I am down here in Trenton because I am a fan of the city and a fan of train stations. The cover story in this issue documents the enormous interest in commercial and residential real estate opportunities in the vicinity of the Trenton train station and the light rail River Line right across the street. As Kathleen McGinn Spring reports in her story, Trenton has emerged as one of the major transportation hubs in the Boston-Washington corridor. If you want to get to Boston or Washington or even New York quickly you are best off starting from Trenton, not Princeton Junction. The fast trains don’t stop at the junction.
If you are a far-sighted employer and you want an office your employees can reach by mass transit or by foot, Trenton is a possible choice. That light rail River Line passes by such residential enclaves of Cinnaminson, Burlington, and Bordentown, and it ends right next door to the Trenton station,
So what are the prospects in Trenton?
It won’t be easy — that’s for sure. Earlier this year I reported on the hopes and dreams for redevelopment of the 350 acres around the Princeton Junction train station (U.S. 1, May 28). The hope there, fueled by West Windsor Township and encouraged by New Jersey Transit, is that some of the acres of surface parking can be made more efficient by parking garages and that other acres can be converted to office and retail development along with some residential units to create a true transit village.
It hasn’t been easy. Steve Goldin, profiled in my article, still has not gained the full support of the Township Committee. And the committee still is arguing among itself over exactly what to do and how best to proceed.
A new player has recently injected himself into the mix: Richard Dreher, principal of the Nassau Street-based Dreher Group and a developer of strip malls and Rite Aid pharmacies. The Dreher Group already owns the site of the new Rite Aid being built on Princeton-Hightstown Road in the redevelopment area. Now it has a contract to buy the Acme shopping center across the street. So if he buys it, what will Dreher do with it? Dreher isn’t talking.
As I walk around the area surrounding the Trenton station, I see obstacles that are no less daunting. From the 30-foot tall “Zenith” sculpture that is the landmark of the $50 million station makeover, I head off in six minute walks in all four directions. Heading southeast, across the tracks, I come to the block of Greenwood Avenue where developer Dan Brenna has his office. Across the street, sitting just above the mainline tracks, is where an office tower may someday be located. Who would ever need a car to work there?
Six minutes to the north, I find the Lee “Union-Alls” building, the site of the old clothing factory. The banner on the building proclaims that urban-style and presumably upscale residential lofts will be coming soon. How soon? Across the street the Salvation Army serves its clientele, a sharp contrast to the potential customer base of the lofts.
Then I head to the northeast toward the government offices. To get there I walk past the Mercer Cemetery of Trenton — its gates are padlocked, which tells me something. But there are also glimmers of hope. Between a vacant lot and City Hall stands an immaculately restored Victorian style building, now home to a law firm.
Off to the southwest, I’m thinking, I will find the much ballyhooed residential enclave, Mill Hill. I have been there before, but only by car. The walk proves to be an impossible trek. Within two minutes I come to a maze of concrete ribbon — exit and entrance ramps that would deter most pedestrians.
Meanwhile I am still looking for those Sunday newspapers. Within six minutes of the train station there is only one deli that I can find, tucked into the ground floor level of a state office building, but it is closed. The sidewalk vending machines offer the Trentonian. But not a single Trenton Times box has any copies of the Sunday edition, suggesting either that the paper sells out early on Sunday or that the distributor didn’t bother to fill them on this dormant day in downtown.
I learn later that I could have found the newspapers downstairs from the station waiting room at a trackside newsstand. I learn also that I could have augmented the Dunkin Donuts coffee with a proper breakfast if I had walked a few more minutes and reached the Mill Hill neighborhood.
I also learn that Trenton’s government, perhaps feeling more pressed that its suburban counterparts in West Windsor, are four-square behind the train station developments. Properties that don’t fit in will be condemned. The Salvation Army will be relocated to give way to the armies of white collar professionals and urban dwellers. And the streets and highways around the train station will be made pedestrian friendly.
Those are good signs, along with the Dunkin Donuts sign. On the other hand, there is one potential discouraging sign. It’s at the Sunoco gas station just across the tracks from the station. There a gallon of gas is advertised at $3.21. It will take more than that, we can be sure, to get workers out of their cars and onto the trains.