NJIT’s Plans to Demolish Buildings in Historic District Temporarily Derailed

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New Jersey Institute of Technology. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

The battle to save Newark’s James Street Historic District, after decades of encroachment, has reached a moment of truth.


In a series of rulings delivered last month, the State Historic Preservation Office denied New Jersey Institute of Technology’s application to demolish four buildings within the city’s first and oldest historic district.

The denial, however, is only conditional, meaning the university must come before the review board again to share details of its redevelopment plan, called the NJIT Campus Gateway MLK Project

“I understand that to move forward the university has to develop,” said Zemin Zhang, a James Street resident and executive director of Newark Landmarks. “But my purpose is to press NJIT to adopt a different attitude.”

Zhang believes that a motivating force behind NJIT’s redevelopment plans is an effort to forestall a looming crisis in higher education that experts are calling a “demographic cliff,” in which enrollment is expected to drop.

Unfortunately, the university has demonstrated a pattern of behavior that predates this recent hearing, as Jersey Digs reported, and seems to treat historic buildings as an impediment to its own progress.

In the past application alone, the university sought to raze six buildings in the historic district: 238, 240, 250, 317 MLK Boulevard were all spared temporarily, while two buildings that comprise the Mueller Brothers Florist factory were authorized for demolition.

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In the past application alone, the university sought to raze six buildings — 238, 240, 250, 317 MLK Boulevard, as well as two buildings that comprise old Mueller Factory. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

Despite the loss of the factory, which some thought was worth saving, leaders in the preservation community believe the ruling gives an opportunity for NJIT to align its goals with the rest of the neighborhood.

“The district is under pressure and so much of it intersects with NJIT,” said Emily Manz, executive director of Preservation New Jersey. “We need to see their plans in a more holistic sense, so that it can be planned out in partnership with the community.”

Manz — who confirmed that the James Street Historic District has been nominated for her organization’s annual Most Endangered Places list — notes that the SHPO hearing is a chance to find common ground.

“Preservation advocates are walking in lockstep with the goals of NJIT and they need to be included in the future,” Manz said.

Not everyone, though, shared in this spirit of optimism.

“If we don’t do something, there aren’t going to be any buildings left in the historic district to call it a historic district,” said Guy Sterling, a James Street resident since 1986.

Understanding Sterling’s weariness requires some knowledge of Newark’s past. The local historic preservation movement began with the James Street Historic District in the late 1970s. For such an old city that lost many landmarks to urban renewal, that was a late beginning.

Newark didn’t have a so-called Penn Station moment like New York City had. It wasn’t the loss of a particular landmark that galvanized the preservation community to lobby for legislative guardrails. It was a death by a thousand cuts that inspired Donald Dust, founder of Newark Landmarks, to push for a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

“There was no singular moment, but there was a singular person,” Sterling said.

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In 1989, James Street resident Guy Sterling organized a protest of the demolition of the Lloyd Homes. Photo by Guy Sterling.

The recognition of the James Street Commons was meant as a defense against demolition, but far too many developers have been able to storm these legal ramparts. Since 1975, about 190 buildings — or about 45 percent of the neighborhood — have been lost. Among the buildings gone forever were homes with rare architectural features like the Lloyd Houses, which Sterling calls the last and best example of Federal-style architecture in Newark.

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Since 1975, about 175 buildings — or about 40 percent of the neighborhood — were lost to demolition. Image courtesy of Newark Landmarks.

In fact, Sterling organized a protest in the late 1980s against the developer who had promised to restore the Lloyd Houses, only to neglect them, then ask the city for permission to bulldoze them. Today, they are a parking lot.

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In 1989, James Street resident Guy Sterling organized a protest of the demolition of the Lloyd Homes. Photo by Guy Sterling.

“That was an eye-opener to me,” said Sterling, a former reporter for the Star-Ledger, “that developers weren’t interested in following through on any promise to keep historic buildings standing.”

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9 COMMENTS

  1. How can you publish this article without even the courtesy of asking NJIT for comment? That is irresponsible, at best.

  2. Hi Matthew,
    This article is an update on a story we ran in March (which we hyperlink). In the previous story, we did print a comment from NJIT. We would be happy to touch base with you when you decide to unveil your new plans.

  3. Yup let’s keep rotten old buildings up which generate no revenue while Newark is continuously in a budget crisis and needs constant state aid.

  4. Why is the photo of the former Newark Central High School which NJIT renovated and preserved much of its historic character captioned:

    “In the past application alone, the university sought to raze six buildings — 238, 240, 250, 317 MLK Boulevard, as well as two buildings that comprise old Mueller Factory. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.”

    That seems to be a very misleading caption for a photo that depicts exactly the opposite.

  5. While I love the character and architecture of the James Street Commons district, Newark is at a crossroads in terms of the redevelopment direction of the city. While many people can agree that Newark City government has failed to maximize the city’s attributes and area development momentum, for many decades, there appears to be a concomitant, vocal sect of anti-development, anti-gentrification (not a bad word) forces, who seem to relish in the city’s poverty, blight and decay.
    Too many in the city view redevelopment as a zero-sum proposition. They have been conditioned and led to view change in this city as an existential threat. It is not if Newark residents decide to become active participants in real estate, as owners and not renters. I am not oblivious to the economic conditions and realities of many city residents. These financial challenges do not have to be impediments to ownership, and with ownership comes control.
    Newark is replete with churches and other houses of worship that generate substantial financial donations from their congregants. What’s stopping the leaders and members of these institutions from forming non-profit redevelopment corporations, devoted to neighborhood reinvestment and development? In a word: leadership (or lack thereof)…
    I understand a desire to preserve the city’s rich architectural history, but I don’t understand this affinity for decades-abandoned properties, of little architectural, cultural or historical value.

  6. Need development and progress in Newark not decrepit old buildings that are not maintained (like the Cottage Street Orbit and Yankel Tauber owned properties on Broad St)and are eyesore.

  7. Yes we need development in Newark but how about some well thought out and we’ll designed projects that highlight the rich history of the city. Allow me to argue on behalf of the perspective of the design community not an anti-gentrifiers, quite the opposite since I recently moved here. These structures can never be replicated because they are so expensive in terms of labor cost and materials. More laborious than even a sparkling new “copy and paste” building that’s tries to pass for modern and progressive design, boring and lazy for the standards of those who know about architecture. A problem with new buildings being developed a is that they often look like fortresses at ground level with no interactions with the sidewalk other than a curb cut and parking door. Even their pedestrian entrances look like after thoughts, just look at any building along the MLK corridor. In NYC there are stringent historical zoning laws where even new building have to fit within the context of the historical neighborhood. Never understood why that has not been adopted here. Old buildings that have character and have been neglected only to be recently restored and reporposed in their second life are way more interesting and invovative. They were design to engage the sidewalk and not worship the car culture. The public wants that and the public, no matter their social/economic situation, want to move to places that are engaging with the community. Not space ship buildings that apear out of nowhere to invade a community and does not make effort to fit the character of the community. Development is Unstoppable in Newark which is what’s exciting to outsiders. New modern building have their place in Newark’s future as do cheap quick builds but not at the expense of historical districts and some of the city’s great treasures. Can’t just give in to that, Have some dignity. And for those who just see abandoned eyesore, ever hear of a diamond in the rough? Other citiea have and are thriving because the saw potential in preservation. Need to believe it when you see it.

  8. Newark destroyed its history decades ago so trying to hold on to some scraps is too little too late. Demolition of historic buildings is in Newark’s DNA so I wouldn’t spend too much energy fighting it. Better off starting from scratch.

  9. The James st commons (JSC) preservationists are nothing more than smug elite municipal minority & white leftist residents opposed to ALL redevelopment in JSC.
    Every neighborhood in Newark has seen Redevelopment except for James Street Commons. (Halsey st should be it’s own district. ALL REDEVELOPMENTis on Halsey and hides the fact that nothing has taken place along the true James corridor. It is not shocking at all that not a single damn building has been built on James Street, Burnet Street, Eagle Street!
    If it wasn’t for Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints building being a church , it probably would have been banned as well!
    I seen only one residential building built in the district outside downtown is that is behind the Latter Day Saints Church on MLK Jr Boulevard. I like that it’s three stories and matches the historic building Heights , but it is the most cheapest plain facade you can think of .

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