LETTER – Flemington’s Urban Renewal Plan Stalled by NJ Historic Preservation Office

Summary
The state Historic Preservation Office (HPO), which is part of the Department of Environmental Protection, must approve the sale of the Hunterdon County National Bank building at 90-100 Main by Flemington Borough to Jack Cust, Jr.  This sale is connected to the Flemington Center Urban Renewal project.  HPO has notified the Borough of significant deficiencies in it’s application for this approval.  Also, due to the strong public interest in this matter, HPO has requested that numerous organizations inform their constituents of HPO’s finding in this matter

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State Historic Preservation Office Reminds Flemington that History Matters If Flemington’s Main Street continues to look anything like it did during the Trial of the Century for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping—its period of greatest historical significance—Hunterdon’s County Seat may well have the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office to thank. The Historic Preservation Office (HPO) has directly called into question the viability of Jack Cust Jr.’s plan for a high-rise makeover of the most historic part of downtown Flemington by rejecting the “Application for Project Authorization” from Flemington Borough and its designated redeveloper, Mr. Cust’s Flemington Center Urban Renewal LLC, stating that the application was “not yet technically and professionally complete and sufficient” and that their recent experience has been that “undertakings of this nature in the past have failed.”

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HPO cited the need for further documentation and a thorough review of alternatives that would be less destructive to the historic streetscape before it could move forward with its legally mandated project review. The Historic Preservation Office outlined its findings in a June 6 letter to Flemington Mayor Phil Greiner that pointed out numerous deficiencies in the project application. HPO asked the Borough to provide a copy of its Historic Preservation Master Plan along with any resubmitted application. That plan—initially adopted in 1997 and reaffirmed frequently by the Borough until Mr. Cust enlisted support from elected officials for his massive urban renewal concept in early 2016—calls upon the Borough to “designate, protect and maintain Flemington’s most important sites and districts” while also allowing old buildings to meet today’s needs by being adapted for a new use.

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This process has led to the resurgence of historic districts across America during the past half century. In the letter, HPO asked a series of questions that one would have expected Flemington Borough to ask its redeveloper in light of its goals for the historic downtown as outlined in the Historic Preservation Master Plan. HPO asked for: • Justification for the “changes to historic configurations,” that is, the removal or alteration of important historic structures. • Assurance that the demolition and excavation of the block won’t harm the remaining historic buildings in the district. •

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Specifics on how the “new structural systems” will be installed in the partially-retained historic buildings once the existing structural systems are removed. • Details on how the façade of 90 Main, the historic Hunterdon County Bank Building, will be protected from damage. • Description of alternatives that would avoid destruction of historic resources. • Clarification of costs. The Friends of Historic Flemington, a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation established to protect and celebrate Flemington’s history, has expressed grave concerns about the devastating impact the Cust project would have on the historic downtown.

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Other preservation groups that have expressed concern about the project include The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation New Jersey, the New Jersey Historical Commission, Flemington Historic Preservation Commission, Hunterdon County Historical Society, Hunterdon County Cultural and Heritage Commission, Hunterdon Land Trust, and Rural Awareness Inc. Key among the Friends’ concerns are the absence of any demonstration of real estate market viability, a fact that also concerned HPO, which found no evidence to support the claim of “extensive studies concerning the economic viability of the downtown.” As a rule, hotels are only built after proof of market viability is demonstrated—typically by a hotel market study— and none has been provided to Flemington to date for Mr. Cust’s project. The Friends of Historic Flemington will continue to demand what the Borough should have asked for before signing up for this plan—a credible market study to prove that the project is viable, a traffic study to prove that Borough streets will not be overwhelmed, and a summary of the fiscal impact to show whether Mr. Cust’s project will ever offer any fiscal benefits to Flemington Borough, its residents, and its businesses. Learn more at www.FriendsofHistoricFlemington.com.

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Hunterdon’s Most Endangered Historic Sites Named by Community Survey Flemington – A call by the Hunterdon County Cultural & Heritage Commission for public nominations for the Most Endangered Historic Sites in the County produced a list of six sites. Nominated are: four buildings in Flemington: the 1877-789 Union Hotel, the 1800s Fulper Building, the c.1860s Hunterdon County National Bank Building, and the 1847 Reading-Large House; also the Bonnell Tavern in Clinton and the Lowrey Grist Mill in Milford. The Flemington sites are listed as contributing elements within the Borough’s historic district, on the State and National Registers of Historic Places; the other two have Certificates of Eligibility for historic designation. All received one nomination except for the Union Hotel, which drew several, making it the public’s number one choice for preservation. The Union Hotel and Reading-Large House were named Most Endangered in 2010 as well.

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The Lowrey Grist Mill was cited on the Most Endangered list for 2011. The Commission first supported a Most Endangered survey in 2007. “We do the survey,” said Commission Chair Lora Jones, “to alert County residents of our history and to provide a starting place to rally people who want to preserve our heritage.” Results are announced in May to emphasize National Preservation Month, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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“This Place Matters” is the theme of this year’s national campaign, which encourages people to celebrate the places that are meaningful to them and to their communities. Here are brief descriptions of the nominated sites: Union Hotel at 76 Main Street, Flemington: According to one nomination, ‘No single structure within the Borough of Flemington defines the town more than the majestic Union Hotel….Not to mention that history – world History – happened within the Hotel’s walls during the famous trial of Bruno Hauptmann in 1935…” Bonnell Tavern at 2 Pittstown Road, Clinton: Abraham Bonnell established a tavern on the road from Brunswick to Easton in the 1760s.

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By August 1775, Bonnell was a deputy to New Jersey’s Provincial Congress and his tavern became a center for recruiting men into the Second Regiment, Hunterdon Militia. In July 1776, Lt. Colonel Bonnell helped raise and lead a battalion to reinforce militia defending eastern Jersey from the British in New York. Hunterdon County National Bank at 90-100 Main Street in Flemington: Famous as a tax haven for 140 leading American corporations in the 1930s, the building is similar in appearance to Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. – 2 – Lowrey Grist Mill at 4 Bridge Street in Milford:

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The 1798 mill built by Revolutionary War Colonel Thomas Lowrey played a significant role in Hunterdon’s economic history for more than 100 years, attracting a railroad and corporate business to Milford. The Fulper Building at 78 Main Street in Flemington: A Victorian Mercantile building erected in the 1880’s by William Fulper, of the Fulper Pottery family in Flemington. Later it became Nevius Department store, which housed reporters on its third floor during the Hauptmann Trial, giving them a bird’s eye view of activity at the Historic Courthouse. Nevius Brothers remained at the location for many decades; subsequent tenants include Blaher’s Stationary, The Potting Shed, and Yellow Finch Antiques. Reading-Large House at 119 Main Street in Flemington: A nationally important example of Greek Revival architecture, the house is one of the most elaborate of the mid-19th century dwellings of that style designed and built by Hunterdon native Mahlon Fisher. The Hunterdon County Cultural and Heritage Commission supports and develops programs to promote interest and participation in and understanding of local arts, culture, and historic events. To learn more about the Commission’s programs and activities, please visit www.co.hunterdon.nj.us/depts/c&h/c&h.htm or find us on Facebook.

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