U.S. 1 doesn’t normally pay too much attention to Flemington. But the upcoming panel discussion on the Lindbergh trial that occurred there more than 80 years ago has caused us to take notice — see Linda Arntzenius’s story beginning on page 33.

As we were editing that article, another Flemington-centered story came to light: The proposal by Flemington businessman Jack Cust Jr. (the former baseball player who hit 105 home runs in 10 seasons in the major leagues) to redevelop the town’s downtown area, including demolishing the Union Hotel, where many of the trial participants stayed, and three other buildings and replacing them with a substantial multi-use development. Cust, whose father is also involved in the business, has appeared before the Flemington Borough Council as well as the Hunterdon County Board of Freeholders. The proposal received enthusiastic support at both meetings, according to news reports that quoted officials calling it “impressive” and Flemington’s “last chance to come back.”

Lambertville architect Dave Minno presented architectural drawings of Cust’s proposal to a crowd of more than 150 people at the council meeting. “Many uses put together create the synergy that we believe will really help downtown Flemington,” Minno said, receiving what the daily newspaper coverage termed a “huge round” of applause.

But not everyone was so enthusiastic. Last week we received an update from Christopher Pickell, a Flemington-based architect who has been involved in plans to renovate various buildings in the downtown area, including three that are targeted for demolition in the Cust proposal. Following is Pickell’s letter summarizing his position and raising issues that are pertinent to many downtown areas in our circulation area.

To the Editor:

Development Yes, Demolition No

I sat in the audience for Jack Cust’s presentation on February 22, and I was shocked to the core. The wholesale clearance of the center of Flemington is such an outdated notion that I just couldn’t believe it would even be considered. This 1960s style of urban renewal was discredited decades ago, it is truly bizarre to see it proposed here and now. Today’s urban planners have learned from past errors, and have instead embraced more sensitive and humane approaches: blending the new and the old together to create economically healthier and more sustainable downtowns.

The proposed mix of uses — retail, restaurants, residential, and a college — is positive, but demolition of significant historic buildings is just not what any other town would permit in this day and age. A project of this size will have profound impact for generations to come. As such, it demands serious consideration and deep thought. This development has many obligations to fulfill far beyond profit; obligations to the present time and to posterity.

The overwhelming scale of the project is also shocking; more density is fine, but this project is huge and the proposed design will feel like a place apart from the rest of the borough. Six-story buildings will sit atop a story of parking. Taller than the hospital, far taller than the current three-story height of Main Street — the new buildings will be seen from every point in the Borough.

No matter what the architectural style (“no-place” bland in the renderings), they will dominate the town. One has to wonder if parts of this massive investment are more suited to the struggling and sprawling Liberty Village area, not the historic core of Flemington. The proposed 240 apartments translates to a 10 percent increase in population. What of the Borough’s Master Plan? It was drawn up in consultation with the community, and is intended to guide development, but it envisions nothing like this. In fact, this project is contrary to the letter and spirit of the Master Plan, which requires that redevelopers “maintain the historic character of the building”.

The checkered history of retail developments shows that each new concept — a “lifestyle center” (whatever that is) in this case — only lasts as long as the 20-year real estate depreciation cycle, and then the mall or power center or whatever becomes a blight in need of reinvestment. Remember the old Flemington Mall? Have you walked through Liberty Village lately? Any new retail needs to work organically with renewed retail elsewhere on Main Street, and I fear that this project may only sap the vitality of the rest of town.

Architects are creative problem solvers, and we are also optimists by nature. The problem now facing Flemington is how to embrace its future without needlessly sacrificing its past. This problem has been solved many times, in many different places. It is not difficult to do, but it does require thoughtfulness, passion and creativity. I am not afraid of the new, or the modern, but we must respect our past. I am optimistic that if properly designed, the necessary redevelopment of the center of Flemington can ensure a prosperous future, while retaining and enhancing our heritage.

Given the vacant properties, a large scale rethinking of the central block of the Borough is necessary. More downtown residents would be good, living in a variety of apartments and townhouses. Higher education and young people would be good, and colleges always seem to be growing. Restaurants are vital to any renewed downtown.

But in competing with other towns, what does Flemington have to offer? What sets Flemington apart, what is its identity? As I see it, Flemington has only two unique assets by which it can distinguish itself from neighboring towns:

1. The county government, and the professionals and businesses that need to be near it. This guarantees some people in town every day, but their numbers will not grow.

2. The historic architecture of the town, which is one of the largest Historic Districts in New Jersey. Main Street has few 20th century buildings, much of it still looks and feels like a 19th century country town. This is a rare and precious thing; perhaps seeing it every day, we locals take it for granted. My office is on Main Street, and nearly every day I can look out my office window and see people taking pictures, looking, pointing and talking to each other about our beautiful town. This ambiance is priceless and irreplaceable.

Plainsboro has spent the last 15 years trying to create a downtown where there was none, but its “downtown” still feels like a toy town plopped down in a farm field. Which it is. Let’s not bulldoze what is real, and have to start over.

Looked at objectively, about the only thing that Flemington has to offer visitors is this amazingly intact Victorian downtown. Our local competition also has a bit of this — just go to Clinton, Frenchtown or Lambertville; Doylestown, Yardley, New Hope, or Newtown — people like these towns due to their historic feel, their human scale, their walkability, and the multiple options to shop and dine in unique, local places (it is not just the river, folks!).

But if any of those towns ripped down a big chunk of their downtowns and put up a generic shopping district (Somerville’s decades-long mistake, which it hasn’t quite recovered from), they would lose their charm, attractiveness and desirability. Flemington’s center is indeed distressed and in need of re-vitalization; the blame perhaps lies with those who mis-managed the Hotel for years, never investing in the business and limping by on uninspired food and the guaranteed income of the only liquor license in town. That sad bit of history should not change the fact that Flemington’s future success must be tied to respect for its deeper history.

It is not just the architecture of Flemington that is special. We have a unique piece of national history right here; the Union Hotel and the Hunterdon County Courthouse are intimately linked, twinned by their roles in the Lindbergh Trial. The County rose to the challenge and restored the courthouse to its appearance during the trial, now it is the Hotel’s turn. The Union Hotel became the day-to-day headquarters for an international cast of reporters and celebrities during the 1935 Trial of the Century, the jury was sequestered upstairs.

The trial began our era of mass, instantaneous communication; hundreds of phone lines were specially strung to bring minute-by-minute news to a waiting world-wide audience. Colonel Lindbergh was the most famous man on the planet, his international fame caused the first mass-media sensation, and set the pattern for media over-reaction to this day. To lose the Hotel is to lose half of the story. We locals may take this story for granted, or even be embarrassed by it, but it is truly of national importance, and the trial marks a turning point in American history. The upper floors of the Union Hotel do not have to remain as period-piece hotel rooms, they could just as easily become high-end apartments. But the first floor should remain a restaurant & watering hole, it will be an amazing and active place once again.

Some facts: Over the last decade, I have repeatedly examined, photographed, measured, and drawn up multiple schemes to rehabilitate three of the four Flemington buildings now slated for demolition by Jack Cust’s plan. Briefly, here’s what I know:

The Union Hotel, built 1877-1878. It does have a hole in the roof, and some water damage. There is some collapse and cracking of the brickwork. But the Hotel is still structurally sound, and buildings in far worse shape have been rescued. The outside walls are solid brick, 12 inches thick. The interior floor structure is 3” x 14” virgin growth hemlock, very strong, superior to new wood. The wood wing on the back is in poor condition, and should be removed. The wonderful two story front porch must be rebuilt, it is not that hard to do.

78 Main (Blaher’s/Potting Shed/Yellow Finch), built circa 1880. Similar construction, almost no damage, and almost no changes since the 1880s except the 1950s storefront.

80 Main, circa 1880. Built in a similar manner, the street facade is now heavily altered, but we have good photos of its handsome, three story Victorian appearance, which could be restored.

90-100 Main, built circa 1865, first floor granite and terra cotta storefronts circa 1925 – Similar brick and timber construction again, the windows need to be replaced, but the building is in very good condition.

The third floors of 78 and 90 Main are very tall, 15 feet or more high, they would make dramatic apartments. There are a few interior features worth saving in each building, (the old bank vault would make the coolest walk-in wine cellar) but in general, the interiors can be completely reconfigured as apartments or hotel rooms on the upper floors and as high ceilinged retail or restaurants, bars or brew-pubs or such on the ground floors. These old buildings are over-built by today’s standards, and are easy to re-purpose. New buildings can be attached to the rear, with the current alleys leading back past shops and restaurants into the redeveloped center of the block.

In the last few weeks I have spoken to many reputable local architects, builders and structural engineers; all of whom have rehabilitated buildings similar to those threatened by Jack Cust’s plan to redevelop central Flemington. The consensus view is that these old buildings are basically in sound condition, and can easily be rehabilitated for about $150 to $200 per square foot. For comparison, new construction would cost about $150 per square foot for average quality and generic materials.

This rehab cost is for high quality adaptive re-use of the buildings — repair the exterior brick walls, new roofs, new windows; gut, reconfigure and refinish the interiors; all new energy efficient heating & cooling; all new fire sprinklers, electric and plumbing. Museum quality preservation is not necessary, keeping the exterior appearance is. Working with old buildings is really just a matter of attitude and experience, we can easily assemble a local team of qualified professionals who would welcome the opportunity to add another layer to their history.

Just keeping the facade of the Hotel, as many suggest, is actually very expensive. It is cheaper, faster and easier just to keep the whole brick building intact, it is only 38 feet from front to back. I designed the rehabilitation of the other four grand Victorian commercial buildings on Main Street — the Town Clock Building (1874), the old Flemington National Bank Building (1897), the Deats Building (1881) and 123 Main (1853). Each one is an architectural success, and their owners are definitely making money. Let’s finish the job, restore the rest of the big old buildings on Main Street, and have a town to be proud of.

People respond to authenticity, especially the younger people that Flemington needs to attract. The authentic, the antique, bygone craftsmanship; the real, the imperfect; the patina of time, the mysterious — these are all valuable, and can’t be faked. Folks value the local, the unique, the hand-made — craft beers, farm-to-table food, and regional music. The past and the future can co-exist, and in fact the presence of the past will enrich whatever new uses we put into these buildings.

Flemington will certainly not survive as a historic museum; but Flemington will be nothing special and will never become a destination if what makes it authentic is needlessly sacrificed. The current plan from Jack Cust is not our last chance, but his great big idea does demonstrate that the borough has some very significant unrealized potential for a developer to make money – so let’s get the very best redevelopment we can.

My family has roots in Hunterdon that go back over 300 years, I am committed to living and working here. I love to travel the world, but home is Hunterdon, and home is beautiful. I hope that my children will return here when they settle down. It would be a tragic mistake to quickly and thoughtlessly bulldoze the history and soul of the Borough without due consideration of alternatives that retain and celebrate that history; alternatives that will also add better economic value to the whole Borough in the decades to come. It is the duty of the current leadership to think clearly and deliberately about Flemington’s current strengths, and the its long-term viability. They should seek out second and even third opinions.

Many, many people have gotten in touch with me, to express their deep concern about this proposal to demolish central Flemington. They all want to know what they can do. The most important thing to do is to speak up to those people who can influence this project: please let the County Freeholders, Mayor Phil Greiner, the Borough Council, the Flemington Planning Board, and the Historic Preservation Commission know what concerns you; whether it is the massive scale, the loss of history, the impact on other businesses, the destruction of the streetscape, the bland any-place generic architecture, the height, the traffic, or something else. Concerned citizens need to show up, and to speak up at each and every meeting of these bodies. If you can’t show up, then write a letter, they do have an impact.

The message is pretty simple: Development Yes, Demolition No.

Christopher Pickell, AIA

Pickell Architecture,

115 Main Street, Flemington

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