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  • Terry Pranses

Headed for Demolition? What's been happening for the Records Building?

Updated: Sep 19, 2020

Despite good ideas about transferring this historic 1904 structure from NJ Transit to the City of Hoboken, NJ Transit has persisted in its plans for a demolition. Perhaps they intend to some salvage reusable materials, but there has been no transparency on what that might be.

What has happened since the public showed its strong support for Alternative 4, Stabilization in Place, then Adaptive Reuse? Here’s the recent, convoluted path of meetings and missives, slowly moving the building toward some form of demolition:

December 2019 The Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) began a Section 106 review of NJ Transit’s stated intension to demolish the Records Building. This is required when demolition is proposed for a structure of historic interest and that structure is part of a property receiving Federal funds. Interim protective measures had been implemented to allow time for a review. An Initial Consultation Meeting took place in Hoboken City Hall.

March/April — With the COVID-19 prevention measures in force and given the cancellation of an in-person meeting about the Records Building, the community was invited to give their online survey feedback to an Alternatives Analysis in late March. The support for Alternative 4, Stabilization in Place, then Adaptive Reuse was strong and summarized by Hoboken’s Department of Community Development on April 15. To see those survey results, shared with NJ Transit officials:

April 16 — A virtual Webex meeting about the Records Building was hosted by NJ Transit. A strong majority of public speakers in that session supported Alternative #4. In that meeting, at least 4 then-members of Hoboken’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), specifically speaking as private citizens, gave their views on the alternatives … and they were not unified. An engineer and an architect spoke to the general structural integrity of the building, and general suitability for adaptive reuse.

Paul Somerville, a past Commissioner and past Chair of the HPC, stated that he had, in the past, communicated to NJ Transit interest in adaptive reuse for the Records Building by an established Hoboken developer. Mr. Somerville stated that the developer had again, just prior to this meeting, expressed continued interest.

Members of the Task Force noted the public preference for Alternative #4. We called attention to the building’s consistent presence in its current site in hundreds of depictions for Hoboken Yards over a multi-phase, 12-year planning period. During that process, Hoboken Yards developer LCOR did not publically express any issues with the Records Building on its historic site.

May, June and July — A number of Hoboken advocates for Alternative #4 spoke at NJ Transit Board Meetings, providing further feedback on how an adaptive reuse in place could be implemented.

May 14 — Preservation New Jersey held a press conference via Zoom. The Records Building was named to its “Ten Most Endangered Historic Sites” List.

June 1Without prior notice, in a change of agenda shortly before the June HPC meeting, a working resolution was added about the Records Building. Some HPC leaders suddenly felt the need for an official stance. One spoke of NJ Transit as

“not interested in a use for that building in that spot”, without referencing specific meetings or correspondence.

Multiple HPC members stated that they were not aware of this action item in advance. The Task Force did notknow this would be proposed by the HPC.

The resolution spends some time noting the positives in Alternative #4, but also some limitations. Many of the limitations are not material … it suggests that the Records Building is on “the wrong side” of the Rebuild By Design (RBD) barrier.

Strange … also on the “wrong side” of the RBD barrier are the entirety of Hoboken Terminal, NJ Transit’s active tracks and all of Hudson Place. Time for a reality check?

What we see as a poorly-crafted resolution also ignores that the Records Building is between two major moveable gates in the RBD barrier and that almost all the time, i.e., when we are not in danger of a flood, these gates will be open. One of those nearby gates is quite large! It spans Observer Highway just east of Washington St.

The resolution warns the reader about the “substantial” cost of Alternative #4. The situation has been reviewed in depth by Donald Friedman, PE, of Old Buildings Engineering. He is an engineer with a deep background in historic preservation. His professional analysis indicates likely stabilization costs at $600,000 to 750,000. He also reports the costs for a full process of stabilizing, flood-proofing and restoring the building for an economic new use at $ 2,300,000. That is actually less than the $ 2,740,000 cost NJ Transit has estimated for Alternative #6, of demolition with salvage. And it is a small fraction of the cost for another alternative, #5, summarized as “Relocation/Reconstruction”, viewed favorably in the same resolution.

The HPC resolution describes Alternative #5 Relocation/Reconstruction as removing the Records Building from its current location and through historic salvage, deconstruction and reconstruction move the building to a more suitable location. As shared with the public, the estimated cost: $10.0 million. Later NJ Transit estimated an even higher range. Alternative #5 was not even in the top three choices cited by survey participants.

On June 1st, the HPC approved the Resolution by a margin of 8-1, over the strenuous objections of member Allen Kratz.

The HPC “co-preference” (and subsequent actions) in support of the Alternative #5 approach may be driven by outside influences, although their leaders deny any connections. One might wonder about LCOR, the long-time assigned developer in the bigger Hoboken Yards. The RD-Task Force reviewed each variation in the Hoboken Yards plan options and the Records Building never moved. Publically LCOR expressed no problems with the Records Building. Hundreds of depictions of the future developed complex always showed the Records Building in its historic site.

In the meantime, the HPC resolution also references the possibility of a new site for NJ Transit’s policeas a reuse application in a new place, although this possibility was not raised during the long, multi-phase Hoboken Yards redevelopment planning process. Apparently, someone recruited a local architect to sketch out how that might work. These depictions have not been shared with the public. It is not clear who paid for such work or what might be assumed by that architect.

Not surprisingly, shortly after the contentious discussion on this questionable resolution, Mr. Kratz resigned from the HPC.

June 12 — Although it seemed the HPC and the City administration were directed toward Alternative #5, NJ Transit President & CEO Kevin Corbett sent a very direct letter to the City, concluding:

Fiscal circumstances in current times are such that the design and construction of a facility that does not furnish a high-need utility is not practical for us to invest between $10m-$15m of capital that could be otherwise directed to projects devoted to serving our core business function of safe and efficient public transportation.”

It’s clear the impact of the needed amounts for a successful Alternative #5 approach are not in realm of possibility for this quasi-governmental agency, largely funded by our tax dollars.

Beyond that, NJ Transit was looking for some revenue for their saving and selling back to Hoboken any bits and pieces that might go into storage. Mr. Corbett’s concept there:

“We will gladly make the salvaged elements available for sale to the city of Hoboken for a nominal fee, if and where the city has identified a need and location for their use elsewhere.”

If you are scratching your head wondering about this attitude from a now largely-empty, but still publically-financed transit system, you are not alone.

June 18 — Apparently ignoring the mini-presentations of Hoboken citizens at that meeting, the NJ Transit Board approved a budget for demolition of the Records Building. Whether that demolition aligned with Alternatives #5 (careful, for eventual rebuilding), #6 (keeping some judgmentally more attractive and historic elements) or # 7 (routine demolition, without salvage), we do not know. Apparently, we’ll never know because it was approved in Executive Session, a non-public portion. Or more accurately, we’ll not know much until we witness how they conduct the demolition.

To provide some vague insight on how such a budget is handled, here's how the Board Item was vaguely described in their agenda.

<<HOBOKEN RECORDS BUILDING PROJECT: CONSTRUCTION CONTRACT AWARD – Authorization for a cost not to exceed the amount discussed in Executive Session to allow NJ TRANSIT to move forward quickly with limited competition for demolition services for public safety upon completion of the Section 106 process and the selection of one of the alternatives.>>

July 6 — The HPC held its monthly meeting. Members of the Task Force were there to state our deep disappointment in the Commission’s handling of both the public-facing agenda for their June meeting and their slightly-qualified support of the resolution about the Records Building. This portion was an add-on to their other business, so it was held quite late, but we appreciate the opportunity to speak, even without the ability to impact on the actual “official” resolution discussion in June. Although our comments were reflected in the minutes, there was no reference to them in the upfront index … could this be a further burying of community inputs?

July 9 — Allen Kratz, Hoboken preservation advocate, attorney and past HPC Commissioner, had provided Mayor Bhalla with a well-articulated plan to transfer, from the Hoboken Yards, just title for the Records Building and its immediate land, to the City. It would utilize outside resources to pay for its rehabilitation. The Task Force sent a note of support for this “out-of-the box” solution to the Mayor.

July 10 — The American Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) accepted the withdrawal of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) from the Section 106 consultation process initiated for the proposed NJ Transit Hoboken Records Building Demolition. The FTA withdrawal raises many questions as their basis for the withdrawal is a lack of federal funds in the proposed demolition. This is despite the many Federal dollars spent on NJ Transit operations generally, and specifically in the original acquisition of Hoboken Terminal and Yards when NJ Transit was created.

July 20A virtual meeting that included representatives from the HPC, the City of Hoboken, including the Department of Community Development, and NJ Transit’s Chief Engineer and Community Relations Regional Manager. The main point of that meeting was to discuss the amount of salvaged materials from the Records Building, not whether salvage was the appropriate action at this point.

August 3 Public attendees at the regular meeting of Hoboken’s Historic Preservation Commission were astounded to learn of that July 20th virtual meeting, not publicized elsewhere. Although not expecting that night’s session to cover the Records Building, Task Force members Claire Lukacs and Terry Pranses updated the HPC on our support for Mr. Kratz’ detailed reuse plan.

August 4 — After the big surprise “non-announcement” (or “purposeful leak”?) about the July 20th meeting, the Task Force sent to the current HPC Chair and Vice Chair its prior note to the Mayor, with an earnest request:

“ We hope all involved parties will closely and fairly evaluate this idea

before it is rendered impossible.” 

As of August 15 — Reading what we can best describe as “smoke signals”, mainly released through the HPC, it appears NJ Transit and the City of Hoboken are moving, if somewhat uncertainly, toward some sort of hybrid Alternative #5 and Alternative #6. In short, a demolition with a “great deal” (amounts TBD, by the way) of salvage!

In the meantime — Neither NJ Transit nor the Mayor have responded to the more fully envisioned steps in Mr. Kratz’ approach to implement and fund Alternative #4.

Near future: By all means reach out to the Task Force if you become aware of new activities by the many entities involved in the future of the Records Building.

Apparently, if sadly, “It takes many eyes!”

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