As someone born and raised in Westfield, I find myself somewhat baffled by the opposition to the updates to the Historic Preservation Ordinance. In fact, I don’t know any native Westfielders on either side of the aisle who aren’t saddened by the changes to our town since we were young. After high school, I left this town for college in 1982, then moved to California, and returned in 2005. It was a bit of a shock, to be honest, to see the number of new houses — many of them cookie-cutter models, built to the edges of the property and dwarfing the homes next door — where once stood a simple Craftsman or an elaborate Victorian or a small but stately Federal home. What happened to the town I remember? I haven’t witnessed this turnover on trips through Maplewood, Montclair, or Plainfield.
Let’s keep in mind, too, that it’s been proven time and again that restoring homes rather than tearing them down sustains property values.
As for the argument against these updates, I simply don’t get it. Despite statements to the contrary by those opposed, Westfield’s Historic Preservation Commission does not intend to pursue historic designations where property owners are not supportive; rather, it is interested only in slowing down the demolition process while easing the restrictions for those property owners who already live in designated properties. Their mission is to inform and to educate, not forcibly designate. Furthermore, the designation process involves three separate bodies deliberating over the course of several meetings — all of them public.
I understand, newer homes can be simpler: fewer leaks, perhaps, or more available electrical outlets. I imagine to some buyers it’s just easier. But what if we were all to take a longer view? And what if there was an opportunity for reflection, to consider other values — sustainability, community, history, aesthetics? Perhaps being asked to consider voluntary designation in collaboration with the HPC will give homeowners the necessary pause to reflect on what they'd like to do.
What if a buyer is considering whether to tear down one of Westfield’s iconic buildings — Arcanum Hall, for example? For income-producing property owners, these updates will make available increased access to funding, both on the state and federal level, that supports restoration over demolition.
This ordinance would be a win-win for the residents of Westfield. Once our town's historic buildings are gone, they're gone forever — for us and for generations to come. Why not try to save the historic homes we have left before it’s too late?
Julia Ruth Dillon