Status: On-going Concern
07/2010 Update: The redevelopment project was stalled for many years and just never happened. It is unclear what the current plan is.
12/2008: The town council of Morristown has approved a redevelopment plan for the historic Speedwell Avenue area that includes the razing of 20 buildings along the street. These are to be replaced with a new mixed-use complex composed of retail along with approximately 650 housing units. Condominiums will comprise the majority of the residential development, although 20 percent are slated to be designated “affordable.” In refusing to acknowledge the invaluable resource that is Speedwell Avenue; a vibrant and diverse neighborhood of independent businesses successfully occupying historically-significant buildings; Morristown will unfortunately loose an integral part of the architectural and cultural fabric that make it “someplace,” and move itself perilously closer to becoming “anyplace.”
Within the 2.9 square miles of Morristown are many historic resources that date from the 18th to the 20th century. While a very large National Register district includes more than 600 properties, there are additional resources that are worthy of recognition, and protection. Speedwell Avenue is one of those areas.
Morristown has been under siege from uncontrolled development for the past decade, resulting in the demolition of historic resources and construction of historically inappropriate and invasive new buildings. A result of the lure of tax revenue, ignoring recommendations from an advisory-only historic preservation commission, and a general lack of understanding of how to incorporate historic resources into community planning, the historic downtown has suffered the most aggressive demolitions.
Just a few blocks from the historic downtown is the Speedwell Avenue district, an area where a redevelopment project proposes to realign the intersection of Spring and Speedwell in the interest of improving traffic flow. While the former planning board spent many hours considering pedestrian-friendly alignments and suggested ways in which several important buildings could be adaptively reused, the current plan calls for total site clearance of most of the Speedwell business district. Among the resources proposed for demolition are two groups of 19th and early 20th century houses that are not in the district, but likely to be eligible. This area of town was not nominated with the 1986 Extended Historic District because it could not meet the contiguity requirement. However, Speedwell Avenue is Morristown’s melting pot.
Speedwell Avenue began in the 1850s as a typical residential neighborhood. Successive waves of ethnic newcomers – Jewish, Italian, African-American, Hispanic – have affected its development. Notably, the Jewish shopkeepers gave the street its first commercial character, starting in the 1870s. Many 19th century houses were replaced by multi-purpose structures. Some shops were built as front-yard attachments to the larger houses. Reflecting this trend, the district retains at least one three-story apartment building and a number of storefronts with one or two stories of upper-level apartments.
Commercial shops were still being constructed into the 1920s. Fourteen Queen Anne houses retain 1920s-era stores built into the front facades. Also, remaining is an early 19th-century brick mill building, with its 1920s storefront, and a circa 1912 car dealer’s showroom with plate glass windows and decorative brickwork. In the dealers cobbled front court is a 1930s gas station in the “Streamline” style.
In the mid-20th century, the buildings began suffering from neglect and deferred maintenance. Since about 1980, however, a new Hispanic population has reinvigorated the commercial district. The new immigrants found that small shops were ideal for owner-operated enterprises. Today, there are many Latino restaurants, and the streets are active with commerce day and night.
The continuing threat to this district is the road-widening proposal that would essentially obliterate a thriving business, residential and socially integrated community. In the proposal, the current two-three story buildings would be razed and replaced with taller structures that would ostensibly raise revenue. The ethnic community has little political voice in the process and would be forced to move from this neighborhood.
What is happening on Speedwell Avenue is indicative of the continued threat to Morristown’s future as a livable, human-scale town with strong, attractive sense of history. The story has roots in the 1960s urban redevelopment movement, which resulted in large swaths of historic resources being destroyed for new construction projects that lacked the scale and character that attracted residents.
Once endorsed as public policy by a community, redevelopment is difficult to contain. Morristown will need a groundswell of support from the local residents who affect elected officials, continued education about the historic resource, especially little-appreciated 20th-century resources, and the establishment of a historic preservation commission that has the power to dismiss inappropriate development proposals and assist developers in preparing historically sympathetic designs.
Marion O. Harris, Chairman, Morris Co. Trust for Historic Preservation