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As Wrecking Ball Swings Toward Royle Mill, City Historic Commission Moves To Save Other Industrial Sites

The Royle Mill   Photo provided by Brian LoPinto
Monday's Historic Preservation Commission meeting Photo by Charlie Kratovil
  Monday's Historic Preservation Commission meeting Photo by Charlie Kratovil  

PATERSON, NJ - In response to the impending demolition of the Royle Mill,  Paterson's Historic Preservation Commission on Monday set in motion the process for designating 13 mills as municipal historic landmarks.

The Royle was included on the list, but commission members acknowledged it may be too late to save the mill located at Essex and Straight streets. Demolition began this week on the more modern sections of the mill, and the section of the building that dates back to its 19th century origins has yet to be touched.
The fate of the Royle has galvanized Paterson historic preservationists, who question why municipal officials did not follow through on a proposed tax abatement deal to keep the building standing. Officials have said the mill's owner, a real estate firm, has no immediate plans to build anything on the site, but simply wants to demolish the building for tax purposes.
"It is crucial to honor our cultural heritage by granting landmark designation for these containers of history.  They are the visual manifestation of the greatest period of growth in Paterson," said the commission's chair Marty Feitlowitz as he reported the recommendation of the commission's Historic Markers & Landmarks Designation Subcommittee.
Each of the 13 mills recommended for preservation were found to be eligible for national historic landmark status in a 1996 survey.  
"If [the Royle Mill] is good enough to be nationally landmarked, it's good enough to be locally landmarked," said Feitlowitz.

The commission's vice chairman Richard Walter said the recommendation was overdue: "[These mills] are the fabric of the history of this city and they should have been designated a long time ago, so were finally catching up."
But Feitlowitz used a variety metaphors to communicate the improbability of saving Royle Mill from demolition at this point, saying at one point that it was "on life support."
"As I told the commissioners at the December meeting, it didn’t look good.  But I personally never like to give up on anything until the final buzzer sounds... 10 seconds to go and we’re 10 points behind," he said.
If the historic designation is approved, it will likely come too late or the Royle Mill, which was built by John Royle & Sons in 1888.  The commission's recommendation must survive several rounds of public hearings before it is adopted into law: two before the commission itself, another before the city's planning board, and then two more before the city council.
"At the end of the day, all we can do is recommend to the Planning Board and advise them that this is the correct thing to do," he said.
Colonel Robert Burrows, Chairman of the Clifton Historic Preservation Commission, attended the meeting to voice his support for saving the Royle Mill, but said that he already noticed demolition work beginning on smaller buildings at the site.
"They are pretty well finished with all the out buildings.  But they now have started opening the windows on the main building, that’s a bad sign."
The commission was first notified of the demolition application on November 3, according to Feitlowitz.
Feitlowitz said that he and other commissioners and interested parties met at the site on December 9, hoping to tour the building to examine the degree of deterioration.  One of the property's owners joined them at the site, but because the demolition contractor had the only keys, they could not enter the mill.
"But we stood on the outside, I am an architect and I've looked at old buildings in the past.  This building looked to be in decent shape on the exterior," he said, adding that only a small piece had fallen off.
Feitlowitz secured a reprieve for the building that day, but it just expired this past weekend.

"I was able to prevail upon the owners attorney to grant us a 45-day extension of time to see if we could work out what I thought might be a mutually beneficially solution to his property.  His major complaint was the tax burden that was being borne on a building that’s basically vacant."
Then, after City Attorney Paul Forsman issued an opinion indicating the the city government was in a weak position legally if they attempted to prevent demolition, city officials signed off on the demolition permit December 29.
The city's Community Development Director Lanisha Makle did not attend the commission's meeting, but caught up with her last Thursday at City Hall.  When asked if she knew when the mill would be demolished, she said "I don't own the mill," before confirming that demolition had been approved.
According to Feitlowitz, the commission's attorney Frank Covello drafted a legal opinion contradicting the Forsman's.  Feitlowitz said the opinion indicated there was an ongoing negotiation that would preserve the original portions of the mill, but would also result in the demolition of the 20th century additions to the mills, which he said "honestly are of little to no architectural value."

Commission members said they would continue to encourage the owner to follow the example of numerous mills that have been transformed through "adaptive re-use projects" into new uses including offices and housing.  The Royle Mill site was approved for just such a transformation into senior citizen housing by the city's Board of Adjustment in 2010, but as of now those plans have been shelved.
"Our view is that no building should ever be demolished unless there is a plan for what will replace it," Feitlowitz said, speaking for the commission.
The property owner's decision to demolish the structure strictly to save money on property taxes has been controversial, with many concerned that, if the owners prevail in this case, it could lead other property owners to follow suit.
"It’s a very simple thing where the guy wants an empty lot.  They're not going to do anything with it, it's just going to be an empty lot," said Brian LoPinto, leader of the non-profit Save Hinchliffe Stadium, who said he also supported saving the mill.
Ultimately, the fate of the Royle Mill will rest in the hands of officials in offices higher than the commissions, Feitlowitz said.
"We can make recommendations but we don’t necessarily have regulatory power," he said, adding that the planning board and city council were now in the driver's seat.  He also said the city's administration could potentially avert the demolition by agreeing to lower the property's tax bill.
"We did try to reach out again to the owner and, if there is something that the city could do which would help this owner get out from under this heavy tax burden, if the city could do something of that sort, the owner is still listening.  He's waiting for the city to act.  Since we don’t have the legal right to act, we have to defer to the city administration."
Several members of the public in attendance said they would attend the January 24 meeting of the city council to attempt to persuade the council to intervene and find a way to delay the demolition.
"Get a couple of guys on the city council to tie it up for a few years.  When [the property owner] starts to feel his pain, he’s gotta come around.  Tie him up," advised David Garcia, Jr., owner of a mill that is protected by way of a historic designation.
Later in the meeting, the commission also also examined proposed changes the commission's structure presented by Executive Director Gianfranco Archimede, some of which could strengthen their purview over historic buildings.
The new ordinance, which is still a work in progress, would give the commission the power to evaluate demolition permits or improvements for any property "listed as eligible for designation in the City of Paterson Architectural Survey."
Kenneth Simpson, a bridge engineer for New Jersey Transit and lifelong Patersonian, was introduced as the commission's newest member at the meeting.  He suggested the commission explore having public hearings on demolitions of all old buildings, in addition to recommending every historic buildings for preservation.

"There should be at least one hearing before demolishing a building that’s at least 50 years old," he said.
Currently, if a property is not a designated as a historic landmark or part of a historic district, construction officials will approve demolition permits the same fashion they would approve paperwork for someone doing plumbing work on their home, said Archimede.
"There's no notice [to nearby property owners], just a permit process like if you were to get a new toilet," he said.
Feitlowitz said that with one exception, the mills his commission recommended for local landmark status were built during Paterson's greatest period of growth, the post-Civil War era.  He cited figures indicating the city's population grew more than six-fold between 1860 and 1910.
"[Paterson] was at that time the fastest growing city east of the Mississippi river."
He also said that these mills were distinctly different from the mills built near the Great Falls National Park in Paterson, which were powered by the waterfall and a manmade raceway system.
"They no longer needed water power, they could rely on steam.  They no longer required being on the river for transporting any goods.  They now had the railroad, the Erie Railroad."  The Royle Mill sits just one block from the city's Ward Street railroad station, formerly on the Erie railroad.
Colonel Burrows said that the mill was also historic for the many inventions developed and patented in the mill, including an extruder originally used to make hoses, that was later proposed again to make insulation for wires that would carry electric current.
"These inventions you touch every day... That was international patent.  The present John Royle & Sons, they are still using that same design to put insulation on fiberoptic cables.  But that’s only one of their many inventions."
John Royle & Sons is still in business and in the Royle family today, though they no longer own the mill in question.  They are now headquartered in Oakland, New Jersey.  The mill property is currently owned by UFVS Management, Inc, based in Westchester, NY. 


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