Tracing the Roots of the Roebling Redevelopment Project

In 1984 Clifford Zink, a student in the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, was assigned to study an urban neighborhood in need of redevelopment. While most of his classmates chose areas near the Columbia campus, Zink was living in Princeton and familiar with Trenton and the neighborhood that includes the old Roebling buildings. His class paper evolved into a proposal for a mixed-used redevelopment of the site. By 1985 community, business, and civic leaders had formed the nonprofit Trenton Roebling Community Development Corporation (TRCDC) to promote the adaptive re-use of 40 acres and about 1.5 million square feet of historic buildings.

In January, 1987, Zink — by then executive director of the TRCDC — published a draft redevelopment plan for the site. The excerpt below from the 30-year-old document summarizes the historic past of the site and the potential it still promises:

The redevelopment of the former John A. Roebling’s Sons Company industrial complex and the adjacent American Steel & Wire Co. site presents an exceptional opportunity to the City of Trenton. This opportunity is based on the site’s four key resources:

1. Location. The site lies six blocks from the Trenton Amtrak Station and the Route 1 interchange at Market Street, Greenwood Avenue, and South Clinton Avenue; one mile southeast from the capital center; and adjacent to future Route 129, which will be constructed on the former Delaware & Raritan Canal right of way. When completed between 1990 and 1992, this four-lane highway will provide direct access to the site from the Route 1 corridor to the north, from Burlington County and the NJ Turnpike to the south, and from Bucks County to the west.

2. History. The Roeblings are internationally prominent for the engineering of suspension bridges, particularly the design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The family-owned business manufactured wire rope and related products for use around the world, and contributed significantly to the growth and development of Trenton, with more than 8,000 employees at its peak.

The Roebling name offers substantial marketing value in attracting people to the site. The American Steel and Wire Co. site incorporates buildings constructed by Peter Cooper for his Trenton Iron Co., and also buildings erected for the Trenton Locomotive and Machinery Co. Cooper’s iron business was particularly important in developing the I-beam for use in buildings, and he later founded Cooper Union and the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York.

3. Architecture. The Roebling and American Steel and Wire Co. buildings are bold examples of the industrial era’s architecture and craftsmanship. Built of heavy masonry, timber, and steel frame construction, the design of the earlier buildings is based on classical architecture principles, and of the Iater ones on the International Style of architecture. The buildings present a history of American industrial architecture from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. The survival of so many historic industrial buildings in one area is exceptional. The visual and physical integration of the buildings and the site with the adjacent residential communities, which were built literally around the factories, adds significantly to the character of Trenton.

4. Community. The Roebling site lies between Chambersburg and the South Broad Street communities, two of the city’s most thriving, stable, and well known neighborhoods. Rich in Old World ties and ethnic pride, the largely Italian Chambersburg neighborhood draws both city and suburban residents to its high-quality, family-owned restaurants and stores. The owner occupancy rate is over 90 percent, with many houses remaining in the same family for generations. . .

Based on these resources, no other development site in the city offers as much potential as the Roebling area for creating an attractive, human-scale environment that combines the best qualities of the past and present. The highest and best use of the site is a conversion to a mixed-use redevelopment that provides housing, office, research, shopping, and cultural opportunities. . . Mixed-use will create the highest market synergy and provide the greatest economic and cultural attractions at the site . . .

Over the years various pieces have of the redevelopment plan have been put in place. Some have fallen by the wayside. Others remain. The Chambersburg neighborhood is now in transition, with Hispanic restaurants replacing the longtime Italian venues.

The Roebling Lofts project is an important part of the housing plan — rental apartments that complement senior housing built in the neighborhood in 1996.

Zink, now working as an architectural historian and living in Princeton, says that more development is needed. A restaurant, bar, or coffeehouse in the immediate vicinity of the Roebling Lofts would be a welcome amenity. So would an office building or light manufacturing facility that would attract office or high tech jobs. As Zink adds, “everyone will be watching how quickly the Roebling Lofts fill up.”

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