The recent interest in and concern about Freddie’s Restaurant and what may become of the site reminds us of places that are special and significant to us, and that there are methods and procedures in place to offer some protection to such places.
While the house at the core of Freddie’s Restaurant may have been built in the 1880s, the home had been extensively altered and added to over the years, and was not on any list of designated historic buildings.
Freddies’ reputation for a variety of reliable, reasonably-priced meals over the years, and its general location in the close-knit neighborhood of West Trenton, made it a favorite family-run go-to spot for years. However, its location along Railroad Avenue and across from the SEPTA terminal, and not far from the old GM site now being developed as a town center, also made it a desirable place for other purposes.
We human inhabitants of time and space find ourselves continually caught in a familiar tension: that of wanting to hold fast to the beloved, familiar, sentimental, historic or magnificent; and yet wanting to grow, to improve, and to embrace the new, the innovative, the future. When it comes to our built environment and the places we frequent, achieving a balance within that tension is the big challenge.
Establishing priorities is always the critical step in achieving a balance, as is balancing those priorities. What are our priorities? We need to consider what aspects of “place” are most important to us, and to balance them with other considerations. If the historical context of place is important to us, what places represent the historical aspects of Ewing, which ones are most significant, and will we protect their existence? If contemporary places are significant to us, how so, and how do we indicate that?
And if innovation and new growth are important to us, then we must decide how and where we can accommodate that growth. And there are the additional related considerations of the possible impacts of “saving vs. growing” on traffic, environment, housing, schools, businesses, etc. These considerations are all in the realm of land use planning, and contribute significantly to what makes a town a unique place.
In New Jersey, the enabling legislation for land use planning, development and zoning is the Municipal Land Use Law. It allows municipalities to define and plan for land use and development within their towns, according to certain guidelines. Each municipality prepares its own ordinances regarding development, and decides how a township’s residential and commercial sites will look and feel within the township.
New Jersey’s MLUL legislation has included historic preservation zoning provisions since 1986 for municipalities to “identify, evaluate, designate and regulate” historic resources. This allows municipalities to indicate the location and significance of historic sites and districts, or to identify the standards for those sites. Zoning laws can then apply certain restrictions or safety considerations on the sites or districts specified in the historic preservation plan. The regulations can be relatively loose, or very specific, depending on what has been decided by the local municipality. Planners and preservationists try diligently to balance zoning needs with preservation concerns.
Zoning laws and historic preservation restrictions vary greatly by district, town and state. Where you live affects the regulations that are in place. Simply put, home rule rules. Some places have rather restrictive rules for buildings or districts designated as “historic.” Compared to other cities, towns and districts, Ewing’s existing regulations are relatively unrestrictive.
For a township with such a rich history and a significant amount of historic fabric remaining, Ewing currently has no designated historic districts and relatively few designated historic buildings. While to some that may seem desirable, it will eventually risk the future connections to Ewing’s past, by offering little or no review or protection from the encroachment of new development. It’s all a matter of priorities and balance.
I personally hope that Ewing may soon be successful in designating portions of say, Wilburtha or West Trenton as a historic district, with some protection, so that these wonderful windows to Ewing’s past do not close forever.
You can contact Ewing’s Historic Commission via email at email@example.com, or attend the next Commission meeting on 10/23/19 from 7:30 to 8 pm at the ESCC.