The three-family, triple-decker, aluminum-sided, front garage-dominated housing type, known as the “Bayonne Box,” has become the default housing type for new construction in Newark. Even the 2004 Land Use Element of City Master Plan urged to “provide more land which allows two-, three-, and four-family detached housing, which has become the housing choice for both public and private sector builders.” Meanwhile, the city has started to suffer from the devastating effects of the Bayonne Box proliferation. In its 2006 Newark Vision Plan, the Regional Plan Association called for alternative designs. In his first State of the City address on last February 8, Mayor Booker requested the city to “identify and encourage design alternatives to the ‘Bayonne Box’ model for two- and three-family houses.” The new Director of Community Development Toni Griffin is organizing a housing design symposium next Wednesday to introduce better design models and higher design standards (see below). What is wrong with the popular Bayonne Box? Is it just aesthetic embarrassment and construction defects?
To find out the genesis of the box, I called the reference librarian of the Bayonne public library last summer. She responded angrily, “People like to make fun of Bayonne.” Only after learning that I am a Newark resident, she pointed out, “We have moved away from that kind of development.” It is true that the small town of 61,842 residents has become much more forward-looking in its physical development. For instance, its redevelopment of the former naval base alone will create over 6,700 high density housing units, 750 hotel rooms, 340,000 square feet of retailing space, and 242,000 square feet of civic space. Many apartment developments have long included underground parking. “Newark Box. That’s what you should call it,” the librarian added with some satisfaction.
Over the course of last century, the American home, as well as all aspects of the society, has been designed to focus on automobile usage. The treasured machine takes a great space in repose, as well as in motion. As soon as technology improvements made the automobile less explosive and flammable, architects moved it out of the old carriage house and into the integrated living space. Frank Lloyd Wright was among the first in the 1920’s to design attached garages for his beloved Lincoln Continentals in his Chicago Oak Park house. Architects Keck and Keck’s 1926 modern structure, a forerunner of the Bayonne Box, featuring a dominant three-garage front with a wide curb-cut, was even named as a Chicago landmark in 1994. The garage has become the most massive exterior feature of new homes. Some New Urbanists call it “garagescape.”
The impact of a brutal garage, a paved front driveway, and a twenty-foot curb-cut in front of every new home can be devastating. In the case of Bayonne Box, planning for the most direct vehicular access, the frontal driveway location, and obtrusively parked vehicles destroyed the fabric of a healthy pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. In Ironbound’s Sumo Village, while negotiating with big cars on the sidewalk, pedestrians are often forced to witness the selfish display of a junk closet through those open garage doors. Furthermore, the Bayonne Box loudly promotes a destructive way to organize all aspects of life in our city and beyond through automobiles.
Some design remedies might try to mitigate the visual impact of the Bayonne Box through such means as a rear access lane or alley. However, the popularity of the box design among Newark developers is related to antiquated city ordinances for the minimum parking requirement, which required five to six parking spaces for a three-family structure. Many city planners call for adoption of a “maximum” parking standard, which restricts one parking space per 1000 square feet development, compared to four spaces now in Newark. Jersey City currently has an even lower ratio than the suggested maximum ratio for Newark. Given the mass transit advantages enjoyed by the city, homes with transit village designs will not only break the Bayonne Box model, but will also attract many different home buyers, who tend to commute to work by train.
With land of only 24 square miles, Newark is among the cities with the highest density in the country, even after the drastic decline of its population in past decades. However, those who pass by Newark along the Northeast Corridor are often amazed by row after row of Bayonne Boxes plopped up swiftly in the Ironbound section. Another missed opportunities for higher density urban redevelopment, which is ideal for creating jobs, bolstering city revenue, and improving the state’s energy efficiency if replacing these structures with sufficient office capacities. Some prominent transportation planners such as Martin Robins and Jeffrey Zuppan predict, “Nearly 11.5 million gallons of gasoline a year would be saved by increasing the number of jobs in downtown Newark, essentially doubling them, instead of locating them in the suburbs.” The city has to immediately stop building Bayonne Boxes here and to establish financial and zoning incentives for developers to build higher density units, and encourage companies to those locations where public transportation is readily available to their employees.
These expensive Bayonne Boxes rely on risky finance and count heavily on rental income for the owners. Some Ironbound developers are known for delivering a “secret” extra rental unit with all water and gas pipes hiding behind sheetrock for an easy do-it-yourself conversion. According to recent census figures, Newark is among the highest percentage (over 40 percent) in the nation where homeowners spend more than half their income on housing. Attracted by the American Dream in these multifamily Bayonne Boxes, working families have taken various risky loans to buy much more housing than they need, betting unrealistically on continuing increase in value of their properties and personal income. When these conditions failed to materialize and rental incomes fell short, many owners of Bayonne Box multifamily homes suffered from ruined credit, foreclosures, and broken hopes.
Jane Jacobs espoused that a vital urban life rests on preserving neighborhoods of mixed-uses, mixed-users, and mixed-styles, with active residents and pedestrians as eyes and ears of a safe community. Newark has its own example of a lively neighborhood along Ferry and Wilson Streets, with vertical mixing uses in buildings, with a focus on retail on the ground floor and street level, and residential on the upper floors. The enlivened community creates an exciting presence of economic and social activities not only during the day, but also in the evening and on weekends.
Some early “Bayonne” design, such as the 1940’s garaged row houses on Holland Avenue of Bronx, at least paid great attention to the Tudor gables, façade details, chimneys, terraces, and stoops, in order to establish an individual identity for each house. However, the quick construction of Bayonne Boxes in Newark deliberately stands for a soulless uniformity, which leaves out any architectural details and street amenities. As the result, these houses effectively turn streets solely for automobile storage and movement. In one of the Sumo Villages off South Street, a great number of identical multifamily houses share a small corner play area for children, with dusty and broken equipment. Oh, Bayonne Boxes, what a community killer!
A majority of Bayonne Boxes in the city were built by three politically connected large real estate developers, who acquired public land with a deep discount, together with easy zoning variances, tax-abatements, and other perks. Other crony-turn-developers, such as Jackie Mattison, Emilio Farina, and Tamika Riley, who had little or no development experience, all had a hefty share of the 5,000 parcels of cheap city land. These cookie-cut shoddy constructions were often done by workmen under the condition that they got paid only after the houses were sold. While the current city administration is ready to lift the moratorium of land sales and to settle with developers, future public subsidies should not be on the land, but rather directly on affordable and sustainable housing that agrees with the city’s strategic plan and high design standards.
A Chinese proverb says, “It is not too late to mend the fold even after some of the sheep have been lost.” Some cities, such as Portland, Oregon, have adopted strict ordinances to guide development. For instance, three-quarters of a house façade must be house but not garage. Some economists and planners have long argued that the property tax is antiquated; for reasons that not only is wealth now held in many intangible forms, but also development in depressed urban center has been discouraged. Instead, some forms of land tax may encourage proper urban land use policies, discourage land speculation, and prevent shoddy constructions on cheap land. Obviously, the city has to go far beyond toothless and suggestive design alternatives to battle the Bayonne Box phenomenon.
TRANSFORMING THE “BAYONNE BOX” INTO A NEW HOUSE FOR NEWARK
Wednesday, November 28, 6 pm – 9 pm
Newark Museum Auditorium
- City Division of Planning & Community Development
- Regional Plan Association
- Urban Land Institute