PLAINFIELD, NJ — Spearheaded by a group of residents 40 years ago, Plainfield’s City Council enacted its first ordinance established to guide the City’s historic preservation policies. By 1985, 4 of the City’s 10 Districts had been designated and were successfully nominated to the State and National Registers. Today, with a population of roughly 50,000 people, Plainfield has over 600 designated properties, 18 individual landmarked sites, and is known to have one of the strongest Commissions in the state.
As one of the first municipalities in New Jersey to be granted Certified Local Government (CLG) status, Plainfield was able to utilize this federal program administered by the Department of the Interior through the State Historic Preservation Office. A “CLG status” entitles local governments to preferential funding for historic preservation projects which for Plainfield included the grant received from the NJ Trust to restore the exterior of the designated City Hall, expand historic districts, and complete the 2019 historic preservation element of the city’s master plan.
Members of the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) are appointed by the Mayor of Plainfield with the advice and consent of the City Council. HPC Chair William Michelson has been on the Commission since 2006 and became Chairman six years ago. When asked what makes a strong Commission, he points to three things: professionalism, perseverance and passion.
As an Attorney with a Masters in Urban Planning, Mr. Michelson specializes in Land Use Law and counts a number of licensed professionals including registered architects amongst his Commission members. However, whether an architect, lawyer, or simply historically-minded resident, Michelson points out that each member is well-informed and dedicated to preserving the character of the town.
The licensed professionals who are employed by Plainfield also work closely with Commission members. Planning Director Bill Nierstedt has been there since 1998: “Our staff reviews each application and coordinates closely with the Commission and Boards.” Nierstedt credits the fact that the Planning Board, Zoning Board, Historic Preservation Commission, and the Shade Tree Commission are all housed under the Planning Division and work collaboratively.
Nierstedt is quick to point out that having a Licensed Landscape Architect, who is also certified in historic preservation, is a valuable asset in planning and maintaining the historic character of Plainfield. “Our Master Plan describes Plainfield as a tree-lined city, and the city has been recognized by the National Arbor Day Association as a Tree City for over 10 years,” he says. “No one gets through the Planning Board or the Zoning Board without planting trees. If the City takes one down, it must plant two.”
Gail Hunton, Plainfield’s Historic Consultant from 1983-2015, says “Plainfield has gone through a lot over the years but was able to establish a strong historic preservation ordinance and program that has withstood the test of time, and they continue to build upon that strength with the hard work of everyone in the Planning Department.” She refers to a zoning review conducted within the historic districts to ensure that zoning is compatible with historic sites.
Hunton created Plainfield’s Design Guidelines for Historic Districts and Sites in 1988. These guidelines were created to assist the Historic Preservation Commission in its review of proposed work, and to guide property owners in planning and designing their construction projects. The resulting publication won a New Jersey Historic Sites Council Historic Preservation Award in 1989.
As for perseverance, Mr. Michelson asserts that the Commission is diligent about enforcing its ordinance and Design Standards. “We are a very outspoken Commission” says Michelson, “and will often check on work being done ourselves.” Additionally, Plainfield has a rigorous Division of Inspections and Building Division that visits the properties once work is completed.
With so many designated properties in various demographic areas, the Commission is sensitive to the specifics involved with each application– whether they be time limitations, financial hindrances, or even language barriers. That is why when the HPC Bylaws were recently revised, an Architectural Review Committee (4 members within the HPC) was included. This subcommittee has the authority to approve a like-for-like repair (same materials) without submitting a formal application therefore expediting the process. Additionally, the Commission is open to exploring alternate materials when appropriate to a structure and was the first HPC in the state to publish their Design Guidelines in Spanish.
The final element, passion, seems to be woven into the fabric of all those involved with historic preservation in Plainfield, from the past to the present. Even the designated properties owned by the Municipality, such as City Hall or the Fire Stations, must adhere to the process put forth by the HPC. “The Municipality did not exempt itself from its own ordinance, “says Nierstedt. “That in conjunction with the dedication of the Commission members is key.”
Michelson believes that passion is the most important thing for a successful Commission. “For no pay, members give up their time and talent,” he says. And for Michelson, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I started off as a planner, ended up being a lawyer, but always wanted to go back into planning. So for me, this position is a dream come true.”
Earlier this month, Plainfield received a favorable U.S. District Court opinion upholding their denial of use variance application to convert a pre-existing, non-conforming structure into apartments. Both the Zoning Board and the Historic Preservation Commission worked together with written reports and verbal testimony that served as key findings in the Court opinion that ultimately proved favorable. Just another example of the collaborative effort between government employees and volunteers working together to save Plainfield’s historic past.
This article originally appeared in Preservation New Jersey's Quarterly Newsletter, Preservation Perspective. Learn more at www.preservationnj.org/plainfieldcommission.