Prep Files Lawsuit Against Jersey City Zoning Board

Prep Files Lawsuit Against Jersey City Zoning Board

Ben Ackman, Editor, Staff Writer

On November 30, St. Peter’s Prep opened a lawsuit against the Jersey City Zoning Board of Adjustment, charging it of “failing to provide adequate justification” for striking down Prep’s appeal in June. The appeal in question was towards the Board’s denial of Prep’s request to tear down St. Peter’s Grammar School and St. Peter’s Hall on York Street, historic properties that the school has owned since 2004. The grammar school, constructed during the 1860s and expanded during the 1890s, was heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In 2019, Prep petitioned Jersey City’s Historic Preservation Commission for permission to demolish the building, and was denied, initiating a years-long bureaucratic conflict.

St. Peter’s Grammar School predates Prep, and has been present in the community for over 160 years. It has served primarily as a school building and a meeting hall, and later, an extension of the high school. Prep began to hire experts to examine the buildings’ condition in the years following Hurricane Sandy, the tropical storm that ravaged much of downtown Jersey City. In 2015, the JC Fire Department declared it unsafe for firefighters to enter the premises, noting the presence of asbestos and poor structural integrity. Numerous engineering firms have toured the buildings and agree that given the magnitude of the damage to the foundation, demolition would be the wisest course of action. Meanwhile, local groups have been opposing the grammar school’s destruction, saying that it is historic and must be preserved. Advocates for this side point to the building’s age, as well as its once-held importance to the community and its hosting of notable events such as the announcement of  Woodrow Wilson’s gubernatorial campaign in 1910. They have also accused Prep of “demolition by neglect,” or deliberately allowing the hall to deteriorate over time; when it goes beyond repair, it would be easier to justify demolition.

After being rejected by the HPC, Prep appealed to the Zoning Board in June of 2022. The hearing stretched into the early morning, with testimony from Paulus Hook residents as well as Prep’s engineers. The request was refused by a 6-1 vote, requiring the school to either attempt restoration of the building, sell it, or appeal the decision. Consequently, Prep has sued the Zoning Board of Adjustment for failing to counter their presented evidence when denying the appeal. “None of the expert testimony presented by Plaintiff was refuted by any expert testimony or otherwise…” lawyers Leo J. Hurley, Veronica Chmiel,  and Charles J. Harrington wrote of the HPC. “The Zoning Board disregarded Plaintiff’s expert reports and testimony, and also overlooked the HPC’s disregard of the structural analysis of the Buildings in the HPC’s denial of the COA [Certificate of Appropriateness].” The school is seeking the reversal of the Zoning Board’s decision, as well as a permit for St. Peter’s Grammar School’s demolition.

Prep’s campaign to raze the historic site has induced a measure of hostility from some members of the community. It has been accused of apathy towards the neighborhood’s historical significance, with one member of the HPHA comparing the demolition to the Colgate corporation’s purchase and destruction of 19th century brownstones. Though Prep has a strong case against the Board, an antagonistic action such as a lawsuit will do little to improve its local reputation.