Trenton is on the upswing — a good bet for investors and people seeking a more urban lifestyle at more affordable prices, according to Dennis Gonzales, who is both assistant business administrator of the City of Trenton and acting director of its department of housing and economic development. Development firms are building from scratch new residential, office, and commercial space; they are renovating old spaces; and they are rebuilding others, like the Trenton train station.
The goal of new development projects is to revitalize Trenton by drawing in both new businesses and new residents. “One of the major things that the mayor has had us working on is to attract private business to the city,” says Gonzales, citing as an example Wachovia’s January move of its regional headquarters from Ewing to 32 East Front Street.
Trenton is encouraging professionals, engineers, architects, and lawyers who deal with the state government, for example, to move to the city. Firms like Sadat Associates, an environmental engineering firm, have moved to Trenton because of its relatively low real estate costs. “In some instances firms are finding they can get slightly better financial deals in Trenton,” Gonzales says, “and they are closer to public transportation.”
“The other goal is to repopulate downtown with residences,” Gonzales continues, “to create an atmosphere where the downtown is open and vibrant and doesn’t close down when the office workers go home.” Because of good train connections, he says, “we are well-situated to be able to attract folks who work in Philadelphia and New York to more affordable housing.” He cites a recent article about a husband and wife with one child who moved to a condo in Mill Hill — she takes the River Line to her job at Campbell’s Soup, and he takes the train to Hoboken.
“As the cost of living in the suburbs goes up and up and property taxes go up with revaluation and development,” says Gonzales, “more people are looking at cities as alternatives for living.”
Gonzales talks about “What’s New in Trenton,” on Wednesday, May 31, at 8 a.m. at the Trenton Marriott. The event is sponsored by the Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce. Cost: $30. For more information, call 609-689-9960.
Gonzales counts off quickly a number of significant development investments in the City of Trenton:
Full Spectrum of New York, known for its building and development activities in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, is working on a $175 million project of residential, retail, and office space, and a parking garage that will encompass about two-thirds of the 200 block of East State and Hanover streets. “All will be new construction,” says Gonzales, “except for the adaptive reuse of the Bell Telephone Company building now owned by the city, which we will be selling to them.” The project will be creating the highest building in town — 20 stories at the corner of Montgomery and East State, where the Bank of America is now.
Funding is from two sources. The Canyon-Johnson Emerging Markets Fund, of Magic Johnson fame, is putting in $20 million of equity and Full Spectrum will find the balance through its own sources, which include Bank of America. The project comprises about 280 residential condominiums, 153,000 square feet of class A office space, and 32,000 square feet of retail space. The parking garage will have a capacity of about 300 cars. This is also a “green project,” using materials to reduce energy costs to 50 to 75 percent of today’s average. Planning board approvals are in.
At least 80 percent of the residential units will be unsubsidized, but there will be a range of sizes. Selling price is likely to range from the high $100,000s to about $400,000. “We expect people to be buying from a mixed range of incomes,” says Gonzales. Although there are no units specifically for low-income residents, he says Trenton has in excess of a dozen projects that develop houses for those with low and moderate incomes. “As we speak,” says Gonzales, “we probably have three or four hundred units of housing at one stage of development or another for families making $20,000 to $50,000.”
Catty-corner to the Full Spectrum project, the old Broad Street Bank building is being “gut rehabbed” to create 123 apartments and 13,000 square feet of retail space. It should be completed by the end of August. Eighty percent of the apartments will be market rate and the remaining 20 percent will be available to families that make between $25,000 and $35,000.
The city’s train station, which is the sixth busiest on the Eastern Corridor, is being totally rebuilt. The $54 million project has already begun with the demolition and rebuilding of one side of the station. When this is completed in 12 to 16 months, work will begin on the other side. The project will increase the station’s retail space threefold and will improve amenities for riders and visitors.
Meanwhile, discussions are ongoing with a billion-dollar company Gonzales does not name about developing 600,000 square feet of space around the Trenton Train Station.
Just up the hill from the train station Nexus Properties has nearly completed 23 townhouses ranging from 1,400 to 2,200 square feet in Mill Hill, an historic district a couple of blocks from City Hall. The units have all been sold, at an average price of a little over $300,000. Citing the neighborhoods of Mill Hill, Hiltonia (a more suburban area near Ewing), Glen Afton (also suburban), and Berkeley Square (a historical district in the West Ward near the Delaware), Gonzales observes that property values are improving, “Resale values of homes have doubled in the last two or three years,” he observes. “Many that sold for $150,000 four years ago are selling for $300,000 to $350,000 now.”
Housing developments on the drawing board include one by Sentex, which has final approvals for a 74-unit project of home ownership in the East Ward, and an 84-unit condo on Lamberton Street overlooking the Delaware River to be built by K. Hovnanian, with a groundbreaking scheduled for the fall.
Gonzales himself is a city guy. He lives with his wife and two kids in Trenton. “I would rather be in a place that is more urban than in some sterile corporate office park,” he says. That’s not surprising from someone who says of his hometown of Perth Amboy, “It was a great place to grow up — a small town with big city attitudes.”
He attributes the sophistication of Perth Amboy to two things. It was the closest point in New Jersey to Staten Island, and it was densely populated — 45,000 people in 4.2 square miles. “It was a city but felt like small town,” says Gonzales.
Trenton is also a small city, if a little larger than Perth Amboy, but it is growing. The population statistics cited by Gonzales suggest that Trenton is becoming a draw for more people. At the last census the population was 85,000, but the 2005 update estimate put it at close to 100,000.
Gonzales admits, however, that education remains a challenge for urban planners trying to draw families to Trenton. Because his wife, Kimberly McReynolds, writes grants and manages state and federal programs for the Princeton Regional Schools, they are able to send their two children to the Princeton schools for a small tuition. But Gonzales says that the mayor acknowledges the problem with the city’s schools and is working with the Board of Education and administrators to create magnet school opportunities at various levels.
Gonzales was not always an urban type. He spent his earliest years in Puerto Rico, where his father worked on a small family farm and did carpentry on the side, and he recalls chasing the chickens and the pigs. He boarded a plane to America on the day he turned five. His destination was Perth Amboy, where his mother was a factory worker for several years.
But since five, Gonzales has been a consistent city dweller, in both small and large venues. After getting a bachelor’s degree in urban studies from Columbia University in 1977, he became a probation officer for Middlesex County, and supervised juveniles in Perth Amboy and New Brunswick.
Next was a stint at the University of Michigan Law School, followed by 3 years, 7 months, and 8 days (“It said so on a piece of paper,” he says.) as a lieutenant in the Navy’s Judge Advocate Generals corps. During that time he traveled around Italy and the Middle East “prosecuting sailors and Marines.”
After discharge came Chicago, where Gonzales was assistant regional counsel for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for two-and-a-half years. He lasted a year as an associate at a law firm in Philadelphia, doing medical malpractice and product liability defense, and then came back home, serving for nearly seven years as the corporate counsel for the city of Perth Amboy.
To add yet another dimension to his breadth of experience, he took a year and half off from practicing law and worked as executive director of a not-for-profit that taught ESL, computer skills, and helped people find jobs.
In October, 2000, Gonzales moved to Trenton as assistant city attorney, and in February, 2001, was asked to take on the leadership of the department of Housing and Economic Development.
A worry that potential returnees to Trenton may have is about safety issues. On this front, Gonzales has just the amount of patience you’d expect from someone with a strong urban sensibility — little or none! He says, “I understand there is a sense that it is not that safe, but the facts don’t support that sense.” Over just the past year, he continues, the crime rate has decreased by 17 percent and over a longer period, by 43 percent. He attributes the change both to good policing and to new development. He admits there are issues with gangs, but adds that this is true of all urban centers.
Trenton is already attracting families without kids, alternative lifestyle couples, and empty nesters who have “decided they don’t want to sit on a lawn mower any more or live in a 3,000 square foot house.” And also families with kids who can afford nonpublic educational alternatives for their kids.
Because Trenton is still down 30,000 from the 130,000 population it once had, Gonzales says that the city can handle lots more people: “We have room, and we welcome all sorts of folks.”