For much of the twentieth century, it was an all-too-common occurrence: an old commercial structure in a declining downtown struggles to compete with the strip malls cropping up everywhere on the outskirts. Over time, the old building—retail on the first floor, office or warehousing on the next two/three/four levels—becomes functionally obsolete. It’s drafty, the plumbing is old, it has no central air conditioning, and, worst of all, it has no dedicated off-street parking because it butts up against its neighboring buildings, which largely offer the exact same configuration. And, therefore, by the 1960s, multiple obsolescent buildings competed over a diminishing market share of tenants, because those tenants increasingly tended to move to the sleek, low-slung, modern, shiny new buildings out in the burbs, where parking was abundant and the leasing rates were still reasonable. As these buildings languished, the unluckiest of them faced the wrecking ball, leaving a gap-toothed streetscape that would most certainly have snowballed to almost complete demolition if not for historic preservation activism that began to emerge in the 1970s.
But those preservationists couldn’t make a case for every old building. And even those where preservation advocacy helped the public respect the heritage of the oldest parts of their cities and towns, the financing to salvage these “original” buildings didn’t always materialize. Thus, by the late twentieth century and up to the present, century-old structures still occasionally come down. It has happened virtually everywhere, even in much smaller communities that didn’t really confront a middle-class exodus. Places like Greencastle, Indiana (pop. 10,500) which never really faced widespread de-industrialization; its biggest employer remains the prestigious liberal arts college, DePauw University. Or Petersburg, Virginia (pop. 31,000), which is not large enough to have a very high profile nationally, but did experience the same out-migration of good manufacturing jobs as cities ten times its size…like the state capital of Richmond not so far away.
I cite those two cities because, in both cases, I focused previously on an element in their downtown commercial streetscape, where an old building clearly came down, replaced not with parking but with a mini-plaza or parklet, sandwiched between the two surviving structures. It’s a more aesthetic compromise than a parking lot, to be sure. And let’s face it: these lots would likely provide no more than a dozen spaces. As nice as a mini-park might seem, however, it confers far less value to the downtown than an actual building would. And now we see a similar example in Summit, New Jersey, a town that has taken under a radically different path.
Though Summit’s size (21,500 people) puts it squarely in between Greencastle and Petersburg, its economic profile is completely different. A lightly settled agricultural area until the first railroad passed through in the 1830s, Summit only proliferated in the late 19th century, as wealthy New Yorkers established country estates nearby; the presence of a train depot along the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad made it an easy weekend destination. But Summit didn’t incorporate as a city until 1899, a good fifty years later than the founding of Greencastle, despite the fact that New Jersey was an original colony at a time when Indiana was still frontier. The bedroom community developed some textile mills along the Passaic River, but silk weaving never really took off in Summit the way it did elsewhere, and the city remained quite small (under 10,000) as the industry declined in the 1910s and 20s. Summit’s growth remained slow and steady as it attracted affluent professionals who used the railway—eventually adopted by NJ Transit—to commute into Manhattan 25 miles away. During the peak of suburbanization in the 1960s and 70s, Summit actually lost a little population, though it recovered again in more recent decades and has largely stabilized. Today it boasts median household incomes in the six figures, among New Jersey’s twenty wealthiest municipalities. And, since a considerable amount of its growth took place before the automobile began to dominate urban development patterns in the 1950, Summit still enjoys a walkable core. And one with considerable historic protections.
It’s a classic streetcar suburb.
But, even amidst its profile of consistent prosperity, Summit still reveals a few gaps in the old downtown building fabric. Take this example on Springfield Avenue.
Much like Petersburg and Greencastle, the property interests at that former building site have filled the space with a plaza and parklet.
Or at least, so it seems. I tried digging back through Google Street View archives to see if a building once stood there, but those old photographs only date back to 2013, and it looked more or less the same. Did a building once stand at this site, or have these buildings always been exposed with a large vacancy? To confirm, I had to look through old Sanborn maps, those meticulous maps from the Sanborn Map Company that helped fire insurance companies assess liability. Since the company’s inception in the 1860s, for over a century, they delineat property boundaries with regular updates, with their peak usage in the 1910s and 1920s, when they monopolized the industry. (It’s still around today!) In the 21st century, the Sanborn maps (“the Sanborns”) archive the property lines in urban centers during the earliest plats, before consolidations and subdivisions that reinvented downtowns during the urban renewal period. They’re available in microfiche in libraries across the country, or a simple website can show that, as of 1921, a building did indeed stand on the site in question on Springfield Avenue in Summit, New Jersey. When this building came down is anyone’s guess, but the two buildings in the photo above did have a cousin standing between them at one point.
Regrettably, the oblique angles of the early setting sun in late autumn cast deep shadows onto the plaza, making it difficult to discern in these photos. But it should be clear enough to see that the space has both carefully maintained landscaping, drinking fountains, a recycling bin, and a few stoops that compensate for the paucity of actual chairs. But perhaps the emptiness reinforces an unintentional point: it doesn’t need many seats because people generally don’t want to sit there. And, aside from the four (and maybe five) months whether the weather in northern New Jersey is warm enough to linger, the steep shadows that the adjacent buildings cast onto the plaza ensure that, outside of high noon, it will be cool if not outright chilly for the remainder of the year.
In short, these mini-parks are a valiant effort at beautification, and they’re certainly nicer to look at than a parking lot. But do they compare to the utility and financial viability of an actual building? Of course not. And it’s hard to see much in the way of the built environment that will easily support the construction of a building here, no matter how vibrant and desirable Summit’s downtown is (and, in almost all respects, Summit has a terrific downtown). Why? In part because the adjacent building owners have themselves made investments that capitalize on the vacant space. Here’s a close-up of the building to the left.
It doesn’t take an architectural historian to see that the portico at the first level, fronting Springfield Avenue, is an addition. There’s no way that wood paneling is a century old. Speculating on the intent of this portico, I believe it took the formerly repetitious fenestration of an office building and made it more suitable for retail—that is, the portico expands the window pattern on the first floor and allows for easy storefront displays. (I also suspect this portico is at least thirty years old, since it includes some stairs that make it clearly ADA non-compliant.) Also notice the lettering on the wood panels: Summit Promenade, which apparently is the name of this little plaza.
Pivoting a bit, to the side rear of this same building, reveals even more history.
Notice the indentation at the top level. The lintel and sill indicate the space of what once was a window, filled in at some later point. Below it (largely obscured by the shadow) are wooden panels covering a space of a similar size—presumably another old window. These windows almost certainly post-date the construction of the building, since the building that got demolished (on the site of the current Summit Promenade) would have rendered any windows along this wall superfluous. At some later point, the owner of the property decided these two windows no longer served a great function and had them filled in a cost-efficient manner, leaving what are the masonry equivalent of scars.
The other building, to the right of Summit Promenade, offers a completely different architectural profile.
This side is filled with windows. It’s impossible to determine the exact age, but the lintels, sills, and the brick mould on either side of each aperture is all of a different color than the remaining masonry, again suggesting a much more recent alteration. And the mullions separating the vertical window units from the transom window have the look of a contemporary installation—definitely not one hundred years old. Perhaps most importantly, though, the first level clearly offers a separate entrance, leading to a restaurant that is distinct from the retailer facing Springfield Avenue. This is unusual: if a building used to occupy the site of Summit Promenade in generations past, how was this restaurant accessible unless patrons walked through the Springfield Avenue entrance?
Perhaps during more favorable weather Summit Promenade serves as a place for al fresco dining to Marigolds, the long-standing restaurant. But if, if the City of Summit does not allow the restaurant to expand its business operations onto the plaza, it’s difficult to imagine a situation where it gets much use. This is more the shame, since City’s Department of Community Services spent considerable money renovating the space in 2013-14. Thankfully, it appears that the city’s Common Council did open the Summit Promenade for outdoor dining last summer, to allow businesses hindered by social distancing restrictions to opportunity to serve more patrons.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a point where this high-value little parcel in a pricey little city benefits from full capitalization. It’s not being put to its highest and best use as a park, even if it routinely attracted crowds. In fact, a parking lot probably generates more revenue. But clearly a parking lot is ugly, unfriendly to pedestrians and far from ideal. Is there any chance that an enterprising developer could buy it for infill, placing another three or four-story building with retail on the first floor, then apartments or offices above it? The market would seem to support it…yet the same time, the investments I just detailed in this article would impede it. The improvements to the adjacent buildings—the portico, the side windows, and especially the distinct entrance to Marigolds restaurant—create an argument that favor the retention of the space as Summit Promenade. The City might be eager to sell the parcel, since it’s hard to imagine it generates more money on the land than it spends. But it’s likely to face community backlash, given the relatively recent investment in park-like amenities. And a new building on the parcel would all but block the windows and entrance of the building to the right, unless a creative architect found a solution, such as creating an enclosed mini-promenade with a skylight above. (While the developer of the Summit Promenade parcel would have a legal right to build in a fashion that obstructs the side windows of the adjacent building—a person does not own a view—it would create a fractious relationship that is unlikely worth the haggling and potential ill will among downtown business owners.) Lastly, whoever the tenants to this building might be—retailers, office workers, apartment residents—they would add density to an already dense downtown, with little to know dedicated parking. That might be acceptable to some urban-minded people, especially in a transit-friendly and walkable community like Summit. But it would make the structure harder to market.
In short, my suspicions are that Summit Promenade, like its counterparts in Greencastle and Petersburg, will remain an architectural lacuna for generations to come. It might not be a brilliantly conceived public space, but it’s better than a neglected lot (parking or empty grass). And given the cachet for smart renovations or infill development in towns with good turn-of-the-century construction—which all three of these towns have—there are just too many other fish in the sea.
Or, in this context, too many other squares on the chessboard.