Two developers are racing to put up skyscrapers adjacent to the new Trenton train station, and a third is waiting in the wings, assembling property, and drawing up plans. Each developer plans to include retail in the office buildings and to add condos soon after they open. The grand plan would convert dozens of blocks around the train station into an upscale mixed-use neighborhood of stores, homes, and plazas in the shadow of 25-story office buildings, all capitalizing on the fact that Trenton is the premier transit hub in central New Jersey, providing fast easy access up and down the Northeast Corridor, not just to the major cities, but also to scores of towns in suburban Philadelphia and New Jersey.
The story starts with the train station itself, the sixth busiest in the Northeast Corridor. Its nearly-complete renovation, funded largely by the state and federal governments, has doubled interior space, added seating, and tripled retail space. Before the $50 million renovation, shabby would have been too nice a word to describe the narrow building, whose main feature was the smell of popcorn emanating from the nut stand at the top of the boarding staircases. But still, worn out floors, barely adequate bathrooms, peeling paint and all, the old the station had a huge appeal. With the cut-back on Amtrak service to nearby stations, which once boasted a full schedule of weekend and commuter express trains, Trenton was the only central New Jersey station from which to catch a fast train to Manhattan, an Acela to Boston or Washington, or a sleeper to Miami or New Orleans.
The station has also long been a departure point for the SEPTA trains that serve the towns between central New Jersey and Philadelphia, and, more recently, the popular River Line, which runs along the Delaware between Trenton and Camden. New Jersey Transit is in the mix, too. Adding to the appeal is the fact that the station is just a minute or two from entrances to Route 1 South and North and not much farther from I-95.
The location is perfect, the city less than perfect. The poorest municipality in the area by a wide margin, Trenton is coping with the problems that come with that demographic profile. Meanwhile, it complains that state buildings, and their enormous surface parking lots, rob it of ratables, making it all the more difficult to rise above its challenges. Redemption in one form or another — from a movie studio, an entertainment district along the Delaware, a new restaurant and night life center around an events arena, or a downtown hotel — has not arrived.
But there are signs that the train station development could be all that the city, and the developers drawn to it, envision. Mill Hill, the historic residential neighborhood just up the hill from the train station, is thriving.
In the mid-1990s my husband and I looked at a townhouse there, but chose the Island neighborhood, with its spectacular river views instead. Floods and all, we are happy with our decision every night, as we sit outside watching the sun set, turning the black river into a pink and rose picture that is never the same two times running.
But, it must be said, our house has not appreciated at anything like the rate that the Mill Hill townhouse has. When we rejected it, the real estate agent cried “You will regret this!” It was a pretty dramatic statement. I do think about it as I see townhouses in Mill Hill selling for the better part of $400,000, an excellent price for Trenton. That is a four-fold increase from the list price of $99,000 on the townhouse we saw less than 15 years ago.
The success of Mill Hill, where residents can often be seen walking to the train station, could be one more indication of disillusionment with the suburban culture of big houses, bigger lawns, and longer and longer commutes. It could well be cousin, albeit poor cousin, to the phenomenon that has people snatching up any Princeton Borough house, regardless of size or condition. The closer to downtown, the higher the price per square foot.
It has been demonstrated that people with choices will choose Trenton, and, in particular, will choose a Trenton neighborhood near a transit hub. That is a good sign for developers. The construction of a gleaming new train station is another. But perhaps the most important impetus for large scale development — or anyway, the reason to get projects started right now — is the state’s recently passed Urban Hub Transit Tax Credit.
The smart growth initiative, which was approved by the New Jersey Commerce Commission in March, provides companies investing a minimum of $75 million in capital investment within half-a-mile of an urban train station with a tax credit of 80 to 100 percent of the investment price. The tax credit may be applied against the corporate business tax, the insurance premium tax, or the gross income tax over a 10-year period. To be eligible for the credit, a company must employ no fewer than 250 people at the train station site it rents or buys. The offer is good for only eight years, starting in 2008. This specific window, a feature of any good sales pitch, provides incentive for companies to snap up the offer while it is still on the table.
“The fact is that if we didn’t have the Urban Hub Transit Tax Credit, it would be a tough sell,” says Andrew Carten, Trenton’s director of planning. “It’s not 10 years free rent, not quite,” says Carten. But the deal that big companies will get for choosing to locate in a new building at the train station is so good, he says, that it should go a long way toward overcoming any psychological objection to coming to Trenton, a city whose reputation, in truth, is a whole lot worse than its reality.
“In this case,” says Carten, “for companies, it’s a matter of ‘I can’t afford not to consider coming here.’ The Urban Hub Tax Credit has given us an edge on Route 1. People might say ‘Why Trenton when there are other places with good roads?’”
There is ample supply of Class A building space on Route 1, Carten acknowledges, but he points out that there is no new green construction, and every building proposed for the train station area will not only be brand new, but will also be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified. In addition, Carten says that the spitting-distance-to-mass-transit location will be an increasingly large draw as the cost of operating a car rises, and one that will give employers an edge in hiring and retaining employees. There are millions of potential employees living between Wilmington, Delaware, and New York City, and in scores of towns in between, and every one of them will be able to reach offices at the train station in less than an hour without getting into a car.
That convenience, coupled with the tax credits and with the comfort, status, low energy bills that come with a green building, is what developers are selling as they talk with companies with lots of employees and expiring leases, urging them to sign on to be an anchor tenant in a Trenton train station building.
Given the current conservative lending climate, it is unlikely that any developer will be able to put up steel until a tenant willing to sign on for more than half of the space in a new building is found. The search for such a tenant has begun. The two developers that are looking most aggressively are Nexus, a Lawrenceville-based commercial developer and management company, and Dan Brenna, owner of Capital Real Estate Group in Trenton. Matrix Development in Cranbury has also drawn up plans. The area it is targeting is a little farther away from the train station, and Carten says that it is likely that Matrix will wait until Nexus and/or Brenna has a building under construction before it breaks ground.
“It will be a spill over effect,” Carten says. What will happen, he suggests, is that demand for space will rise in tandem with completed projects.
Of the three developers, Brenna, has the smallest organization. He is building the project under Vista Center Development, a company that he has formed.
Carten says that Brenna, small though his company may be, is well prepared to tackle the project. He says that Brenna is an extraordinarily hard worker, who is always extremely well prepared for his presentations to the city planning department. What’s more, he says, Brenna’s background on Wall Street will be valuable in assembling financing. Finally, Carten points out, Brenna has assembled a stellar team. RMJM Hillier has drawn up plans for the office building and Turner Construction has been retained to build it. Cushman & Wakefield is marketing the project.
Brenna, a Trenton native, has been working on development projects in the city for six years. His office is in a gorgeously restored Victorian house with crown molding and wide windows that extend from just off the floor nearly up to the high ceilings. The office, decorated with art that Brenna, who lives in Manhattan, collects on weekends, sits directly across the street from the four-acre site on which he plans to put a 25-story skyscraper, the tallest building in Trenton by some five stories.
Dressed in fashionably faded jeans and tan suede loafers, Brenna, who has the good looks of a lank, well-muscled model pretending to be a cowboy, is wary. Unenthusiastic about giving interviews or being photographed, he is loathe to divulge too much about the train station project. Unable to resist, though, he does bring out a rendering of the building as an interview nears its end. Shown in Brenna’s office, with its wide crown molding, Victorian details, and nicely treed yard, it is surprisingly urban. The architectural drawing, prepared by Hillier, shows a building that extends right to the sidewalk, with a parking garage attached.
Trenton is a city, a dense city, yet it feels like nothing so much as a collection of neighborhoods. The neighborhood where Brenna wants to build, just behind the train station’s rear entrance, is in the Greenwood Hamilton historic district. A description of the area from the city’s historical society states that “this district illustrates Trenton’s early nineteenth century suburbanization, an important episode in the physical development of the city between 1850 and 1915.”
Many of the district’s once-grand houses, a mix of Queen Anne, Greek Revival, and Italianate style, are run down. Many have been subdivided. Some 80 percent of its residents are renters, according to Carten. The skyscraper would certainly change the neighborhood, but in a good way, both Brenna and Carten both insist.
In public meetings, neighbors have expressed concerns about being displaced. A few residents will have to move, but most will not be affected. In fact, says Carten, they will be better off. A number of streets to the east of the project train station project, down Greenwood Avenue toward Hamilton, are in the designated train station development area. But, says Carten, they are only included because they are slated for renewal, not replacement. Grants and loans will be made available for the renovation of these homes. Those who invest in them stand to prosper right along with the new development. “We don’t want the train station development to exist in a vacuum,” says Carten. The city realizes, he says, that an island of office buildings will do little to improve the area.
The idea is that the Class A buildings will naturally attract the kinds of retail uses that will, in turn, attract residents to the area. The end result, it is fervently hoped, will be a vibrant, round-the-clock neighborhood full of commerce and wholesome activities of all kinds.
Brenna is planning to develop housing across the street from the train station, and to the south, in the South Clinton Avenue area. But first he needs to get his skyscraper built, a project that is far larger than any he has undertaken to date.
“It’s a leap for Dan,” says Carten, but he adds that everything he has seen of Brenna’s presentations to the city planning department indicates that he is ready.
Brenna grew up in an entrepreneurial family. His father, also named Daniel, owned the Brenna Funeral Home, which sits just down the street from the site of the planned office tower. That business, which was started by Brenna’s grandfather, has been sold, and is no longer in the family. The elder Brenna also owned and operated the Golden Nugget flea market on Route 29 near Lambertville from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. Brenna bought it in 2001.
While Brenna worked at the flea market during school vacations, he says that he never had any interest in being involved in the funeral home. “I always wanted to be in real estate development,” he says. “I always wanted to develop downtown Trenton.”
He studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Class of 1989) and earned a master’s degree in real estate development from NYU. But he didn’t start right in on his chosen career. The timing was terrible. A man of few words, Brenna simply says of the late 1980s and early 1990s, “real estate was bad, so I went to Wall Street to make money.”
He worked for Paine Webber for five years and then for Merrill Lynch for five years before leaving to start his own company in 2000. He began by renovating and selling a number of apartment buildings of 3 to 21 units. He puts the number at “15, maybe 20.” The project that has attracted most of the attention was Brenna’s renovation of the 1898 home of the Saxony Ice Manufacturing Company, at 20 Swan Street in Trenton, into the Ice House, a 19-unit luxury condominium building. He broke ground in 2005 and sold the last condo sold in 2007.
A current project, in addition to the train station, is the transformation of a former cigar factory on Division Street in Trenton into offices. “I like to call it 176 Division Street,” says Brenna.
Sergio Coscia, the Hillier architect who designed both 176 Division Street and Vista, the proposed train station office building, explains that “Dan doesn’t like the name ‘Cigar Factory.’ He thinks it has old connotations, that it has a link with smoking.” Coscia, however, embraces the name.
“I feel great about it,” says Coscia. “People are excited to know what the history of the building is. The building was used for an industry that no longer exists, but for a century Trenton was a center for cigar manufacturing.”
Factory re-use is happening everywhere, says Coscia, and he is enthusiastic about the trend, pointing out that there is nothing more sustainable, or “green,” the hottest trend in building, than using an existing building. Far better to renovate in the city, he says, than to tear up fields to build the same building. Using the former cigar factory for its core purpose — employing people — makes it even better, he says.
The 176 Division Street building was in good shape, says Coscia. Little will have to be done to shore up the four-story building. Brenna insists that the new office building be green, and Coscia says, somewhat surprisingly, that a green renovation like that of the former cigar factory is easier in many ways than is the construction from scratch of a green office tower like Vista.
“It has excellent fenestration,” says Coscia of 176 Division Street, referring to its many large windows. The tall ceilings in the building allowed for enormous windows, and there really is no substitute for the natural light they supply, he says. In addition the building has skylights on the roof of its exceptionally tall fourth floor loft, the room where the cigars were rolled. Facing west, they let in what Coscia terms “the best light,” an even flow of sun without glare. The structure of the skylight, now covered by boards, will remain, but he says that solar panels may be put on its south side.
While the panels collect sun to be turned into electricity, the building will be naturally heated and cooled, at least to some extent, by its thick brick walls. “They hold heat during the day, and release it into the building during the night, when it gets cooler,” Coscia explains, saying that old buildings of its ilk maintain temperature much better than “the thin wall construction of new buildings.”
The 176 Division Street building will be LEED certified, but Vista, the train station tower, will go further, and will be LEED Platinum certified, the highest green building designation. “It will be the first of its kind in the Northeast Corridor,” says Brenna.
Brenna says that one of the most important factors in creating an energy efficient building lies in how it sits on its site. This green siting has been taken into consideration in the plans that Coscia has drawn up, he says, pointing to the drawing of the building and showing how its east and west facing sides are tapered, while the building opens out to the south and to the north, allowing for maximum light and providing for some degree of natural heating and cooling.
“It will be the best office building in the state for the lowest cost,” says Brenna. These twin hooks of low cost — both of rent after state subsidies and of utilities — are what he is using to bring in a big tenant, a company that needs a home for no fewer than 250 employees.
Once such a tenant signs a lease, construction can begin. The city, says Carten, its director of planning, could not be more enthusiastic about making it happen. It is prepared, he says, to use condemnation if necessary to secure the land that Brenna, Nexus, and Matrix, the three approved developers for this area, need.
While the city wants housing in the area around the train station, and while Brenna has identified an area for housing close to the station, for him the transit hub development is all about the jobs that office buildings will bring.
“Trenton is a city, not a transit village,” says Brenna, whose family has done business in the city since 1901. “Successful cities, like New York City, live and die by their ability to bring in workers.”
Nexus is using a similar strategy. Its twin office buildings, of 20 to 25 stories each, will go up first, and then it will turn its attention to the Lee overall building, a former clothing factory, which it has already purchased, and which it is planning to turn into residential lofts that will put commuters within a six minute walk of the train station.
The city’s hope is that at some point a good number of the employees of the office towers will walk home at night, instead of boarding a train. It is possible that Brenna himself may be one of these new Trenton residents. He now lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with his wife, Aylin, a native of Turkey who works in the fashion industry. Between Aylin’s work, and the fact that her sister lives close by, the family is rooted in the city, where Brenna has lived since he was a student. But, he says, “I get awfully tired of commuting.” He catches the 6:05 a.m. or the 7:10 a.m. train from Penn Station, and then walks to his office, where he keeps a pick-up truck.
It makes for a long day. Long enough that Brenna seems actually puzzled when asked about his leisure activities. There really isn’t much time, he says. After giving the matter some thought, he says that he does enjoy running, going to the beach with his wife, and collecting art.
Working on by far the biggest project of his career, Brenna gives off an air of intensity, and of determination. Everything about his manner says this will work, this has to work.
Carten, with less on the table in terms of his career and his fortune, is more relaxed. The master plan for the transit hub in his office has date stamps going back to 1984. He has seen developers come and go, plans drawn and scrapped. But this time, he says, it really does feel different. With the state tax incentives on the table and committed, carefully prepared developers poised to move ahead, he is sure that the time is right. The infrastructure is in place. Says Carten of the train station and its environs: “It won’t take much of a lift to transform this whole area.”
The players racing to provide that lift, to find the first big tenant to get a project moving, can all be winners. “Dan and Nexus agree,” says Carten. “It doesn’t really matter who’s first. Once the first tenant signs on to either project, other big companies will say ‘look, they’re moving to Trenton. Maybe we should consider it, too.’”
Capital Real Estate Group, 379 Hamilton Avenue, Trenton 08609. Daniel R. Brenna Jr., principal. 609-656-8300; fax, 609-656-8433. Home page: www.cregrp.com