So how can anyone say Trenton “won” the highly publicized Amazon HQ2 competition?
After all, what could Trenton, the state’s beleaguered capital city, possibly have that would make it the last bit attractive to the $178 billion company that plans to roughly duplicate its current Seattle headquarters that consists of more than 40,000 employees in 8.1 million square feet?
But why not Trenton? That was the attitude of Greater Trenton, the privately funded nonprofit group that submitted a 112-page response to Amazon’s request for proposals. Let’s see how Trenton’s response stacks up against the company’s major requirements:
Proximity to major population center (within 30 miles): Trenton is within 30 miles of the Philadelphia metropolitan statistical area (MSA).
Proximity to international airport (within approximately 45 minutes): Trenton is about 45 minutes to both Philadelphia and Newark airports [some would argue with Greater Trenton’s estimate of travel time to Newark]. Trenton-Mercer, even closer, serves a full range of corporate charter jets.
Access to mass transit: The Trenton Transit Center is served by AMTRAK, NJ Transit, SEPTA, and the River Line, which has three stations within Trenton city limits.
Initial building requirement of 500,000 square feet, with build out capacity for 8 million square feet: The Trenton Transit Center has a site approved for immediate construction of a 500,000 to 1 million square foot office building.
Dig down deeper into the RFP and you will find more glittering items to attract the eye of an Amazon, or any number of smaller companies looking for an urban setting:
Building/site requirements: Amazon was willing to consider greenfield sites, infill sites, or existing buildings that can be retrofitted or expanded, or a combination of the above. Trenton has all of the above, including the once majestic Roebling Wire Works building ready to be re-purposed.
Certified or shovel-ready greenfield sites: The “vast majority” of Trenton’s development sites are on “properties that are publicly owned or owned by private development companies,” according to the Greater Trenton response Amazon. “So much publicly owned land is a huge asset for Trenton,” notes George Sowa, CEO of Greater Trenton.
Transit and transportation options, including bike lanes and pedestrian access: In Seattle Amazon workers are based in 33 different buildings, spread in various clusters around the city. So moving around within the HQ2 area could be critical. Amazon advised respondents to the RFP to “include connectivity options: sidewalks, bike lanes, trams, metro, bus, light rail, train, and additional creative options to foster connectivity between buildings/facilities.”
Density may well be Trenton’s most compelling feature. The city’s HQ2 proposal showed five separate campuses spread throughout the city. But spread would be an unfair term. In fact they are all within a mile or less of each other. From Riverview Plaza on the south to the train station or to the State Capitol to the north is only a little over a mile. The entire city is just 7.65 square miles. The interactive map at the Trenton Downtown Association website, www.destinationtrenton.com, shows just how close everything in Trenton is.
Opportunities to cultivate local culture and creativity. Trenton has a leg up on lots of other cities competing for HQ2. Arts groups and artist-entrepreneurs are active throughout the capital city.
No, Trenton did not make the short list of 20 cities and regions still under consideration by Amazon, which has said it will make a decision by the end of this year. But simply by creating this inventory of Trenton resources may be, in fact, how Trenton “won” as a result of participating in the HQ2 competition.
Like many of the other 238 cities and regions submitting proposals, Trenton was able to look at itself in a new light. Those abandoned sites now owned by the city are ripe for development — no delays as private investors assemble some plots from different owners. That sturdy factory building from the late 190th century, now unfit for any manufacturing process, may be the perfect skeleton for a reconfigured office building or residential condominiums or — even better — a mix of both uses.
The city is already witnessing examples of this. HHG — David Henderson, John Hatch, and Michael Goldstein — has successfully renovated a series of buildings, most recently transforming one of the Roebling factories into a 138-unit apartment building — the Roebling Lofts.
The old Commonwealth Building at 150 East State Street is being converted by Dan Brenna’s Ajax Management into retail and restaurant space on the first floor and apartments — with high ceilings and big windows — on the upper floors of the six-story building. And Ajax has created apartments out of several other buildings, including the Trenton Watch Factory, dating from 1886; the former Mott School, built in 1912; and the former warehouse at the Circle F Factory complex.
Trenton’s first “skyscraper,” the eight-story Broad Street Bank building, at the corner of East State and Montgomery streets, was built in 1900, with a 12-story annex built in 1913. In 1961 the bank moved to a new location, and later the building became vacant and began to deteriorate. Historic groups intervened, and saved it from demolition. A developer from New York bought it, renovated the ground floor retail spaces, and converted the rest of the building into 124 apartments, with 10-foot ceilings, large windows, and a rooftop terrace for the tenants.
The D&R Canal, a thriving waterway during the industrial age but now an abandoned corridor, could become the backbone of a system of pedestrian and bicycling paths. The Assunpink Creek, buried for decades under the urban landscape as it flowed through downtown Trenton, is now being “daylighted” and turned into an in-town passive recreation corridor by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The project could be complete by next spring. The Delaware riverfront, now largely blocked off from the city itself by sprawling parking lots and a four-lane highway, could still be turned into a passive and active recreation area for residents and workers alike. The employees of the new-age companies now creating the wealth in the world crave these tangible connections with their environment.
“Amazon is a game-changer,” said Fred Kent of Project for Public Spaces shortly after the HQ2 competition was announced in 2017. The Project for Public Spaces, founded in 1975 to expand on the work of urbanist William H. Whyte (1917-1999), has been at the forefront of developing livable, walkable, viable cities and downtown centers ever since. To Kent and the others in the “public spaces” sector, the HQ2 competition was a recognition of the sea change in how cities are viewed by the corporate world. “Every city trying to come up with a plan to attract Amazon is being forced to think about these issues.”
The great flight from the cities to the suburbs in the mid-20th century — and the eventual reversal of that trend in the first decades of the 21st century — were described and predicted by Whyte’s 1988 book, “City: Rediscovering the Center.” Whyte asked the corporate CEOs why they were leaving the big city for the suburbs. The answer was the “environment.” As Whyte wrote, “Shorn of euphemism, here is what executives mean by it: (1) The center city is a bad place: crime, dirt, noise, blacks, Puerto Ricans, and so on. (2) Even if it isn’t a bad place, middle Americans think it is and they don’t want to be transferred here. (3) To attract and hold good people we have to give them a better environment. (4) We have to move to suburbia.”
But, as Whyte predicted in the same book, the suburban love affair would not last forever. “More than ever, the center is the place for news and gossip, for the creation of ideas, for marketing them and swiping them, for hatching deals, for starting parades. This is the stuff of the public life of the city — by no means wholly admirable, often abrasive, noisy, contentious, without apparent purpose.
“But this human congress is . . . the engine, the city’s true export. Whatever makes this congress easier, more spontaneous, more enjoyable is not at all a frill. It is the heart of the center of the city.”
The commercial real estate market has borne out that observation. In once beaten down cities like Newark (one of the 20 finalists in the Amazon competition), Jersey City, and Hoboken, old industrial buildings have been revived as both living and working spaces. At the opposite end of the River Line rail corridor from Trenton is Camden, not so many years ago written off as city without a future. Now it’s not just home to Campbell’s Soup; it’s also home to Subaru of America’s new headquarters, which moved from suburban Cherry Hill to its new urban location; Holtec International; and American Water, the utility company. Camden even submitted its own response in the Amazon HQ2 competition.
But despite all the sparks of development flying in other cities, Trenton still hasn’t ignited. Why not?
Like many American cities, Trenton can trace its decline to the beginning of the automobile age and emergence of the suburbs in the 1920s. The decline accelerated in the 1960s and ’70s. Alan Mallach, a former Trenton city planner and author of the 2018 book, “The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America,” recalls the city’s status when he moved to the area in 1967. Downtown Trenton “was still the place to be. It had three movie theaters, five department stores . . . and the local custom of driving into downtown and driving around and around on Saturday nights.” In 1968 race riots erupted in Trenton. In 1975 the Quaker Bridge Mall opened. Within 10 years Trenton’s downtown was all gone.
The city’s population drifted downward from nearly 130,000 to just under 85,000, its lowest level since 1900. Whites now constitute about a quarter of the population. Blacks make up about half, and the remaining quarter is Hispanic, principally Puerto Ricans and Guatemalans. More than a quarter of the population is below the poverty line, with the median income at about $36,000, about half of the statewide median income. Of Trenton’s employable population, most have to leave the city to get to their job. Of the 33,000 jobs in the city (mostly government workers), only about 5,600 of them are filled by Trenton residents.
Being a “company town,” even when the company is the state government, creates some bad choices in terms of commercial real estate. Owners who in another city would engage in creative sub-divisions and deal-making with small start-up companies, says Trenton-based commercial real estate broker Anne LaBate, may instead choose to hold out for a deal with a state agency that will take all the space.
Being a poor town in terms of its residential base brings other problems, in addition to the obvious one of crime. Owner-occupied homes have decreased in number. “Since 2011,” writes Mallach, “three out of four single-family house buyers in Trenton . . . have been investors, including rings of small investors organized by brokers and investment advisors.” In at least some cases the investors have pocketed the rent money, made no repairs to the property, and then walked away from the property when no more tenants could be found.
One of the bright spots in recent years has been the emergence of an eclectic arts community in Trenton, which comes together annually with a 24-hour arts festival held in one of the rehabilitated buildings from Trenton’s golden industrial era — the Roebling Wire Works. In recent years Art All Night has attracted as many as 30,000 visitors. This past summer one of those visitors was a gang member hunting down a member of another gang. Gunfire broke out, a gang member was killed, and 22 other visitors were injured, including 17 from gunshot wounds.
Art All Night, one of the bright spots, had become rock bottom. More or less. Later in the summer Settimo Cielo, the last white tablecloth restaurant in the heart of downtown, closed its doors when the trio of partners who owned it could not agree on a strategy for it. Now the group is concentrating its efforts on its suburban location on Kuser Road in Hamilton Township. But word on the street is that one of the partners hopes to come back to the Settimo Cielo location on East Front Street.
As some other post-industrial cities of Trenton’s size experience an increased demand for both housing and office space in their downtowns to the extent that some urban centers are becoming enclaves of affluent millennials, Trenton suffers from high supply of space and low demand for it.
“It’s an outlier,” acknowledges Sowa of Greater Trenton, which now uses a modified version of its Amazon proposal to attract other, much smaller businesses. Greater Trenton was formed in 2015, initially underwritten by contributions from Bristol-Myers Squibb, Capital Health, Investors Bank, NJM Insurance Group, Princeton University, Thomas Edison State University, and Wells Fargo Bank.
Sowa, born in Trenton and raised in nearby Bordentown while his father ran an appliance store in Wrightstown, graduated from Cornell in 1982 and ended up in commercial real estate, working for a private investor in New York; for Linpro, the developer that did a great deal of work in Plainsboro; and finally for Brandywine Realty Trust, where one of his projects was the development of Campbell Soup’s ambitious Gateway District in Camden.
As CEO of Greater Trenton, Sowa is also an indefatigable cheerleader for the city. He has eaten at more than 80 restaurants, coffee shops, neighborhood diners, around the city. He likens the Hispanic influx in what used to be Italian Chambersburg to the Ironbound section of Newark. Even after the 20 Amazon finalists were announced, including Newark and nearby Philadelphia, Sowa put the best face on. “We heard we were 21,” he deadpanned. But, he added with more seriousness, of the 20 finalists seven are located in the Boston-Washington corridor, on which Trenton is a major transit stop. “It validates our location,” Sowa says. And the HQ2 plan is “something that could be used for any series of companies going forward.”
The most likely targets, Sowa says, are probably not “institutional investors” but rather smaller, start-ups and companies in emerging fields. As an example Sowa cites Maestro Technologies, which a year ago purchased the 78,000-square-foot former bank building at 1 West State Street. Maestro has set up an incubator space and training facility, as well as offices for its own data management and security business. It is looking for subtenants on the upper floors — the space is listed at around $20 per square foot.
But perhaps an even more important outcome of responding to the Amazon RFP was the chance to “change the dialogue, broaden expectations, and consider positive outcomes,” says Sowa.
One area where the dialogue could change would be between the city and the state, the largest employer with 16,000 employees in the city and owner of $1 billion worth of city property. The city struggled for years with the Christie administration, which insisted on developing two new proposed office buildings in locations that are at odds with the city’s master plan, formulated in 2014 and called Trenton250 because it based its plans on projections to the year 2042, the city’s 250th anniversary. The opponents to that state move, the Stakeholders Allied for the Core of Trenton (ACT), are still not satisfied with the state’s plans for those two new buildings, and are expected to continue to lobby against the state.
ACT, which will have representatives present at the state’s “courtesy review” before the Trenton Planning Board on Thursday, October 11, at 7 p.m., contends that the $225 million project will move state workers out of the core downtown area. Instead ACT would like to see multi-use buildings that could be used to leverage some private investment that would help diversify the city’s economic basis beyond its current “company town” status.
The new governor, Phil Murphy, has not indicated that he will derail the state’s latest office project, but he has just signed an executive order creating the New Jersey State Capital Partnership, with a wide range of objectives, including reviewing the Trenton250 master plan, and identifying funding and resources to implement those initiatives; creating an action plan for the redevelopment of state properties in downtown Trenton and around transit centers that support a mix of residential, office, and/or retail uses; developing initiatives to support new market-rate housing in downtown Trenton; and other steps to help make the capital city a viable urban center.
Trenton’s new mayor, Reed Gusciora, formerly a state assemblyman, has seen the city from all sides of the political biosphere. “In the past, one side or the other may have been striving for this collaborative approach, but rarely have two administrations been on the same page as much as myself and Governor Murphy,” Gusciora said in the statement announcing the partnership. “I think this executive order goes a long way toward forging a true partnership between the capital city and the state.”
Could this be the golden moment for Trenton — the time to rise from the ashes of the mid and late 20th century and take its place in the new urbanism that has become fashionable in the early 21st century? Maybe. But before we set forth an action plan we should acknowledge the Doubting Thomases in the room.
First this is not the only “golden opportunity” that has been set forth in Trenton. A good example of the time that is invested in any progress is the Roebling complex — the cluster of three and four-story study buildings that once housed the famous Roebling Wire Works — which has been a series of steps forward and backward, dating back to 1969: The Invention Factory, the Museum of Contemporary Science, the Performing Arts Center of Trenton, and Manex Entertainment, a movie production company. Other ideas have sustained themselves over the years: Art All Night and the Punk Rock Flea Market, rehabilitation of the 1875 Wire Mill building into offices now occupied by the Mercer County Improvement Authority, and the conversion of the another building in the complex into the $35 million, 138-unit Roebling Lofts project by HHG.
Trenton has had its share of other starts, false starts, and stops. Former basketball star Magic Johnson was involved in a venture capital fund that attempted to finance a redevelopment project in Trenton. Troy Vincent, Trenton native and 15-year player in the NFL, ran a development and construction company in his hometown. The big names generated some headlines, but were not game changers. And in Trenton, as in many other towns, sports arenas (the CURE Arena) and baseball stadiums (Arm & Hammer Park) are not sufficient to spark an urban renaissance.
Second point, in acknowledgment of our Doubting Thomases: Probably the last thing Trenton needs is another report. The Trenton250 master plan is comprehensive enough, and some of the very strategic initiatives in the plan should be implemented ASAP. And the master plan builds on a 2014 City Profile Report, prepared by the Office of Housing and Economic Development, a 2014 Trenton City Wide Economic Market Study, a 2015 Rutgers-Newark study called “Laying the Foundations for Strong Neighborhoods,” and the 2016 “Downtown Trenton Bicycle & Pedestrian Plan,” a 144-page study created by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. The latter report references four other related studies.
And predecessors to the master plan include the 1989 “Renaissance Plan,” created for the Capital City Redevelopment Corporation by noted architects and urbanists Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. That plan advanced the then radical idea of turning the limited access Route 29 into a city boulevard with traffic lights and pedestrian crosswalks.
Third there will be no deus ex machina to resurrect the capital city. In fact, as you advance any single idea that might make Trenton a better place to live or to work be prepared to be greeted with a consistent first reaction: “Well that’s never going to fix Trenton.” And that will be true. There is indeed no silver bullet for the city. Mercer County Community College president Jianping Wang believes that this is a propitious moment for Trenton — “We have all the stars lined up” — but, she adds, “we don’t need to wait for a big event. When everyone does a little bit, then it becomes a movement.”
Finally, Trenton’s renaissance does not depend on some wave of white liberal guilt propelling suburban families to become cheerleaders for — or even homesteaders in — the inner city. That’s just not sustainable. Trenton needs to get back to the fundamentals of doing what cities do best. Its deals need to be good deals.
So here are some improvements that could be made quickly and relatively cheaply and signal some real progress — as opposed to continuing down the path of good intentions:
As we shall see at the end of this article, parking is a major systemic problem requiring a major effort to address. But it’s also an annoying little problem, especially frustrating when a visitor wants to take part in any of the good things happening in Trenton — the first Friday events like the open houses at Base Camp Trenton, openings at Artworks and the Ellarslie Museum; the Jersey Jam street art festivals at Terracycle; the Punk Rock Flea Market; ongoing art exhibitions in the Broad Street Bank Building; the farmers’ markets at Mill Hill Park and Greenwood Avenue; and the occasional Trenton Social bike rides.
It’s rarely easy to find street parking. It’s difficult to readily determine the time limits and costs for the meters, and the parking lots are out of sight. What’s worse is that you eventually discover that meter enforcement is practically non-existent, allowing people in the know to park scot-free for hours at a time.
Tom Gilmour, the executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association, experienced a similar problem in his last job, as development director in Asbury Park. Installation of new smart meters there resulted in $4 million a year in parking revenues. Gilmour says that Trenton is now moving in the right direction and has retained a consultant to advise it on the implementation of smart meters.
Here I think the city suffers because of its density and small downtown core. People who come and go every day can’t believe that you need a sign to get from the War Memorial or any other landmark to the major highway just three or four blocks away. But good signage would be appreciated by an infrequent visitor, unfamiliar with one-way streets and crazy intersections where one-way streets run into two-way traffic. Even when armed with GPS, the visitor is reassured by the physical signs.
There are other signage problems. At least twice in the past month or so I drove through intersections in downtown Trenton in which not one of the four corners had a simple street sign.
A few weeks ago I went to an evening forum on “Steps Towards Trenton’s Revitalization,” hosted by Passage Theater at the James Kerney Campus of Mercer County Community College. I figured there would be plenty of parking on the street or in the lot where I had parked for the previous event. The lots were closed off. The first spot I found was several blocks away on Perry Street.
Compare this to any meeting of the Princeton Chamber of Commerce, usually at a suburban enclave such as ETS or Rider University or the Marriott at the Forrestal Center. The paths from the street to the parking lot to the entrance door are practically littered with signs pointing the way.
In his 1988 book, “City: Rediscovering the Center,” William H. Whyte wrote that “if you want to seed a place with activity, the first thing to do is to put out food.” Restaurant rows attract more people than a single standalone restaurant. That used to be the scene in Trenton’s Chambersburg section, but all the Italian restaurateurs have vanished. They are slowly being replaced by recent Hispanic immigrants. The new immigrants’ restaurants have not yet become culinary destinations for Princeton’s gourmands. But with a little help from the city, Chambersburg might be ready to organize a food festival that features authentic food from the old country.
Since outsiders may be wary of venturing into an as-yet undiscovered immigrant community, the first one could be held on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in a visible public space with ample parking. One possibility is the Roebling Mill Yard at 675 South Clinton Avenue, a few blocks from the heart of the ‘Burg. If it happens, let’s hope there are signs leading to both the parking and the event.
Pedestrian and bicycling networks. This may not seem like an important item in the grand scheme of things, but many workers employed by the kinds of companies Trenton hopes to attract place a high value on these sorts of recreational activities. Trenton’s trails, once restored, will link to a vast network that goes up to Lambertville, New Hope, and beyond.
The 144-page report from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) offers a comprehensive view of what already exists in Trenton and what should be done first to enhance this network and increase its usability. One troubling pathway for pedestrians: The route from the train station through the Route 1 interchange to the Market Street area. As the report notes, “This interchange is unfriendly for bicyclists and pedestrians, despite being near the train station and downtown Trenton and at the intersection of many proposed bicycle and pedestrian facilities.”
One of the trail improvements, though, might help train commuters, as well. The DVRPC report notes — as a priority project — the opportunities for extending the D&R Canal towpath. If a ramp could be constructed to link the proposed trail to Market Street, then this segment of the trail “would create a primarily off-road route to the Trenton Transportation Center for many neighborhoods via the towpath and its extension.”
Even though it is most important, I list safety last because all the items above will contribute to the overall perception of safety. As Whyte wrote in “City,” “The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make the place attractive to everyone else.” To do that you have to make it easy to park, easy to get where you need to go, and easy to get back to where you came from.
But what about security for large scale events like Art All Night, which was the site of a gang shooting last summer? And how could you guarantee the safety of out-of-towners visiting a food festival in a neighborhood like Chambersburg? In the Art All Night case the technology is readily available to screen crowds just as they are at sports and concert venues. As for a street fair, other cities have empowered business improvement districts to set up checkpoints on city sidewalks.
Other items will take time to fully plan and execute, and will never happen with just one city department acting on its own. The city’s partnership with Mercer County Community College, for example, keeps growing in multiple directions. “No urban center is without some form of higher education as a catalyst,” said Mercer College president Jianping Wang at the Passage Theater forum last month. Mercer’s presence in Trenton is evolving into a campus, with programs such as fashion design and merchandising, security systems technology. Most recently the college has acquired 101 North Broad Street, a once boarded up space that will be put to educational use.
The community college also has workforce development agreements in place at various companies, including Maestro Technologies in Trenton and, as Wang pointed out in a letter that accompanied the city’s HQ2 proposal, with Amazon for its fulfillment center in Robbinsville.
Other partnerships are already in place. Trenton was received a grant from the NJ Economic Development Authority to create the Trenton Production and Knowledge Innovation Campus (TPKIC) anchored at Mercer’s James Kerney Campus, and also involving Princeton University, Rider University, the College of New Jersey, and Thomas Edison State University.
Not all partnerships involve large organizations. The Trenton Rotary Club launched its Trenton Digital Initiative to place computers with internet access in homes throughout the city.
More can be done, but progress will always take time. The city should keep moving ahead and hope that the smaller achievements listed above will serve as reminders that the city is moving forward, not backward. Among the big-ticket items:
State workers’ housing allowance. This is a big idea that is being pursued by Greater Trenton and the state government. The idea: To give state employees an incentive to live in Trenton by underwriting a portion of their rental costs for the first 18 months of their residency in the city. The goal, says Sowa of Greater Trenton, would be to get up to 5 percent of the state’s workforce to live and work in downtown Trenton.
Cafeterias in state office buildings. Consider this: If you owned a building in downtown Trenton and it were zoned for a restaurant use, imagine the trouble you would have if you tried to rent out the floor above as a commercial office. But, if you owned a large corporate office, or state office, no one seems to care if you have an onsite cafeteria to provide your workers with meals either at cost or subsidized as a nontaxable benefit.
In San Francisco, where the big, high-tech office centers have full-service cafeterias, some people are beginning to care. A proposed law would ban corporate cafeterias in future office buildings in San Francisco. The restaurant and food stores in the surrounding community would be able to reap some of the benefits of the nearby offices.
For many years Trenton was a state capital without a hotel. The most recent hotel is the Lafayette Yard, a 197-room hotel that opened in 2002 on West Lafayette Street, next to the Trenton War Memorial. It has gone through a succession of names and owners, including a panel of mayoral appointees, and several suspensions of operations. At the moment it is closed. The word is that the most recent owner died unexpectedly — his family is wrestling with the disposition of the property.
One idea: To turn half of the rooms in the hotel into rental apartment units, and to reopen the other half as a hotel.
Another, related idea: If the hotel does reopen, schedule your fundraisers and galas there instead of at the Hyatt Regency Princeton or the Westin in Forrestal Village. If your donors really care, they should be willing to come to Trenton. (And remember the points above about signage and parking.)
As former city planner Alan Mallach reports in “The Divided City,” real estate values in some neighborhoods are being driven down to zero by absentee landlords who collect their rents but ignore the property’s maintenance. “Milkers,” as Mallach calls them, “are a disaster for a neighborhood, and in many cases they are aided and abetted by sloppy or nonexistent code enforcement.”
Increasing code enforcement is probably easier said than done in a city that is strapped for resources. Doing it in a way that does not penalize owner-occupants of less than perfect houses makes it an even greater challenge. But it has to be on the to-do list.
Challenges are abundant in Trenton. Clifford Zink, the architectural historian and former executive director of the Trenton Roebling project from 1985 to 1997, volunteers to give me a street-level view of the town. Instead of the usual Route 1 approach into town, with the surrounding urban landscape just a blurred image in the distance, we pull off at the Olden Avenue exit, and essentially follow the Assunpink Creek as it wends through town and eventually to its newly exposed streambed by the Hughes Justice Center as it nears the Delaware River.
The town is hardly abandoned. We pass by various ongoing businesses — Crest Paper Products, StoneTech Fabrication — and come within a block or so of Terracycle. We spot numerous corner bars and luncheonettes. We note the shop of the last remaining blacksmith in Trenton, operated by Alex “Sasha” Parubchenko. We stop in to say hello to a metal fabricator and sculptor, Chris Hiltey, whose company, Bolt Welding, operates in a workshop overlooking the Assunpink Creek. He isn’t in, but a neighbor comes out of his house in this mixed-used neighborhood to let us know that he will be back soon. (You can see Hiltey’s work in a pop up studio, Merge Gallery, at 20 Nassau Street in Princeton.)
We stop in front of a large three-story brick industrial building that we assume is vacant. But two men in a parked car with New York plates tell us it is their building, and they are using it to store inventory for their retail furniture business in northern New Jersey. As we drive around we see several large rooftop water tanks installed in the days when water pressure was not sufficient to carry water to the top floors in case of a fire, now festooned with transponders for cellular phone service. I later learn that cell phone companies pay $2,000 to $3,000 per month for each one of those transponders. Some building owners have sold the buildings under the water tanks but retained ownership of the tanks and their lucrative rental income.
We see streets in relatively poor neighborhoods where abandoned, boarded-up houses stand next door to houses that are still occupied, with owners maintaining the grounds and even putting flowers in window boxes. Over on West State Street, just outside the downtown office district, we travel down several dead ends (what would be called cul de sacs in the suburbs), including Perdicaris, Richey, and Fisher Place. They are lined by solid, brick and stone, Colonial Revival and Craftsman-style homes that would be the envy of many towns. They are still well kept, and the streets are marked by just a few for sale signs. A long-vacant lot on one street has been transformed into a wooded urban park by some of the homeowners. At the end of the dead ends, the street and view are blocked by the four-lane Route 29. The bank of the Delaware River is no more than a football field away, but you can’t get there from here.
As Zink and I reach the end of the Assunpink, at the point where it flows between several state office parking lots and under Route 29, I make the observation that this is where all the improvements — big and small — will come to an end. Nobody’s going to tear down Route 29, at least not in our lifetime, and no one is going to find another place to park the cars of 16,000 state workers.
It seems like the end of the road, literally and figuratively, for my thinking about how Trenton could take advantage of its golden moment.
But it turns out I am wrong, at least partially. In what should be construed as one indicator of how far land use planning has shifted back in the direction of livable, walkable downtowns, the idea of replacing the four-lane, high-speed Route 29 with an in-town boulevard is now being seriously considered. The downsizing of Route 29 would result in cross streets and pedestrian crossings taking people directly to the river, as they did many years ago when Stacey Park dominated the riverfront, instead of the current parking lots and highways.
Back in 2009 the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission reported that the DOT had conducted a feasibility study of replacing the existing Route 29 freeway with an urban boulevard from the Richey Place/Calhoun Street interchange to the intersection at Cass Street. The goal: To connect the waterfront to Trenton’s downtown neighborhoods.
More recently plans for another pedestrian bridge from the state parking lots over Route 29 and leading to the river have reportedly been put on hold. The money earmarked for the bridge may now be used to improve bike and pedestrian paths through the city.
What about the other great barrier to Trenton’s ability to access its scenic river waterfront? What about those state parking lots? One of the tenets of modern day urban thinking is that there is a very high cost associated with free parking — the use of acres of land that add nothing to the vitality of the city; the separation of one neighborhood from another; the unfair competition with mass transit; and more.
What if state workers were charged to park in those lots? It would be about as popular as asking state employees to give up their defined benefit pension plans and accept what is now the standard for most employees in the private sector — IRAs, 401Ks, etc. that rise or fall with the market and how much we choose to contribute during our working days. “It would be political suicide,” says one urban-minded city official, who is sympathetic but realistic about the idea.
But what if an incentive were also offered? If you work at a state office and don’t seek a permit to park your car you receive a subsidy for mass transit use (or to buy a bike, or use any other way you see fit). If you want to have your car close by in a parking lot, then you pay a small monthly fee, which ideally could be earmarked to make some of the streetscape improvements mentioned above. The idea is not far-fetched. Princeton University is currently informing its employees that come 2020 they will have to pay if they want to park on campus, or they will receive a bonus if they use mass transit or participate in a van or car pool.
Some people say that state jobs are stultifying positions that no one would endure without guaranteed pensions and free parking. Having been helped by committed state workers on several occasions, I know that’s an exaggeration. But I can also say that anyone’s work experience would be enhanced by a positive workplace located in a vibrant community that offers some work-life balance. Trenton won’t be hosting a horde of Amazon administrators anytime soon, but it could be home to some start-up companies that want to forge a path outside the conventional corporate world. Today’s Amazon? No. An Amazon of tomorrow? Why not?
Among some of the property for rent or for sale in Trenton are the following:
50 West State Street. One State Street Square, a 14-story, 300,000 square foot building completed in 1989, has two spaces available on the 10th and 11th floors of 3,343 and 4,037 square feet. In addition the entire 13th floor, 14,000 square feet, and entire 14th floor, 15,500 square feet, are available. Rents in this Class A building are in the $30 range. Parking in garage and a surface lot behind the building.
Current tenants include state offices, the IRS, and various associations, law firms, and lobbyists. Aegis Property Group, 609-393-8457.
400 Riverview Plaza. Two-story, 30,000 square feet Class A building in park-like setting on waterfront with on-site deli. 1,563 square feet on first floor. $22.50 plus tenant electric and janitorial.
NAI Fennelly, Gerard Fennelly, Matthew Fennelly, 609-520-0061.
Roebling Metro Center. Warehouse and office space at 171 Jersey Street. Size of building: 450,000 square feet. Available office space: 11,424 feet on first floor; 15,000 feet on second floor. Available warehouse space: 36,000 feet adjacent to office; 34,707 feet on first floor. On-site management, 24-hour maintenance, fenced parking; 3 tailgates; 22-foot ceilings; urban enterprise zone.
Gross – $6.50 per foot plus utilities for warehouse space; $20 per foot plus electric and cleaning for office space. NAI Fennelly, Gerard Fennelly, Matthew Fennelly, 609-520-0061.
Arena 129. 120 Hamilton Avenue. Vacant 13,000 square foot building that needs rehabilitation. Located across the street from the CURE Insurance Arena in Roebling redevelopment area, the site has good parking potential and convenient access to highways.
For rent or for sale. Modern Recycled Spaces, 609-731-0378 or e-mail email@example.com.
162-164 West State Street. For sale: three-story 7,296 square foot brick office building across from State House complex. On-site and street parking front of building. Zoned: Historical. Ideal for lobbyists, attorneys, architects, marketing, engineering, non-profits.
Asking $249,900. Joseph R. Ridolfi & Associates. 609-581-4848.
Richard K. Rein, the editor of U.S. 1, is writing a biography of William H. Whyte. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.