Not very Victorian: Cape May residents want power station to go somewhere else

Jim Ross and Eloise Boccella on the property where an Atlantic City Electric substation will be built at Venice Avenue, between Bank Street and Elmira Street in Cape May.

CAPE MAY — When Eloise Boccella wanted to build an enclosure outdoors around the trash cans at her previous residence in this venerable Victorian seaside resort, she said, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission had a lot of say about it and eventually denied her application.

So Boccella, who now owns a summer home along Elmira Street, adjacent to where Atlantic City Electric wants to build a 30-foot-tall, 3,200-square-foot building to upgrade an existing substation on Venice Avenue, is wondering why the city is even entertaining the notion.

Besides concerns about the environment, aesthetics, and property values, Boccella and others say they fear that the entire beach town’s status as a National Historic Landmark could be placed in jeopardy once again because of development.

That status has been questioned at least twice since the National Park Service bestowed the landmark status on the town in 1976, over development concerns and how the city was governing its historic district. Cape May is believed to contain the largest collection of original Victorian-era buildings in the nation, which makes it a prime tourist draw along the Jersey Shore.

“For homeowners … the guidelines and regulations about anything you want to do on the exterior of your property in Cape May are very stringent,” said Boccella, a school psychologist who lives full time in Swarthmore. “It’s a process that can be very daunting … even if all you want to do is paint your front door.”

Boccella and others say the utility expansion will bring a “warehouse-style structure” into a mostly residential neighborhood that until recent years was considered “the other side of the tracks,” where a predominantly African American community resided.

As property values escalated, many of the minority residents sold their homes and moved out. The neighborhood is sandwiched between the resort’s bus depot and Cape Island Creek, a swampy wetlands on the western edge of town. It contains wood-frame Victorians, pre-World War II cottages, and a few newly constructed vacation homes, and is populated by a racially diverse mix of year-round and summer residents.

David Clemans, a member of the Cape May Historic Preservation Commission, said he has reviewed preliminary plans for the project and noted that the aesthetics of what is being proposed for the site could actually improve the “eyesore” already there.  The property is already zoned for light-industrial use.  Since the project has not been formally submitted to the town, it is unclear which permits or variances it might need.

“It would look more like a residence than it does a warehouse,” said Clemans.

In 2015, the utility built a similar structure in Avalon to contain a substation. That was part of an ongoing $800 million plan, expected to take five years to complete, to upgrade the utility’s power grid as sea levels rise and extreme storms become more of a concern.

But Jim Ross, a local resident, said he, too, wonders why regulations for residents are stringent, yet the utility can expand an existing industrial site in a residential neighborhood. Houses here have assessed values of $330,000 to $850,000.

“We’re concerned about everything from environmental health impacts to the negative impact this could have on the historical status of Cape May and the effect a larger power-generating station could have on the town’s overall historical status,” Ross said.

Frank Tedesco, a spokesman for Atlantic City Electric, said the utility needs to mount a “reliability upgrade” at the substation on Venice Avenue, between Bank and Elmira Streets.  The project would “significantly cut the risk” of a wide outage in the region, he said.

If the utility gains city approval, the first phase of work would begin in about a year and be finished by spring 2019.  Phase two would occur in fall 2019 through spring 2020.

Tedesco said the utility will meet with residents for an open house at Congress Hall on Nov. 4 to unveil renderings of what the exterior of the substation may look like and to obtain feedback.

This summer, residents asked the utility to find another location for the project and urged it to turn the current site into a park because of its proximity to houses and the tidal creek. Some contend the expansion will make flooding more of a problem in the neighborhood when coastal storms occur.

Tedesco said few alternatives emerged.

Christopher Hetzel, program manager of the National Historic Landmarks Program at the National Park Service — the federal agency that in 1976 designated the entirety of Cape May as a national landmark — said there are about 2,600 national historic landmarks across the country.

The special designation applies to buildings, structures, archaeological sites, specific districts, and in some cases, such as Cape May, an entire city.  Hetzel said he didn’t know how many entire cities are designated as landmarks because the Park Service classification does not necessarily coincide with the boundary of a place. But Deadwood, S.D., and Virginia City, Nev., are well-known examples of landmark cities.

Hetzel said the agency annually reviews the designations to make sure the sites have maintained their historical integrity. It sometimes places sites on a “watch list,” informing the public that a place may have lost some of its historic value because of changes through development or renovation.

Hetzel could not comment directly on the proposed Cape May substation expansion, nor what its impact could be on Park Service guidelines. Cape May was last on the Park Service’s watch list in 2011, when developers decided to redevelop the 1950s-era Beach Theater as condos. Ultimately, the town retained its status.

The landmark designation is not legally binding, said Hetzel. “But we always encourage property owners to be good stewards of their historic landmark and have their decisions about their property ultimately help to protect and preserve the history of the United States.”