Working for Smart Growth:
More Livable Places and Open Spaces

 

Dividing a Building, Uniting in Purpose


Project Name
: Dina’s Dwellings, New Brunswick
Creative reuse of an active historic church to provide affordable, supportive housing for women and children survivors of domestic violence

Partners: First Reformed Church, Town Clock Community Development Corp., BCUW/Madeline Housing Partners LLC, New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency


The First Reformed Church in New Brunswick has continuously hosted a congregation at its Hiram Street site in downtown New Brunswick since 1754. The large stone building that’s there today, built in 1811, was once the largest building in New Jersey, and was intended for a capacity of 1,100 people. Its exterior is now listed on the state’s historic register, and there are unmarked graves in its churchyard dating back to the 1700s.

By the early 2000s, the church’s congregation, like many others, was much smaller and not able to afford the upkeep on such a large building. Rather than let the building erode, the congregation opted to create a not-for-profit development corporation to explore ways of repurposing the building while respecting the church’s history and its community-focused mission. Ultimately, a plan emerged that would provide the congregation with a smaller sanctuary and cultural center in one part of the building, and create 10 affordable and supportive housing units in another part that would accommodate women and children survivors of domestic violence. The congregation would receive rent on a portion of the building, which would help with upkeep of the historic structure, and ultimately, the viability of both the church and the community it serves would be protected.

Implementing that plan, however, was filled with challenges. The National Register of Historic Places was called in to review it, in addition to its having to meet the requirements of the New Jersey Historic Trust. Archaeological investigations needed to be done on all ground disturbances, but the exact location of graves in the churchyard still couldn’t be pinpointed, which meant a planned new exterior staircase had to go through the additional complexity and expense of needing to be elevated and cantilevered.

The result, however, is a testament to the commitment of all involved. The congregation was able to keep a smaller sanctuary/cultural center built from the original balcony, and to remain a presence in downtown New Brunswick. The main part of the sanctuary was deep enough to divide into three floors’ worth of supportive, affordable housing — two two-bedroom units, one one-bedroom unit and seven efficiency apartments — plus shared program space. And the location of these units, near transit, jobs and a wide variety of services and amenities, means their occupants don’t need a car.

Perhaps the unifying design element in the project is light. The original windows were preserved, providing abundant light in both the sanctuary and the apartments. And the new entrance that was added boasts large areas of glass, intended to serve as a “beacon” of safety and security to the residents and as an external signpost of the presence of this important community asset.

Supporting partners: DIGroupArchitecture; City of New Brunswick, Department of Planning and Development; Westfield Architects and Preservation Consultants

Video produced by Lori H. Ersolmaz, Voices of Hope Productions, LLC. © 2017 All rights reserved.

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