Why the ‘Bayonne Box’ Can’t be Phased Out

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bayonne box jersey city
A row of ‘boxes’ in Jersey City

Throughout history, there have been many housing typologies that have come and gone. Some are praised and obsessed over, like the Hoboken brownstone, and others seem questionable to homeowners and architects alike, like the “Bayonne Box.”

Local residents made their voices heard earlier this year when we asked our Instagram followers their opinions on these buildings. Their feelings were on the negative side: “This type of horrible architecture actually lowers property values in the long term”, “A blight on our community”, “I would choose a brownstone over a box, at least it would have character, and “Not a fan. And they’re popping up everywhere!”. While this box style doesn’t exist exclusively in Hudson County (for instance, places like Boston call them “Triple Decker’s”), it seems that New Jersey feels the most passionate about spearheading a movement to prohibit them from future development.

Let’s rewind to the 1990s, when the post-World War II housing boom was still in effect. During that time, these houses were indeed a practical approach. Public transit didn’t yet provide access to Bayonne – the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail wouldn’t be built until the early 2000’s – making it necessary for cars to travel to and from what had yet to become a well-connected urban setting.

single family housing styles jersey city
Older, single-family ‘boxes’ in Jersey City Heights
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At the time of construction, they were very marketable homes: Baby Boomers wanted to buy houses and wanted to own cars, so they quickly took to this affordable and efficient housing style that accommodated the desire to have cars by setting the homes back from the street to allow for a small private driveway. Bayonne Boxes were also cheap and easy to build and often contained multiple units, meaning homeowners were able to live extended family members or rent out unused units.

Fast forward to 2017. Bayonne is now considered an urban area, but its dated architecture leaves it in a precarious place – making it difficult to move forward (from an urbanism point of view especially) with the way its architecture shapes its current built environment. Aspects of Bayonne Boxes that were appreciated in the ‘90s don’t hold the same appeal now. Because they don’t maximize on space the way vertical buildings do, these housing styles have limited future potential density for Bayonne and elsewhere in Hudson County and NJ. They also limit these areas to vehicular travel, which results in traffic and less pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. This then contradicts one of the main advantages of an urban environment — walkability and public transit.

An interesting term, coined by Daniel Parolek, accurately characterizes this type of housing: the “Missing Middle.” America’s “Missing Middle” is the midscale, traditional urban housing typologies that used to be what American cities were comprised of – duplexes, triplexes, flats, for instance. Parolek’s firm, Opticos, defines his term as “a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living.” Sounds familiar, right? (Hint: the Bayonne Box.)

Despite overwhelming opposition to the Box – architects, city officials, and NJ Senator Cory Booker have all publically criticized this housing style – the future of the Box remains uncertain. The opposition has been so vocal, in fact, that in 2008, Bayonne received a grant of $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to research variations to the Box.

bayonne box jersey city multi family
A newly constructed ‘box’ designed in a more modern aesthetic

Surprisingly, research findings actually highlighted benefits of the Box that its inhabitants have appreciated for decades. The main benefit being that inexpensive and easy construction makes these houses very affordable. Affordability is an essential point because the main community for whom they provide housing is the immigrant community, a community that is notorious for working tirelessly to establish themselves in a place that is foreign to them. The multi-unit aspect allows them to occupy one structure with their extended family members – something that rings very important to immigrants.

Architecture studios, like Interface Studio Architects (ISA) based in Philadelphia, are working to provide innovative alternatives to affordable housing. They work primarily in cities where this housing typology, cities that have their own version of “the Box” or the “Missing Middle,” like Philly, Boston, and Chicago. Their work highlights the fact that affordable housing doesn’t have to be an eyesore – it can be efficient AND aesthetically pleasing. Modern technologies are often integrated into their buildings as well.

While it seems ISA should be applicable anywhere, the group believes it’s their location that provides them with the opportunity for success. The cities they work in aren’t places where people are looking for urban high-rise living or suburban-style single-family homes, they’re looking for, well, the middle. But unfortunately, the reality is that “architects touch only a fraction of new housing projects, of course, the end of the market. Builders and contractors are creating their own missing-middle housing…” Hiring architects for design, unfortunately, remains a luxury. Builders and contractors are entirely capable of constructing a building without an architects help, but the aesthetic leaves something to be desired.

While many people can see the negative, and anyone can be a critic, the question ultimately remains: can the Bayonne Boxes maintain their identifying features while having a more appealing aesthetic?

What’s your take on the ‘Bayonne Box’? Sound off in the comments!

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14 COMMENTS

  1. The thing about Bayonne boxes is nine out of ten turn the garage into an apartment, so now you have three families and between three and six cars on the street.

  2. Unfortunately not just Bayonne, you see this in JC too, more in the JSQ, Height, Bergen-Lafayette, Greenville areas. Every time I drive by one, it sickens me to think what used to sit in that property. Probably a brownstone, rowhouse, or a victorian. These aren’t exactly affordable either, I see new ones popping up for like $600k plus. These are almost as much of an eye sore as the brick rowhouses and brownstones that got covered in Vinyl.

    • Newark banned them. There just isn’t any political will to make a change. Who cares about the pitched roof? Why is that a city requirement?

  3. The Bayonne boxes in Jersey City are antithetical to the local architecture. They are not cheap. They are not well made, and they aren’t “designed” with any thought to city planning. They ruin the street for parking, they are often not easy to back out of, especially on JC’s narrower one-way streets, and hold up through traffic while someone is navigating out of one. Worse – the developers build to the maximum size allowed on the lot which breeds congestion, and throws dark shadows over the wonderful backyards we have in Jersey City.

    City planning must come up with a new plot-to-building ratio, banish new curb cuts and make these atrocities unattractive to developers. Even Bayonne should take a stand. Or keep Bayonne Boxes at home.

  4. I’ve been wondering what the “box” costs to build? I assume they are built as cheaply as possible. Old single family homes near me in the Heights keep being sold, torn down and Bayonne Boxed. With that cheap looking metallic rail to boot.

  5. What people refuse to acknowledge is the low density R-1 zoning people like Arthur Niehaus above prioritize is a direct cause of high housing costs. Those 2 family teardowns in the Heights could easily be 16 affordable homes on the same lot instead of 4 expensive ones if the zoning allowed. The lot, foundation and roof costs are fixed, dividing them among more units would bring down the construction cost and thus the price to buy or rent. In addition the R-1 mandates the unattached streetfront, and encourages the pitched rather than flat roof.

  6. They built a two family in my neighbor hood in four months
    Wouldn’t catch me dead. Many of thier driveways are illegal.Love the ones with the cheap brass exteriors. The zoning law in Heights needs to be adapted so these structures are no more

  7. My guess is that outdated zoning codes still push developers towards these as well – side setback and parking requirements, etc. Completely agree that JC Heights is ready to move past these and back to attached row homes w/o offstreet parking (which are still pretty boxy, just a different kind of box).

  8. No matter how they try to dress them up, these houses are ugly… and worst yet, seem to have a few designs spread around everywhere so it’s same old same old no matter where you go. Larger single buildings across multiple properties would be a better way to encourage multiple units at a more affordable price… as long as they are decent looking, of course… not the ugly fake brownstones that pop up here and there… a good example of such interesting architecture (if it ever gets built) is the corner of Palisades and Bowers… looking forward to seeing an interesting, well designed multifamily go up there!

  9. I think there will be a time when we celebrate the Bayonne Box as a vernacular urban housing typology that reactivates vacant land with new, decent, affordable, family-sized housing for middle- and working-class immigrants who are still migrating to New Jersey. And a better analogy for the Bayonne Box than the pre-war Chicago Two-Flat or Boston Triple Decker typologies is actually the post-war Vancouver Special housing typology in Vancouver Canada, which use similar proportions and construction methods.

  10. We are losing beautiful historic houses with great architecture and character to these houses (which are sometimes tasteful but often not). Let’s allow “accessory dwelling units” So that we can retain more of the historic homes on 50’ lots rather than tearing them down to build 4 units and 2 garages. Density of people is great for a neighborhood, it’s density of cars and dead streetscape due to garages on the ground floor that hurts us!

  11. Vinyl siding, lack of windows on the side, poor materials- (fast burning OSB board I-beam joists, flooring, and sheathing), oversized curb cuts (sometimes multiple), no basement, and often over crowding with white brick facing (my pet peeve) make these a potential community hazard ready to go up quick in a fire. Code should at least require windows all around and building materials that can withstand an urban fire. I lived in a Bayonne box years ago in Newark and when planes were landing at EWR the building would shake. It was close to Penn Station Newark and its low cost for heating and central air cooling (one design advantage over the ugly window air conditioners in most older buildings), but was confusing to find when coming home sometimes because every house on the block looked exactly the same. http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/print/volume-167/issue-1/features/modern-wood-frame-construction-firefighting-problems-and-tactics.html

  12. I see block after block of these houses (at four stories) being built in Newark south of downtown and Ironbound. They’re visible between Penn Station and Newark airport from the train. Hideous. While it’s encouraging to see development on vacant lots in Newark, it would be more appealing to have rowhouses or small apartment buildings, perhaps with parking (if necessary) in rear public alleys – an aesthetic seen in Boston.

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