s Historic Preservation Committee about three years ago.
St. Peter’s Preparatory School appealed the HPC’s decision that prevented them from tearing down the St. Peter’s Parish School Hall and the St. Peter’s Hall and Parochial School at York Street, which date back to the late 1800s, with plans to turn the site into a parking lot.
During the meeting, representatives from St. Peter’s argued similar points for taking down the buildings from previous hearings, saying that the buildings were in “dangerous conditions” that were exacerbated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and that it made it unfeasible or unsafe to restore them.
“Why we’re here tonight is [that] we believe that the Historic Preservation Commission was wrong,” said Chuck Harrington, a lawyer for St. Peter’s. “That their decision was arbitrary and capricious, and I say that because we believe they did not act consistently with their obligations under the ordinance.”
Thomas McGinty, an architect and a trustee on the St. Peter’s board, said that while he acknowledged the historic preservation, he argued that they wanted to take down the buildings because of the structural instability of the marshland soil that the grammar school is built upon.
Arguments were made that the buildings had shifted, saying that back in August 2020 that the western building is leaning about 11 inches, causing multiple cracks and fissures and has made it unstable.
“I think what’s troubling most to me at this point is the subsequent movements that we’ve seen since then,” said Alyson Sikorski, a principal at Case Consulting Engineers. “What concerns me is ‘When is this building going to move again? Not if it’s going to happen’.”
The applicants also warned of a potential collapse and made comparisons to the Surfside collapse in Florida last year that had killed 98 people.
“A sudden collapse would be devastating for the entire neighborhood,” said McGinty. “On top of that, there could be loss of life on the street and worse, asbestos, which is throughout the school, would be riddled throughout the neighborhood in a collapse.”
Stuart Lieberman, an attorney representing the Paulus Hook Neighborhood Association that opposed the potential demolition, had witnesses to testify against the applicants.
Donald Friedman, a structural engineer who works with Old Structures Engineering, said that he had reviewed the structure and argued that while there were various forms of damage, there wasn’t anything that was “systemic” structural failure.
He later continued that the buildings had only “ordinary” weathering damage and didn’t have any relationship to the foundation issues, and questioned the notion that the buildings had tilted that much, saying that if it had, the flashing would have pulled apart and the roof wouldn’t be in a good condition.
“I’m not seeing a connection between the various brick defects in the superstructure and the foundation problems,” he said. “They seem to be separate issues. Everybody has focused on Hurricane Sandy damaging the basement slab in the center of the building, which it did, but that doesn’t lead you to structural damage that requires demolition.”
Diane Kaese, the president of the association, also said that the Paulus Hook neighborhood has a number of other historic buildings that were taken care of after Sandy and called St. Peter’s attitude towards the buildings “very disturbing.”
“We can’t be ignorant of those past generations and what they have brought us and what they have given us,” she said. “We have to take it, we have to use it, we have to move it forward and we have to care for it. I think that is something that the association is very, very adamant about.”
When it came to public comments, many speakers overwhelming spoke against demolishing the buildings, including those within and outside of Jersey City, noting that many residents were able to repair their own buildings after Sandy, and accused St. Peter’s of attempting demolish by neglect.
“The question here is not whether or not these buildings can be preserved, but who has the appetite to take on the task,” said Chris Perez of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy, pointing to how other historic landmarks such as the White House, the Fairmont San Francisco hotel, and the Notre-Dame underwent restoration efforts.
“Preserving the external shell and facade of these buildings, while securing and rebuilding as necessary, will result in an ethical and environmentally conscious solution that preserves what is historically significant with these buildings,” he continued.
Another speaker, Susana Holguin-Veras, also warned of the precedence a demolition could mean for other municipalities. “Essentially you’re signaling to property owners who don’t have preservation as a goal that all they need to do to demolish a building is to neglect it just enough and it’ll be approved,” she said.
In the end, the board voted 6-1 to deny the appeal and uphold the HPC’s decision to not demolish the buildings, with Commissioner Ahmed Shedeed being the only dissenting vote.
“I didn’t feel like I got a consistent, clear, credible, understandable testimony from the applicant that made me feel that there’s no option here other than demolition,” said Chairman Josh Jacobs.
“Since this is such a significant building historically, I don’t think we have a choice other than to uphold the HPC ruling, which [is] certainly based on the exhaustive record made on solid merit and consideration,” he continued.