On the fourth floor of Building 101 of the Roebling Steel complex, there is a hulking, room-sized steel machine. Great beams and struts are held together with bolts and rivets, and pulleys and wheels are fixed throughout, giving it the appearance of a medieval torture device.
And in a way, it was a torture device. A hundred years ago, back when Roebling Lofts was Roebling Steel, the fatigue machine tested the steel cables made in the factory. Workers would put lengths of wire rope on the machinery, turn the wheels, and stretch it to the breaking point to see how strong their product really was.
The early 20th century fatigue machine will be the centerpiece of a common lounge room, adding a brutalist touch to the 138-unit Roebling Lofts luxury apartment building now under construction inside the former industrial site. In some respects, the project is itself a stress test: can a developer’s dreams of transforming Trenton be brought to fruition? Or will the Roebling Lofts become yet another entry in the catalogue of failed attempts to build housing in the capital city?
The masterminds behind the Trenton Lofts are HHG Development, and they have every reason to be optimistic about their project, which recently began construction. Unlike many would-be Trenton saviors, the HHG principals have a history of successful re-use of old buildings in Trenton, albeit on a smaller scale.
Decades after the last industry fell silent at the old building, the sound of machinery and men at work can once again be heard. This time, it’s construction crews who are tearing apart and reconfiguring the old building in a $35 million project to create trendy and hyper-efficient lofts in the heart of Trenton’s arts and entertainment district.
“We are building this on spec, and we are confident it will be leased,” said Michael Goldstein, who is a principal of HHG alongside John Hatch and David Henderson.
The Roebling Lofts is the first piece of the Roebling Center, which is a plan to develop an entire block of old factory and warehouse buildings, directly adjacent to Route 129 and a River Line light rail station and blocks away from the Trenton Transit Center.
The Roebling Center plans include up to 200,000 square-feet of office space in other buildings, as well as four restaurants with outdoor dining surrounding a central square called the Railyard, which will double as a festival or concert venue. Two other buildings are earmarked for a total of 60 more loft apartments, and a 900-space parking garage is also planned.
HHG has been eying the Roebling complex since 2003, when it became apparent that a previous plan to turn the site into a film studio was never going to happen. Goldstein said the lofts will serve as the “proof of concept” needed to show that the rest of the complex is viable.
Once upon a time, Building 101 of the Roebling Steel complex in the Chambersburg section of Trenton was known as the Clark Street Rope Shop. Built in 1917, the factory building was used to make light and medium-gauge steel wire. It wasn’t the kind of cable that held up the Golden Gate Bridge, which Roebling made in other buildings nearby, but it was just as important to history. One use of that lighter wire was in holding together early airplanes, including the Spirit of St. Louis, which Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic.
HHG hopes the building will play a role in Trenton’s future as well as its past. Turning old factory buildings into trendy apartments is an old trick in the redevelopment playbook, and the four-story Building 101 seems particularly well suited for it. In its original incarnation, the building was airy and spacious with enormous glass windows. Those windows will remain, as will the exterior appearance of the old factory in order to preserve its historic status, thereby making it eligible for federal historic preservation funds.
The windows in the 16 to 20-foot high lofts will remain, but with high efficiency materials replacing the old. The building will boast numerous high-efficiency “green” features aimed at raising it to a LEED Gold-level certification. The common areas will be powered by rooftop solar panels.
The lofts were designed by Clarke Caton Hintz, where Hatch is an architect. A full 80 percent of the units will be market rate, Goldstein said. The smallest lofts, at around 750 square feet, will rent for $1,140 a month, while the larger two-bedroom units will start at $1,595. In each unit, a living room and kitchen are on the first floor, with bedrooms in the loft above. Top-floor units get skylights. Plans are available at www.roeblinglofts.com.
HHG is not a newcomer to the game of converting factories into living space. In 2008 the company took an old oyster cracker factory on Centre Street and converted it into 18 condos. The design, which took advantage of the existing architecture, even turned the old cracker ovens into rooms. That project also included rooftop solar panels. It didn’t take HHG long to sell every unit in the place. Goldstein said he and his partners learned many valuable lessons from that experience.
“We learned there was a distinct market segment that was attracted to sustainable features, so we view the sustainability not only as the right thing to do, but as something that can attract renters,” Goldstein said.
All three partners live in Mill Hill, the south Trenton neighborhood where HHG has restored 25 historic homes. Goldstein, a former technology entrepreneur, leads finance and marketing efforts, while Hatch does much of the design work alongside Henderson, who is also an architect as well as a construction manager.
The trio have deep roots in the community. Goldstein is married to June Ballinger, director of the Passage Theater, while Henderson and Hatch are a couple who co-parent two children with a lesbian couple who live two blocks away. Hatch and Henderson have lived in Trenton since the late 1980s, and Goldstein moved there from Princeton in the early 2000s.
Hatch and Henderson began development work in Trenton in the 1990s, focusing on the Mill Hill neighborhood. Their efforts became more ambitious after Goldstein joined the firm in 2004. Their biggest project so far was the Cracker Factory.
The Roebling complex is far larger in scope. Roebling uses a mix of funds from various sources. Some of it comes from state and federal grants, and the rest has been financed, Goldstein said. HHG owns Building 101 outright, and others on the block are still owned by the Mercer County Improvement Authority. However, HHG has the right to develop the entire parcel.
But who are these lofts for? Goldstein believes there is a market for the project among workers without children — younger renters, as well as retirees. While he expects the building to appeal to millennials, he said that it was open to anyone.
Henderson said the apartments being leased will pave the way for the commercial tenants who want a location where employees can live nearby. Because the project is located in a special tax zone that rewards companies for creating jobs, Henderson said the office space is best suited for a single tenant rather than breaking it up into small units.
“The likely commercial tenant is a knowledge industry tenant that’s looking for a mixed-use, urban, walkable location to attract the talent that they need,” he said. “The young generation — 20- to 30-year-olds coming onto the job market — are looking to live and work in a walkable community.”
Henderson compared the site to places like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Boston, where tech companies have moved into gritty areas and attracted further development.
But the goal is not to “gentrify” Trenton by changing the character of the neighborhood and replacing existing residents with interlopers. Goldstein hopes that Trenton’s existing middle class — especially successful Latino businesspeople — will see the appeal of the new apartments and move in. He also uses the neighborhood as a selling point, stressing the Latin-American businesses, including restaurants.
“I think most people think of Chambersburg as the place where the Italian restaurants used to be. And if you came here seven or eight years ago, that was probably a fair estimate. What people don’t realize is that every one of those old Italian restaurants has re-opened as a Latino restaurant,” he said.
The Roebling Complex is far from the first attempt to bring middle-class residents into the city. Kingsbury Towers, planned in the 1960s as housing for workers with well-paying city jobs, eventually became low-income housing and these days often makes headlines for crime taking place in its elevators and laundry rooms.
In a 2015 paper, “From Kingsbury to Mt. Laurel II: Low-Cost Housing and Exclusionary Zoning in Trenton, NJ,” a student at the College of New Jersey, Steven P. Rodriguez, used that project to illustrate Trenton’s housing problems since the 1960s. A low-income black neighborhood was razed to make way for the towers, increasing tensions between city government and black residents. Meanwhile, low-income housing became concentrated in the city because suburban communities refused to build affordable developments.
At first, many were optimistic about the towers, despite their unpopularity among many black residents. “To many, Kingsbury represented a new future for Trenton: As one journalist from the Trenton Times put it, ‘Fitch way III [the original name of Kingsbury] has great potential for attracting middle-income families back to center city’,” Rodriguez wrote.
Meanwhile, despite the legal victories of the Mount Laurel and Mount Laurel II decisions, which required towns to provide affordable housing, suburban communities did not build low-cost housing options in any significant numbers. “Having trouble finding affordable housing in the suburbs, low-income residents naturally flocked to an urban setting, which had more low-cost housing options. These zoning policies were ultimately detrimental to Trenton because they further hurt the tax base and increased the services that the city would need to provide to low-income residents,” Rodriguez wrote.
By the early 1980s, Trenton’s financial situation had deteriorated, and the Kingsbury development was in financial trouble. “The decline of Kingsbury suggests that trying to attract middle-income residents back to Trenton had proved to be an impossible task. The city could not simultaneously try to restore the tax base by attracting middle-income residents back to Trenton with Kingsbury and at the same time meet the needs of low-income residents. The balancing act would ultimately prove disastrous,” Rodriguez wrote.
More recent efforts at redevelopment seem to have adopted some of the lessons from Kingsbury’s shortcomings. For example, building the new homes in old industrial sites allows higher quality housing to be constructed without displacing existing neighborhoods.
In 2009, developer K. Hovnanian built a new community of 84 townhouses, Delaware Run, on the site of the old Champale brewery on Lamberton Street. Homes in that development were sold in the mid-$100,000 range, going up to the low $200s. The recently completed cigar factory project on Division Street, which offered 64 luxury lofts at a 40-60 mix of market rate and affordable rates, quickly sold out. Other projects include the 40-condo Whittaker project on South Broad Street, built on the side of an old hotel, and Clinton Lofts, a mixed-use building on Hamilton Avenue.
Developers are hopeful that trends in housing preferences among younger workers will lead to a reversal of Trenton’s fortunes.
“Mercer County needs Trenton in a way that it hasn’t before,” Henderson said. “The attitude of a lot of people in Mercer County is that ‘We need to help Trenton.’ It’s kind of this paternalistic thinking. But I think it’s going to be Trenton and other small cities around the state that will revitalize the economy and attract employers and people who want to live in a more urban, walkable, and diverse community. Just plunking something down on Route 1 isn’t going to cut it.”
Peter Kasabach, executive director of the nonprofit planning group New Jersey Future, is optimistic. “Using historic buildings and repurposing them is a great way of approaching urban development,” he said. Kasabach believes the lofts’ location is its real ace in the hole.
“This is a very good example of a project in the right time at the right place, and at the right scale,” he said. “Why now? We’re seeing nationally a huge shift in demand. People want urban areas that are compact and walkable and near transit, and Central Jersey doesn’t have a lot of options like that.”
Kasabach pointed to a New Jersey Future study that indicated that since 2008, population growth near train stations has outstripped the rest of the state. Said Kasabach: “You shouldn’t underestimate the national trends right now.”
HHG Development Associates, LLC, 165 Mercer Street, Trenton 08611; 609-474-0776; David Henderson, principal. www.hhgdev.com.