When Governor Chris Christie announced at the end of 2016 his plan to replace three decaying state office buildings with two new ones, it sounded benign. After all, it was time for the buildings to be replaced.
But when Trenton business owners began looking into the plan and found the new offices were to be built further from the downtown businesses, they saw it as a missed opportunity to create a public private partnership that could help stimulate additional downtown business and provide tax ratables for the city.
When a request for state to reconsider the plan seem to fall on deaf ears, Trenton business owners and community supporters created a group, Stakeholders — Allied for the Core of Trenton (ACT).
Since then it has become a contest between the will of the state and the hopes of a community of business owners and Trenton residents.
And with just minutes left in the final quarter of his tenure, Team Christie is playing full court for a final victory — with the State House Commission overturning the commission’s earlier decision to table the $220 million building plans until Governor-elect Murphy’s administration could review them. A combination of administrative and union pressure were reported as the reason.
Former U.S. Senator, prominent Trenton business owner and developer, and proponent of the public private partnership approach Robert Torricelli stepped into the game.
In an editorial for New Jersey Spotlight, Torricelli fired several questions that got to the heart of the contest:
“Who decided that a new state office building plan for Trenton should only consider state-owned land as possible development sites?” Torricelli asked. “Who decided not to use the leverage of a state lease to develop mixed-use residential, commercial, and state office buildings? Who decided not to gain tax ratables for the city by attracting private developers?”
Torricelli then asserted that since Christie’s plan “ignores every lesson of urban planning in the last 40 years. It’s no wonder that no one claims credit for the concept or design.
“The construction of two suburban-style office buildings on state land surrounded by surface parking lots, with no mass transit and no integrated residential or commercial development, was an understandable proposal by the (former governors) Meyner, Hughes, or even Cahill administrations. By the end of the Byrne administration in 1981, we knew better. Downtown urban areas do not need to attract thousands of cars. They need to attract residents or mass-transit commuters to the greatest extent possible. Office workers can contribute to the urban landscape, not by our creating self-contained boxes, but rather by integrating them into the urban environment through mixed-use development. That is what we need to do now in Trenton.”
He then looked at what has become one of Christie’s final-days enablers: the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA), the organization that will secure the bonds for the renovation.
The EDA is the same organization participating in the Christie New Jersey State House renovation project. That plan has the EDA renting the New Jersey State House for a dollar, securing bonds to renovate the statehouse, and currently renting it back to the state at the cost of the bonds, $300 million.
That plan had several lawmakers taking the administration to court, claiming that it bypassed current legislative approval. A state court judge looked at a similar case and approved the bond for rent plan.
Coincidentally, the chairman of the EDA is Thomas P. Scrivo, Christie’s former chief counsel and the state selected the law firm Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi PC as state house bond counsel. Partner Jeffrey Chiesa is Christie’s former attorney general. The EDA will also use bonds for the new office project. And EDA board member Fred Dumont is also the business manager of Heat & Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers Local 89 and publicly criticized the State House Commission’s earlier decision to have the incoming Murphy administration review the state office renovations project.
“The irony,” Torricelli wrote, “is that the New Jersey Economic Development Authority has been the promoter and major investor in mixed-use, public-private partnerships, in cities throughout the state. The result has been creative projects from Jersey City, Newark, and New Brunswick to Camden. Why not Trenton?
“Rather than even test the market for private partners, the NJEDA is planning another massive bond offering, exacerbating New Jersey’s notoriously overextended debt burden, to construct two simple state buildings. Which raises the issue again, whose proposal is this?”
But Torricelli’s public critique was unheeded. On Monday, December 18, the State Leasing and Space Utilization Committee gave the green light for the project in a session that replaced public comments with a vote-like count of who was for or against the project.
Legislators, however, were allowed to make presentations and Assemblyman John Wisniewski criticized the project for using the EDA to secure bonds that would add more debt to the state. “This is a way around having the voters authorize it,” said Wisniewski, one of the lawmakers who fought Christie’s state house renovation plan and is now appealing the court’s decision.
As a response to state’s push, the Stakeholders started a public funding campaign and secured Princeton attorney Bruce Afran, who also on December 18 filed a lawsuit in the name of 10 plaintiffs. Included among them are Trenton City Council President Zachary Chester, former Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer, and New Jersey Assemblyman and Trenton resident Reed Gusciora. The suit claims the bond issue is illegal and violates public policy and calls for the state to stop the Christie Administration from using bond monies until the matter is resolved.
Meanwhile the clock keeps ticking towards Christie’s final day, January 16, and the contest continues.