By JOHN T. WARD
The owners of Red Bank’s T. Thomas Fortune house ran into the first obstacle Thursday in their controversial quest to raze the historic structure.
Borough planning director Donna Smith-Barr found the Vaccarelli family’s application for a demolition permit incomplete, and kicked it back for more information, she tells redbankgreen.
In itself, the decision itself may barely slow the Vaccarelli’s plan for a decrepit structure that once was the home of the pioneering civil rights journalist Timothy Thomas Fortune. But the request could also face the hurdle of a zoning board review, Mayor Pasquale Menna tells redbankgreen. And the leader of a year-old group formed to save the structure said he is prepared to sue to stop the demolition, if necessary.
“The attorneys I have can have it stayed for 18 months,” said Peter Primavera, director of the T. Thomas Fortune Project. “We’re doing the paperwork right now.”
Smith-Barr said the demolition permit application, filed last Friday, was signed by James Vaccarelli of Shrewsbury, and listed him as an owner, with his brother Anthony, who died last month at the age of93. Borough tax records, however, don’t show James Vaccarelli as an owner, so Smith-Barr said she has requested documentation in a letter mailed to Vaccarelli Thursday morning.
The letter also seeks more detail as to the location and planned disposition of several other structures on the one-acre site, on Drs. James Parker Boulevard, she said.
James Vaccarelli told redbankgreen earlier this week that the house is deteriorated and inhibiting the family’s ability to find a buyer for the property.
The borough has the property assessed at $800,000, and the house, another $50,000. It is zoned for single-family and multi-family housing, as well as business and retail uses.
Fortune owned the three-story, Second Empire-style house from 1901 to 1911, when it was sold at a sheriff’s sale. Because Fortune lived there and entertained W.E.B DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and other leading lights of the post-Civil War drive for equal rights for African-Americans – a coinage widely attributed to Fortune – the site is on the National Register of Historic Places as well as New Jersey’s historic list.
The demolition permit is also subject to review by the Historic Preservation Commission, which solely has an advisory role. Potentially more problematic for the Vaccarelli’s however, is a provision in the land-use ordinance that allows the administration to subject demolition permits to review by the zoning board.
Menna said such a review would cover both the impact on adjoining properties as well as the historical significance of structures to be torn down.
“Certainly, there’s an interest by the borough that this be fully vetted,” he said.
As to whether the house should be saved, “the borough’s position is we favor its preservation,” Menna said. “But ultimately, there has to be a plan by either the private sector, the county or the state to make that happen, because the borough is without the resources.”
Primavera, a Plainfield resident who said he has helped preserve 3,000 historic properties over the past 30 years, said delaying the demolition would give the preservationists time to raise funds to buy the property outright or obtain a mortgage.
He said the family has been firm on a price of $1.5 million from the group, though a developer was close to a deal for $500,000 before walking away over concerns about contamination.
In addition to serving as home to three generations of Vaccarellis, the site was home to their bakery business.
Primavera said he has had “numerous” meetings with the family over the past year in an attempt to secure a deal.
“We have nothing against the Vaccarellis,” he said. “We understand it’s their property, and it’s their right to do whatever they wish. But at the same time, that property has National Historic Landmark status.”
He said the Fortune group would like to restore the house for use as a cultural center and museum.
In 2004, the National Association of Black Journalists inducted Fortune as one of 10 “legendary” journalists into the association’s hall of fame.