Air conditioning may be the standard prescription for dizzyingly hot summer afternoons, but sometimes it’s great to be outdoors, says Princeton landscape architect Alan Goodheart, who has spent his career designing outdoor gathering places – parks, ballfields, playgrounds, and plazas.
Goodheart and his cohort Lee Weintraub have designed an ultra-modern park for one of Trenton’s most traditional enclaves, Chambersburg, in a five-sided plaza bounded by Roebling Avenue and Whitaker and Emory streets. Complete with a stainless steel obelisk/fountain and custom-designed benches and chaise lounges, Agabiti Plaza is open now, but it will have an official celebration on Thursday, August 18, at 6:30 p.m. with Italian and Mexican music and refreshments catered by Marsilio’s and Sal deForte’s restaurants. Waters and Bugbee General Contractors is one of the companies sponsoring the event.
The project, which broke ground nearly two years ago, cost about $750,000 plus costs for fabricating for the obelisk, benches, tables, and chaise-lounges. More than half of that came from the state Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres program, which is better known for preserving farmland and park areas in the suburbs.
"It’s a generous, multipurpose, comfortable outdoor living space, like a community living room, for all residents, workers, and visitors," says Goodheart. But he also believes the plaza’s up-to-date design evokes "the enterprising spirit" of John Roebling of Brooklyn Bridge fame. Goodheart went beyond the usual tasks of the landscape architect when he and Weintraub designed the obelisk and the avant-garde furniture and the results are stunning.
Though the furnishings may look jarringly modern to some, Chambersburg restaurateurs are enthusiastic about the project, part of the city’s overall plan for the rehabilitation of the Roebling Avenue area. "It is definitely more modern in design than other parks," says Alan Weintraub, the chef-owner of Marsilio’s restaurant. "Hopefully the steel works and steel fabrication will remind people of the Roebling family’s dedication to Trenton and the Industrial Age." Just a few blocks away is former Roebling’s former wire works factory, now transformed into the Roebling Market.
The five-sided half-acre park is dominated, at one corner, by a 26-foot transparent obelisk with curved, expanded steel panels that are lit from within at night. "The obelisk has become an international marker of significant spaces," Goodheart explains. "The obelisk panels scatter the water that is shot at them from jets in eight ‘bollards’ located in the surrounding circle. Splashes of cooling water and mist sparkle in the sun by day. Lights in the base of the obelisk illuminate the obelisk panels and a polycarbonate glass pyramid at the top that glows – like a community front porch light – in the evening."
Goodheart and Weintraub designed the obelisk to refer to one that they saw in a picture of the hometown of Antonio Falvo, a tailor in the Chambersburg neighborhood. "Antonio and Anna Falvo were my hosts for many an espresso as I was watching construction at the site," says Goodheart, who admits that the result was not quite what the Falvos expected. "Antonio now feels he has something like his home town – he likes the lights, but he is a little skeptical about the modern nature of the design."
Together Goodheart and Weintraub also planned the site, plantings, and pavings. Goodheart is a 1962 graduate of Harvard University with a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard. Some of his projects have been the plaza at Princeton University Press, the playgrounds at Littlebrook and Princeton Montessori schools, the new Arts Council building, and Trenton’s Martin Luther King Park and Columbus Park. Weintraub, who lives in Yonkers, is a 1973 graduate of the City College of New York, where he now directs the urban landscape architecture program. He was a landscape architect for Trenton from 1973 to 1978 and won a federal award for Trenton’s Mill Hill Park in 1976.
Robert Busch of Leonard Busch Associates on Parkway Avenue in Ewing was the structural engineer and Dennis Brophy of Waters & Bugbee, on Dickinson Avenue in Trenton, was the general contractor. Custom Fabrication Inc., in Harpursville, New York, did the ornamental steel, and Roman Fountains of Albuquerque, New Mexico, designed and engineered the fountain.
When Goodheart drew plans for the benches that face the street on two sides, he referred to a well-known bench made for the World’s Fair, so he calls them the Agabiti Fair Benches. Weintraub designed five big chaise lounges, complete with stools and tables, plus three unusual swirling benches (they swirl in an S curve), with tables. Each of the nine tables has been wired with an angled blue light.
Almost the entire site is meant for walking, half on brick and half on fine, crushed stone. Some of the benches are in the sun, and some in the shade of the 48 trees. One large London plane tree has been joined by 10 new ones, spaced 25 feet apart so that a truck could drive onto the plaza to unload, for instance, a portable stage or a bandstand. The other new trees are honey locusts, which offer a lacy shade cover and are known, like the plane tree, for being able to survive in urban environments.
Everything has been planned for safety and durability. For instance, there is no "standing water," which could be a health or safety hazard. Water jets direct the water at the obelisk, and children of all ages can stand near the obelisk and get wet, but the water falls into an in-ground drain.
This site has been public land since 1975, and previously it hosted a school. In the mid 1980s the plaza was dedicated to Armondo Agabiti, who, as a boy, came from Italy in 1905 and was an independent contractor for Roebling Works. His son, the late Octavio "Tommy" Agabiti, also had a contracting company until the mid 1980s. Armondo Agabiti’s namesake grandson is working for a Mercer County Freeholder.
The plaza project is part of the overall improvements to Roebling Avenue, which had been identified as a major artery leading to the Chambersburg District, says Francis Blanco, Trenton’s director of recreation, natural resources, and culture. Improvements to the avenue included streetscaping (plantings and beautification), wayfinding (directional signs), and identification of major venues. "To take it to the next level, we thought it would be wonderful if within this district we had a place where people of different ages could gather," says Blanco. "As the neighborhood changed, the park wasn’t up to par with the business district that had been created."
The city held forums with the architects, residents, and the Chambersburg Restaurant Association to determine the basic character of the space. "The city liked the approach of an outdoor living room for the community – a traditional arrangement, what you would expect to find in an Italian piazza or a small city in Mexico or a place in Paris," says Goodheart.
"Then we sold them on custom work, to design traditional sorts of furnishings in new ways," says Goodheart. The city authorities "were sorry when it was incredibly delayed," he admits. "Even Alan Meinster from Marsilio’s would see me driving away from the site and ask, ‘When are we going to see something?’"
"Once the work got started, we found other work needed to be addressed, and so it took a little longer than we had expected," says Blanco. "But we thought it was important for the job to be done well. The plaza is important to overall development in the city."
Goodheart ran into Weintraub, his long-time friend, when they both showed up at City Hall to bid on the plaza project. They decided not to submit individual bids but to join forces and work on it together.
"We saw it as an opportunity to create a space that works well in traditional ways – as a community place and a gathering place – and provide some added excitement with new forms and materials," says Goodheart. "It matters to cities, and it matters to us, that the work we do is to create outdoor living places."
Alan Goodheart ASLA Landscape Architect, 255 South Harrison Street, Princeton 08540-5609. 609-924-9041; fax, 609-924-6148.
Three or four blocks from Agabiti Plaza is the Roebling Market complex, another venture that aims to upgrade downtown Trenton and keep the Roebling memories alive. Ron Berman rehabilitated and opened the 15-acre $19 million project in 1996, three years before he developed Sovereign Bank Arena.
Roebling Market was in the news recently because its anchor retail tenant, SuperG supermarket, closed. "It’s part of a major corporate restructuring," say Berman, who believes the SuperG business has been taken over by an affiliate, StopNShop. "SuperG still has five years on the lease, and we have had three or four expressions of interest from some other companies in the site," he says.
The market has roughly 120,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and 50,000 feet in an office building tucked next to a Light Rail transit stop. The anchor office tenants are the Children’s Home Society, which owns the building, and the Social Security Administration, which attracts lots of traffic. Last fall it moved from East State Street, where there was a parking problem, and it occupies gleaming new offices on the second floor.
Except for the supermarket, Berman’s holdings at Roebling Plaza are fully leased. But three or four older buildings, including a warehouse on the corner of Hamilton, are owned by the county and remain unoccupied. They total about 200,000 square feet. In the hope of creating a media center in Trenton, the county signed a lease with Hollywood-based Manex, but Manex has not moved in nor have renovations begun.
If Roebling Avenue has been spruced up, there is a lot of work to be done on Clinton Avenue, says Berman. "The whole strip between Roebling Plaza and the railroad station is a major street that connects the station to Chambersburg," says Berman, "and it needs street improvements."
R. Berman Development, 150 West State Street, Suite 220, Box 4571, Trenton 08611-0571. Ron Berman, chairman. 609-393-2700; fax, 609-393-0447.