A special meeting of the Jersey City Historic Preservation Commission on Monday did not settle the question of whether the more than 130-year-old Downtown Jersey City building will be demolished.
The former P. Lorillard Tobacco factory had been converted to impromptu working and living spaces by enterprising artists in the late 1980s and became one of Jersey City's premier arts spaces. The tenants were forced to vacate the building on March 1, ending a year of intense struggle between the tenants and the owner. The conflict began as an issue of rent hikes, and eventually the owner evicted the tenants so the building could be demolished.
Lawyers for the building's owner, New Gold Equities, a private partnership of investors led by New York real estate mogul Lloyd Goldman, who also owns 110 First St., have argued on several occasions that the building must be demolished because it is in danger of collapsing at any time due to the deterioration of its infrastructure.
That argument was posed again at Monday's special meeting, as it had been at a previous meeting of the commission, on May 23. The owner's attorney, as well as others speaking on behalf of the owner, presented the case for why the historic commission should approve applications for demolition. The commission is to decide upon approving demolition at a meeting scheduled for July 18.
Another reason given for demolition was that there would be considerable financial loss incurred by the owner if money was invested in restoring the building for habitable spaces.
Also at the meeting on Monday, the city's lawyers argued why the 383,000-square-foot, eight-building complex should not be demolished, and the public commented on the owner's applications for demolition.Undermined and undermanned
New Gold Equities had to appear before the Historic Preservation Commission Monday because 111 First St. is located within the Warehouse Historic District, an area spanning several blocks that was designated by the City Council in October with historic landmark status. This status protects buildings in the district from any alteration unless approved by the commission.
For New Gold, that, along with opposition from the city's corporation counsel, is an obstacle it has to surmount.
Monday's special meeting showed that the legal team for the owner did their best to overcome adversity. That's because Daniel Horgan, attorney for New Gold Equities, went in front of State Superior Court Judge Maurice Gallipoli on June 10 to request that Historic Preservation Commission Chairman Stephen Gucciardo, attorney for the city Carmine Scarpa, and engineer Bill Halkiadakis be barred from taking part in any future Historic Preservation Commission meetings concerning 111 First St., citing conflicts of interest. Gallipoli agreed and all three were removed.
Before the meeting, Horgan commented on Gallipoli's decision to bar. "They were in conflict, they were representing the [Historic Preservation Commission] and they were going to present a case before the board. And they were our adversary and they shouldn't do that," said Horgan. "And the chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission was also meeting with witnesses outside of the meeting and had done this improperly."
Horgan also mentioned that he asked commission member Anthony Sandcamp to step down from serving on the commission during the special meeting, which Sandcamp did.
Sandcamp, a cabinetmaker, later said that he had done some cabinet-making work in a studio at 111 First St. five years ago but was not a tenant. However, he did not want his presence to be seen as a conflict of interest.
But attorney Eric Bernstein, who was present at this special meeting, was retained as legal representation for the city whenever the commission would be meeting to discuss the 111 First St. issue.
Before the end of the meeting, the commission approved the hiring of Margaret Newman, a historic preservation consultant, and the Cranford-based PMK Group as the engineering consultants to the city on 111 First St. A barrage of questions
The special meeting started with six members sitting on the commission chaired by member Theodore Brunson.
Horgan questioned the city's acting construction official, Ray Meyer, on his decision not to issue a permit to allow the demolition of 111 First St. "The basis of that decision has been the fact that there have been inconclusive engineering reports presented to me and the experts, that require the demolition of eight buildings known as 111 First St.," said Meyer.
Horgan then questioned Meyer on the findings of Helena Ruman, a local architect who also studied the structure of 111 First St. Meyer said Ruman concluded in a report on the matter of demolition that "it would require more investigation and more details to basically ascertain the exact conditions of the buildings of 111 First St."
Bernstein objected to Horgan's questioning of Meyer, saying that the questions were not relevant to the owner seeking applications for demolition. But Horgan pointed out that Meyer was not an engineering expert and depended on the reports of engineers to decide not to permit demolition of the building.
Engineer Frederick Porcello offered testimony to support demolition. He presented slides of pictures he took of the wooden beams in the building that showed how much erosion had taken place, making the case for potential building collapse.
Porcello also said that he did a number of tests on the exterior of the building, measuring the cracks and how much the building has shifted.
"When you take the preponderance of information that we collected and analyze it in a reasonable and objective way, there is no other way of coming out with the same conclusion that we came out with - that this building is in severe and dire straits and has a high risk of collapse," Porcello said.
Horgan wanted the commission members present to ask questions, but commission member Mariano Molina said that he would like more time to study the engineering reports before he posed any questions and decided to approve the application for demolition.
Then it was the public's turn to question, as attendees queried the people who appeared on the owner's behalf.
Steve Davison, a Mercer Street resident, wanted to know when the owner decided on demolition of the building.
Horgan answered it was last August, when the city did an inspection that showed the structure was deteriorating and went to court in September to request approval of demolition.
Lawrence Alexander, a Third Street resident, asked if the building's structural problems were a result of the owner's negligence over the past few years. The suggestion was refuted by Porcello, who said that the problems go back a number of years, possibly before the owner took possession of the building in 1991.
Resident Gerry Bakirtjy asked about Porcello's experience in studying buildings such as 111 First St. Porcello said that he has 30 years of experience in his profession and that he has never seen a building with the substantial damage that 111 First St. has sustained.
After the meeting, Elizabeth Onorato, who spent more than a decade in 111 First St. before vacating earlier this year, said that the owner's representatives were just putting out "more lies" and were "making [her] blood boil." During the meeting, Onorato submitted several photos to the commission that she took of the building, which gave evidence of the owner's negligence in causing the building's structure to diminish over the years.
"They're just exaggerating information so that it works to their endgame, which is to demolish."