A destructive epidemic is sweeping across New Jersey, eroding the historical character of communities, tearing social fabric, and transforming neighborhoods. While small homes on large lots in upper middle-class communities are generally the first victims of this contagion, it indiscriminately targets older houses in many types of localities. In Ocean City (Cape May County), for example, it has taken upwards of 300 late nineteenth, early twentieth century bungalows, and cottages in just a handful of years. In Edison (Middlesex County) overly large, overly tall new buildings are being shoehorned into a neighborhood of post World War II Cape Cod tract houses.
An etiology of this disease is difficult to specify precisely because it is has many causes; though the prospect of quick profits in a bullish housing market is an underlying factor. Many people know this epidemic as the ”teardown” trend. In Bergen County, where towns like Wyckoff, Tenafly, Fairlawn and Ridgewood have been particularly hard hit, some call it “bash and build.” The phenomenon is generally defined as the demolition of a smaller, older house in favor of building an inharmonious larger structure, which is sometimes named a “big foot.” Last year the National Trust for Historic Preservation identified 300 municipalities where the teardown trend was epidemic. Forty five of them (15 percent) were in New Jersey, stretching from Cape May Point to Alpine, from Florham Park to Monmouth Beach.
The loss of historic architectures is the foremost concern of those who fear the teardown trend, but the sustenance of livable communities for a squeezed middle class, the provision of affordable housing, and the ability to direct growth in smarter directions will be side benefits of effective treatment.
Because the diagnosis of the problem is uncertain the treatment is difficult to prescribe. But the first weapon is knowledge. PNJ urges the municipalities of New Jersey to pay close attention to the trend in the neighborhoods within their boundaries, and to hold public programs to address the issue. Nominating neighborhoods to local, state, or national historic places lists is a first step. Strengthened local preservation ordinances and improved zoning codes can attempt to define appropriate scale for communities as well as the elements that give a community its character.
Adrian Scott Fine, National Trust for Historic Preservation
Jody Alessandrine, Councilman, Ocean City
Mike Brienza, Friends of Wyckoff