The Roebling Lofts groundbreaking heralds a new chapter in the redevelopment of the Roebling Works in Trenton’s Chambersburg section, and illustrates the long timeframe, evolving challenges, and refreshing opportunities in urban revitalization. While many cities look for saviors from away, the Roebling redevelopment continues to spring from local initiative, creativity, and dogged perseverance.
The mixed-use redevelopment effort began in 1985 and coalesced with the Roebling Market, offices, and senior housing in 1996. Some early components failed to secure funding but new initiatives like Art All Night and the Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market have attracted tens of thousands to the Roebling Machine Shop — the site’s spectacular gathering and event space — and the adjacent Millyard Park.
Chambersburg meanwhile has morphed from Trenton’s Little Italy to its Latino Centro, the thriving hub of its burgeoning and entrepreneurial Latino population, and the emerging demographics and initiatives are creating a new urban dynamic for Trenton.
John Roebling founded his wire rope factory on the Delaware & Raritan Canal in 1848 and his Brooklyn Bridge later made him and Trenton famous. Roebling’s sons grew the factory into Trenton’s largest employer and the Chambersburg community around it swelled with European immigrants attracted by good paying jobs and compact and comfortable row homes. By the time the Roebling mills began shutting down in the 1960s, the ‘Burg, as residents call it, was regionally known for its lively Italian neighborhoods replete with notable food shops, bakeries, and restaurants.
Mercer County leaders wisely acquired the Roebling headquarters at 175 South Broad Street in 1969 for its administrative offices, but the factory buildings on the rest of the 25-acre Roebling complex languished with warehousing and light manufacturing that provided few jobs and minimal maintenance.
The State’s 1974 plan to build Route 129 on the old D&R Canal right-of-way to link Route 1 in Trenton with Interstates 195-295 in Hamilton promised highway access to Roebling and other underutilized factories. To highlight the redevelopment potential, John Clarke, Trenton’s director of housing and development, and Fred Travisano, a principal planner there, initiated an architectural studio in 1978 at the Cooper Union School of Architecture, their alma mater. The resulting “Trenton Industrial Corridor Study” showcased their students’ schematics for adapting the factory buildings for housing and other uses.
In the late 1970s a plan for a Chambersburg Mall with a K-Mart on the eastern block of the Roebling Complex stalled amidst opposition to the big chain store and to the destruction of the factory buildings, where many residents had worked and which the state determined to be historically significant. Soaring interest rates in 1979 and 1980 killed the mall project, but it was clear that any proposed redevelopment of the Roebling Complex needed strong community support.
Two ‘Burg natives emerged as key proponents of redeveloping the Roebling factory with substantial community benefits. Anthony Carabelli, after two terms on Trenton Council, was elected in 1981 to the Mercer County Board of Freeholders, where he has recently announced his retirement after 36 years of service. Anthony Anastasio was elected to fill Carabelli’s place as East Ward Councilman.
In the fall of 1984 while enrolled in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, I studied the Roebling factory for a term project in urban revitalization in Professor Sigurd Grava’s Structure of Cities course. Tom Ogren, who was then Trenton’s director of housing and development, and Ken Russo, a Trenton planner, provided much assistance and background information.
To me the Chambersburg community around the factory embodied the human scale, amenities, affordable housing, close interactions, “eyes on the street,” and other desirable urban characteristics that Jane Jacobs identified in her seminal work — The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
“The Roebling Works” plan I completed that December, 1984, outlined a mixed-use redevelopment that would preserve the historic buildings, benefit the surrounding community, and provide a regional attraction for Trenton. I numbered the three Roebling blocks based on their historic development: Block 1 between South Broad Street and South Clinton Avenue, Block 2 on the east, and Block 3 on the north. Ken Russo introduced me to Councilman Anastasio, who gathered community activists to consider the plan.
With their positive reaction we formed the non-profit Trenton Roebling Community Development Corporation (TRCDC) to refine and promote the plan. Kevin Wolfe, a Chambersburg attorney and resident, became the chair, and Nancy Beer, a Princeton resident working at the Council on N.J. Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, served as vice chair. Board members were business owners, professionals, artists, and community activists from Trenton, Hamilton, Lawrence, and Princeton, including Frank Bilancio, Dr. Jane Chiurko, Ed Cortesini, Anton Geurds, Dr. John Hamada, Myrna Kushner, Yuki Laurenti, Russell Paolene, and Bill Watson. I became the executive director.
With a seed grant from Trenton Council initiated by Councilmen Anastasio and John Cipriano, and a matching grant from Mercer County initiated by Freeholders Carabelli, Doug Palmer, and Bob Prunetti, who is now the president of the Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce, TRCDC refined the plan with input from civic associations and community groups to include senior housing and a supermarket.
We also obtained input from the three private property owners of the Roebling Complex: Lawrence-based DKM Properties, headed by Ron Berman, a Princeton resident, Trenton native and former City redevelopment attorney; Norpak, a Newark paper company; and Apex Lumber, headed by Ted Goitein on South Broad Street across from the Mercer County offices.
In 1987 with funding from the State Historic Preservation Office and DKM, TRCDC engaged the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), a division of the National Park Service, to document the Roebling factory and the Trenton Iron Co./American Steel & Wire Co. factory across the Canal. You can peruse the fine photographs of Jet Lowe, HAER’s award-winning photographer, at www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/nj1096/
The HAER documentation confirmed that the Roebling Machine Shop, built in 1890 and expanded in 1901, is the most significant building in the complex. When I first walked into the Machine Shop during my Columbia study it was filled with Apex Lumber’s drywall and insulation, but its magnificence was unmistakable. With its tall central nave, side aisles and second floor galleries, I thought it was the proverbial cathedral of industry. With its prominent location on Block 1 it clearly had the potential to become a unique gathering place that could attract many people to the site. Professor Grava had suggested a museum for the redevelopment and this was definitely the building for it.
With a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in 1987, TRCDC developed the Invention Factory concept to convert the Machine Shop into a museum and learning center highlighting Roebling innovations and hands-on science for school children and families.
The HAER documentation also highlighted the 1893 80-Ton Roebling Rope Machine, another historic gem, in the 1930 Roebling Rope Shop on Block 1. In the 1930s it produced three-inch suspender ropes for the George Washington and Golden Gate Bridges. The Smithsonian had expressed interest in it, but at 64-feet tall, it was too big to move. TRCDC worked with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers to have the 80-Ton Machine designated as its 93rd National Mechanical Engineering Landmark at a 1989 ceremony that attracted well over 100 people. The brochure on the Rope Machine that I prepared for ASME is available at: https://www.asme.org/about-asme/who-we-are/engineering-history/landmarks/139-roebling-80-ton-wire-rope-machine
Negotiations in 1988 among TRCDC, the city, DKM, and Pellettieri Homes, a non-profit dedicated to the memory of George Pellettieri, cofounder of the Pellettieri Rabstein & Altman law firm in West Windsor, outlined a first phase of the redevelopment on Roebling Block 1. DKM would rehabilitate its 1930 Roebling Rope Shops for offices and a Roebling Market retail center with a supermarket, and it would preserve the 80-Ton Rope Machine for future interpretation.
Pellettieri Homes in collaboration with Penrose Properties of Philadelphia would acquire and rehabilitate the 1899 Roebling Wire Mill on Block 1 for senior housing. The city would acquire the 1890-1901 Roebling Machine Shop from Apex Lumber for the Invention Factory learning center, and Mercer County would acquire and develop a Millyard Park open space area. The city-owned 1897 Wire Storage building on Block 2 would be renovated for Trenton’s Passage Theatre Company, which was founded in 1985.
TRCDC drafted the Roebling Area Redevelopment Plan with detailed preservation guidelines for the historic factory buildings and for infill construction. With support from Doug Palmer, who was elected Trenton mayor in 1990, and refinements by his new Director of Housing and Development, Alan Mallach, the City Council officially adopted the plan.
After a meeting with State Treasury officials in 1989, Governor Thomas Kean congratulated TRCDC on its “well-thought-out and creative reuse plan,” and said that the treasurer would consider a state lease for offices at Roebling provided it leveraged larger private investment. After Jim Florio became governor in 1989, associate treasurer Rick Wright, a Princeton resident, worked closely with Assemblyman John Watson to secure state support for the Roebling redevelopment. In October 1991 Governor Florio came to the Roebling Complex to announce that the New Jersey. Housing Mortgage Finance Agency (HMFA) would move there from the suburbs to anchor DKM’s financing for the Roebling Market. HMFA would in turn help finance the adjacent Pellettieri Homes senior apartments. The state would also provide $4 million to the City for site amenities and for acquisition of the Machine Shop for TRCDC to develop into the Invention Factory. Governor Florio told the assembled development parties and dignitaries:
“This is what the public and private sectors can accomplish when they work together toward a common goal. We’re not abandoning our cities. Some have walked away from the cities. Not here in New Jersey in the 1990s.”
To help people understand the national significance of the Roebling Works, TRCDC secured funding from the New Jersey Historical Commission in 1992 to publish “Spanning the Industrial Age: The John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, Trenton, 1848-1974,” which I co-authored with Dorothy Hartman. With funding from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, TRCDC engaged Telequest Inc., headed by Princeton resident Dick Blofsom and then based in West Windsor, to produce a video of Roebling oral histories titled Now You’re Set For Life, which is what one former worker’s mother told him when he got a job at Roebling at the age of 19.
To highlight the potential of the performing arts at Roebling, Veronica Brady, Passage Theater’s artistic director, commissioned playwright Jim McGrath, a graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary, to write “Roebling Steel” for the raw space in the 1897 Wire Storage building on Block 2. McGrath portrayed an Italian family whose livelihood depended on the factory through three generations from immigrants to assimilated grandchildren, and the play ran to a packed house for two weeks in May, 1992. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it “extraordinary community theater.”
Richard Bilotti, a Passage board member and the publisher of the Trenton Times, spearheaded the effort to transform the Wire Storage building into the Performing Arts Center of Trenton (PACT), and he raised funds to engage Clarke & Caton, a Trenton-based architecture firm headed by John Clarke, the former city planning director, to design it. The concept tied in well with the many Italian restaurants in the surrounding neighborhood and with the potential for shared parking on the Roebling site. Theatergoers could enjoy an evening of dining and theatre while parking in office spaces that would be open at night.
While the state was finalizing its Roebling support, Governor Florio unexpectedly lost his re-election bid to Christine Todd Whitman. The TRCDC-DKM-City-County coalition persevered with crucial support from Assemblyman Watson to secure the Whitman administration’s approval of the State funding. TRCDC concurrently won a $1 million ISTEA grant from the New Jersey Department of Transportation and a $1.25 million New Jersey Historic Trust grant to begin the exterior rehabilitation of the Machine Shop for the Invention Factory.
With support from the Dodge Foundation, the Fund for New Jersey, the James Kerney Foundation, and Bristol Meyers Squibb, the Invention Factory developed a science kit program, run by Judy Winkler, a Mill Hill resident, and Hartford Gongaware, a recent Princeton University graduate, that became quite popular with Trenton and suburban schools.
Twenty years after designating Route 129, the state DOT completed its construction in 1994 along the former D&R Canal to link Route 1 in Trenton with the intersection of Routes 195-295 in Hamilton. With a traffic light at Hamilton Avenue and a ramp to South Broad Street/Chambersburg, Route 129 now provided direct highway access from the suburbs to the Roebling Complex.
New Jersey Transit soon approved building the light rail River Line between Trenton and Camden on an existing right-of-way that paralleled Route 129 through Trenton. The River Line promised a direct rail connection to the Roebling Works at a Hamilton Avenue Station.
The Roebling Works’ first phase broke ground on April, 1995, and in June, 1996, Governor Whitman presided over the opening of the Roebling Market, HMFA offices, and the Millyard. As she told the opening day crowd of well over 500:
“Here, where a family-owned manufacturing business employed thousands of workers at its peak and transformed the city of Trenton, we inaugurate a new era of job creation, of entrepreneurship, of transformation. Rather than making Roebling cables we are creating hope and opportunity. We are building bridges — bridges that join the public, private and for-profit sectors. Bridges that link residents with the businesses that will serve and employ them. Bridges that span the great history of this complex and connect a glorious past to a dynamic future.”
Clarke Caton & Hintz designed the Roebling Market and the exterior of the HMFA offices in the 1930s Roebling Rope Shop. John Clarke supervised the design while John Hatch, a resident of Mill Hill and a graduate of the Princeton University School of Architecture, started as one of the team architects and wound up as the project architect. Michael Farewell of Farewell Mills & Gatsch in Princeton designed the HMFA interior, for which FMG received an international design honors award from the American Institute of Architects.
In 1997 Pellettieri Homes opened with 75 senior apartments. Clarke Caton Hintz designed the project with a third floor addition to complement the two stories of the 1899 Roebling Mill, with John Clarke again served as the partner-in-charge and John Hatch as the project architect.
Since TRCDC initiated the redevelopment effort in 1985, it had taken 12 years through three gubernatorial administrations to complete the first phase. That was a lot longer than I had anticipated when I helped start TRCDC in 1985, and much had changed since then for the community, for the project, and for me personally as I now had a family with two young children.
After launching the Invention Factory with its initial financing, I left in the fall of 1997 to make way for an experienced science educator to develop its programs and exhibits. The new leadership morphed the project into the Museum of Contemporary Science (MOSC), and secured funding for partial interior rehabilitation of the Machine Shop for a visitor center and interim programs.
In December, 1997, Bob Prunetti, who became county executive in 1992, presided over the groundbreaking for a 10,600-seat arena on the site of the Trenton Iron/AS&W factory across Route 129 from the Roebling Works. Founded by Peter Cooper in 1850, the Trenton Iron/AS&W factory had produced wire and wire rope in competition with Roebling for over a century. DKM Properties bought the 20-acre factory for redevelopment after it closed in 1987.
The arena represented a major increase in the County’s involvement in the redevelopment of the Roebling area, which made sense as the county administration occupied the former Roebling headquarters on South Broad Street, and the city was focusing its redevelopment efforts on downtown Trenton.
DKM completed the arena and the county took possession in 1999, with the Trenton Titans hockey team, co-owned by DKM president Ron Berman, as the primary tenant. County executive Prunetti and Mayor Palmer presided over the opening and dropped the first puck on the ice. To provide overflow parking for the Arena, the County acquired Roebling Block 3 — the northern Block — and demolished a few of its interior buildings.
The arena, which is now named for Sun National Bank, had replaced all the Trenton historic Iron/AS&W buildings south of Hamilton Avenue, but local preservationists opposed the demolition of the notable 1875 Trenton Iron Co. Wire Mill on the north side. Freeholder Brian Hughes, who was in his first term on the Mercer County Board, led the preservation effort and saved the building.
By 2000 Chambersburg’s Italian population had declined as older residents died and others moved to the suburbs. Several of the well-known Italian restaurants and other Italian businesses had closed. The Latino population that was relatively small in 1985 was growing significantly as new immigrants moved into the row houses around the Roebling Works, and many Latino businesses were opening to serve them.
The first supermarket that opened in the Roebling Market in 1996 had closed after a year or so. The suburban operator was seemingly unprepared for the changing demographics in what it offered, and the supermarket remained vacant for a while.
TRCDC had also changed. A few founding members had died and others had moved on. Attracting new immigrant residents to the board was unsuccessful as most were busy learning English, working multiple jobs, and learning the ways of their new county. The remaining board members focused their efforts on attracting housing developers for Building 101, the four-story 1917 rope shop on the county-owned Block 3 that overlooks the Roebling Market, but as nothing materialized TRCDC became dormant.
Without the previous strong community support, the Performing Arts Center of Trenton couldn’t attract additional funding and also became dormant.
In 2002 the county announced the sale of Block 3, which it no longer needed for Arena parking, to Manex Entertainment to build a movie production facility there. Manex unfortunately went bankrupt in 2004, and the county spent the next few years getting the property back.
While the Manex collapse was disappointing, New Jersey Transit’s opening of its light rail River Line in 2004 brightened prospects for the future of Block 3 and for Chambersburg. From the River Line’s Hamilton Avenue station on the western edge of Block 3, travelers now had direct rail access to both New York and Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Science (MOSC) completed the Machine Shop’s partial rehabilitation, designed by Clarke Caton & Hintz, that enabled the building to be used for programs and special events. When the economy tanked in 2008, MOSC’s funding dried up and it handed the building back to the city.
Unexpected good fortune arose amidst the gloom that year when Trenton’s Artworks rented the Machine Shop for its second Art All Night event showcasing the work of local artists. Artworks’ first Art All Night in 2007 had filled its studio and exhibition space in downtown Trenton to capacity, but Art All Night 2008 attracted a much larger crowd and demonstrated the Machine Shop’s magnetic attraction as a premiere, and cool, event space.
In another piece of good news, the County resumed possession of Block 3 and, in spite of the global financial crisis, Phil Miller, the executive director of the Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA), issued an RFP for its redevelopment. When the County awarded the project in 2009 to HHG Development LLC, a “hometown developer,” Brian Hughes, who was elected county executive in 2007, said about the HHG partners, “They have a history of working in the city, and they obviously have a commitment to the city.”
The three HHG partners live in Mill Hill and have more than 20 years of redevelopment experience in the City. John Hatch has worked on the design of four projects at the Roebling Works since 1994 and is now a partner at Clarke Caton & Hintz. David Henderson, who is also an architect, started rehabbing Trenton properties in partnership with Hatch in 1994. Michael Goldstein is a hi-tech entrepreneur who joined Hatch and Henderson to form HHG in 2004 and they completed the conversion of the Old Trenton Cracker Factory to condominium apartments in 2009.
In 1912 MCIA rehabilitated the 1875 Wire Mill across from the Arena on Hamilton Avenue for its offices and retail space, and it’s now a fine example of adaptive reuse of a great old factory. And its presence has recently stimulated some significant private investment: the New Jersey Association of Realtors is currently completing its new headquarters at the intersection of Hamilton Avenue and South Broad Street across from the Arena.
For HHG, securing financing for Block 3 amidst the economic slowdown, changing state and federal incentive programs, and municipal corruption trials was daunting, but the partners doggedly persevered and at the end of January they started work on converting Building 101 into 138 loft apartments, a $35 million project: http://roeblinglofts.com/
Mayor Kenneth Jackson is a big supporter and believes the project will be “a great catalyst project for our economic revival.” The HHG partners are counting on renting to millennials who want to live in cities, use public transit like the River Line, and don’t mind the “gritty” aspects of an evolving urban community.