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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the
October 10, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights
With war clouds above and financial uncertainty running
rampant, large segments of the country’s economy appear headed for
a deepening recession. But for Trenton, New Jersey’s capital city,
this may not be so bad, and it could even be good.
"We didn’t have anything," says Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer,
"so there’s nothing they can take away from us." The city,
he explains, has not attracted the kind of private sector employers
that are now announcing lay-offs of 10,000, 12,000, 20,000 workers.
Its economy is rooted in state workers, a situation the mayor finds
irksome, but one that cushions the city from the abrupt loss of jobs
that is causing pain elsewhere.
In this economy, as in every economy, "somebody’s going to make
out," says Palmer, declaring, "Trenton will make out."
The city will move aggressively, he says, to market its office space
to companies forced out of New York City. "A lot of companies
are coming to New Jersey," he says. "But there’s no space,
and prices are sky high." Trenton has 1 million square feet of
vacant office space at rents far less than those along the Route 1
corridor, just a few miles north of the city’s center.
The mayor is thinking beyond the city’s existing stock of commercial
buildings, however, and way beyond the current economic crunch. He
is on a grand quest to "return Trenton to greatness," as he
proclaimed in his first inauguration speech in 1990.
Among the signs of recovery: the success of Waterfront Park and
Bank arena; the imminent opening of the new Marriott hotel and
center next to the recently refurbished War Memorial; a handful of
trendy bistros; venues created by Trenton Makes — the Urban Word
Cafe, the Conduit nightclub, and studio space for 27 artists); and
even a new monthly newspaper called the Trenton Downtowner — all
kindling a new Trenton tradition, First Fridays. In addition, the
Adelphia-Astoria, one of the grand movie houses, is due to reopen
at the corner of North Broad and Hanover streets.
As the hotel goes up, the annual Trenton Small Business Week, set
for Monday to Friday, October 15 to 19, sets an especially optimistic
tone (www.smallbizweek.com). See page 4.
Also of interest: On Thursday, October 11, at 5 p.m., the Trenton
Arts Connection, Arts Forum 2001, presents "Positioning Downtown
for the 21st Century" by Paul Levy, executive director of Center
City District in Philadelphia. Levy speaks at 5 p.m. at the
of the New Jersey Network (NJN) at 25 South Stockton Street. Call
609-695-8155 for information.
Doug Palmer is a Trenton native, born in the city in
1951, and he has never wanted to be anything but its mayor. "When
I was 10," he recounts, "I saw Mayor Holland throw out the
first pitch in a West End Little League game. I saw how everyone went
up and shook his hand, how everyone seemed to like him. I decided
I wanted to be mayor of Trenton."
Palmer’s parents, George Palmer, an accountant and Post Office
and Dorothy Palmer, who taught in the Hamilton school district for
26 years, encouraged his ambition, despite the fact there had never
been an African American mayor of the city. Now retired, both of his
parents still live in Trenton, as does his sister.
Trenton has always been a city of disparate neighborhoods. The West
End, where Palmer grew up, was heavily Jewish and prosperous in the
1950s, and boasted excellent public schools. He attended grade school
there, and went on to Bordentown Military Institute for high school.
He is a graduate of Hampton University (Class of 1973), where he
business and played baseball and football, but did not take part in
student government. There was only one elected office he wanted, and
he returned to Trenton right after graduation to start laying the
groundwork for obtaining it.
After serving as a Mercer County freeholder for eight years, Palmer
first ran for mayor in 1989 when longtime mayor Arthur Holland died
in office. He beat acting mayor Carmen Armenti by a mere 300 votes
amid charges that off-duty white police officers had been deployed
to discourage some blacks from voting.
Now, approaching the end of his third term, and with no serious
in sight for his 2002 run, Palmer is moving ahead, working at turning
a discarded industrial city into a 21st century urban showcase. He
plans to do this by reclaiming Trenton’s waterfront.
The city sits alongside a fast-moving stretch of the Delaware River
where fly fisherman cast on warm afternoons, great blue herons survey
the landscape from atop rounded rocks, youngsters swoop down gentle
rapids on inner tubes, and kayakers wind between small, wooded
Much of the city is now cut off from these scenes by Route 29, about
which Palmer can’t do much, and by parking lots, which he plans to
In his mind’s eye, Palmer sees multi-use high rises going up on vast
tracts now used to accommodate state workers’ automobiles during
Sitting in his wood paneled office in City Hall, which lies hard by
the whizzing traffic on Route 1, the mayor swivels in his chair,
in all directions as he describes the parking lots that take up so
much of his city’s land. Finally, when words can not adequately
the scourge of asphalt, he calls for Dennis Gonzalez, the city’s
director of housing and economic development, to bring in an aerial
map of the city. Gonzalez places the map, a good four-feet wide, on
the mayor’s conference table.
"Look at that. Look what they’ve done to my city," Palmer
says, running his finger along a nearly-unbroken line of deep parking
lots starting at the city’s southern border, near the Trenton Makes
bridge, and marching north to the state capitol.
The city already owns two of the parking lots, both at the foot of
Market Street, near the Trent House and the Justice Complex. Palmer
plans to acquire many of the others from the state, even though he
knows the state "is going to squawk." In his vision, state
workers will stow their cars in multi-story garages along with the
automobiles of the private sector workers and condo owners whose
and homes will sit in high rises above the garages.
Public policy gurus have been quoted of late declaring that New
burgeoning population is leapfrogging over the state’s cities, leaving
them for dead. Priced out of West Windsor and Princeton, companies
and families are looking to areas like Burlington County, where it
is still possible to find reasonably priced offices and new homes
with all the amenities, and a little lawn, too.
Reminded of these statements, Palmer points to his aerial map once
more. "When they say that, they’re thinking of this," he says,
putting his finger on older neighborhoods of tightly-packed row
The future of some of those neighborhoods, where homes have neither
driveways, nor much in the way of closets or downstairs bathrooms,
is uncertain. But policy gurus are selling the city short if that
is all they see. "They’re really out of touch with Trenton,"
he says. Among other things, they’re overlooking the gold that lies
beneath those parking lots.
The mayor is turning to the private sector to help turn the lots into
market rate offices and homes. He has just formed a coalition of
employers, including Merrill Lynch, Bloomberg, Bristol-Myers Squibb,
Princeton University, and Sun Bank. Some may take space in the
buildings he envisions, others may market housing in them to their
employees. He is counting on all to help craft the big picture, and
find ways to get private sector money to make it a reality.
The city needs the private sector, Palmer says. State offices provide
neither the tax base nor the vitality the city needs. "The state
has something like 30 subsidized cafeterias," Palmer says. Its
workers do not even come out for lunch. That means there is little
chance many will run errands in the city, or do any shopping. Studies
have shown, he says, that for every dollar a state worker spends in
the city, a private sector employee spends $5. And, in the main, he
says, state workers are not known for keeping long hours. By 5 p.m.,
there are few cars to be seen in state parking lots. Palmer believes
private sector workers are not able to make such a quick getaway.
Staying later in their offices, they are more likely to take a dinner
break in the city, or go to a show or ballgame after work. Some of
those private sector employees might even stay overnight in the city,
or invite colleagues from other cities to do so.
Overnight in the city. For Trenton that has long been an oxymoron,
or the stuff of a suburbanite’s bad dream.
Throughout much of the ’90s, Palmer focused on the city’s need for
a hotel. Waterfront Stadium was hugely, unexpectedly successful in
bringing minor league baseball — and its fans — to a city
many said suburbanites would never, not ever, visit for fun. The ice
broken, Sovereign Bank Arena, located a few blocks east of the
stadium, delivered more of the same, and deeper into the city. Both
of these entertainment venues routinely book sell-out crowds, showing
suburbanites it is possible to have a great time in Trenton. But
has sent out significant ripples out into the communities around them.
Restaurant reservations do not shoot up when there is a ballgame in
town. There is no sign of suburbanites in the city’s stores before
or after games.
Even as these sports facilities were being built, and opening with
much fanfare, Palmer kept talking about the need for a hotel, and
insisting that it be located not on the fringes of the city, but right
It has been a disgrace, he says, that people calling the Chamber of
Commerce for lodging information are told there is no hotel in
"And this is the state capital!" It says something that people
are now routinely willing to drive into Trenton to see a ballgame
or a concert, but, he says, "if you get people to spend the night
in Trenton, it says something different."
Called the Lafayette Yard Marriott Conference Hotel, the hotel,
to open in March and employ 300 people, is an important symbol of
Trenton’s gradual climb back from the economic shift that sent
abroad and city dwellers in search of new homes on big lots. At five
stories tall, the hotel blends into its neighborhood of townhouses
and low-rise shops and restaurants. Maxine’s, a popular jazz club
and restaurant, just across the street, recently was joined by Cafe
Ole, whose sidewalk tables were full on a recent, unseasonably warm
Palmer points to a dry cleaning shop next to Maxine’s and speaks of
the possibility of moving it across to the hotel, adding other service
businesses, and drawing more restaurants and shops to the area. The
hope is that the hotel guests, and those attending meetings at its
conference center, will venture out to eat, shop, go to a ballgame,
and take in performances at the refurbished War Memorial, which is
adjacent to the hotel.
Palmer fought mightily for the hotel, and is proud of it. Yet, leading
a tour of the handsome structure, he quickly returns to his current
focus. "This was a parking lot," he says. "This hotel
was built on a parking lot. "
Driving away from the hotel, the mayor spies another parking lot,
a fairly small one, near the intersection of Front and Warren Streets.
He names a fast food restaurant that has shown interest in building
an outlet there. "We don’t want them," he says, asking that
the franchise not be named, because he would be happy to have it
in the city, but not so near the hotel. "I’d like to get a
Starbucks may be an apt symbol for the future Palmer seeks for
A History of Trenton: 1679 to 1929, published by the Trenton
Society, reads "Trenton’s manufacturing and industry date back
to the grinding of grists and the sawing of logs in the primitive
mills transported from the lands beyond the seas and set up on the
banks of the Delaware River and the Assunpink Creek. From this humble
beginning more than 200 years ago there has come a business
that now makes Trenton one of the important manufacturing centers
of the country, with trade that reaches to all parts of the civilized
world and with industries so diversified that the contraction or
of one or more lines has little or no effect on the whole.
"Pottery, steel, iron and rubber have long figured as the city’s
leading industries but with these major activities there have been
scores, even hundreds, of others, all tending to increase the
and contentment of the thousands employed therein."
That was then. We all now know as never before how quickly layers
upon layers of safety nets protecting seemingly indestructible
strength can be ripped away. There was no one cataclysmic event for
Trenton, just a slow erosion that left an increasingly poor population
with few opportunities. Manufacturing isn’t coming back in a way that
will provide a significant number of jobs. A new economic base must
Palmer says the first layer of that base had to be remediating
the legacy of pollution left behind when manufacturing decamped. The
city has just won a Phoenix award for clean up work on a North Clinton
Avenue site on which new light manufacturing plants now sit. Palmer
ticks off other brownfields projects around the city. At the old Hill
Refrigeration plant there are now eight light manufacturing companies.
The Kramer site on Route 1 is cleaned up and will soon be home to
a lumber business. The nearby PSE&G site is being cleaned up and is,
Palmer says, "right for industrial development." The Champale
site, near Waterfront Park, will, the mayor hopes, become a condo
As clean-up of brownfields continues, housing rehabilitation projects
sprout around the city, and an Economic Development Corporation gets
ready to work on Palmer’s vision of waterfront development. Trenton
is working to reinvent itself. And that is where Starbucks comes in.
The city is on the verge of reeling in a developer that sees potential
in building 200 units of market rate housing, according to economic
development director Gonzalez. Palmer confirms this, and adds that
the city is targeting 28 to 40-year-olds as potential new city
house and condo buyers looking for a suburban alternative, a place
where they can walk to restaurants and clubs after work. A Starbucks
The city already has a ballpark, an arena, and a performing arts
as draws, along with a good number of restaurants and new clubs,
the recently opened Conduit. Its strategy is to add many more downtown
attractions, turning the once-mighty manufacturing hub into a cultural
and entertainment destination.
David Schure is executive director of Trenton Downtown Association,
a non-profit organization, which administers the money downtown
in a special improvement district pay over and above their property
taxes to secure extra services and marketing help. Schure’s office
looks out on the Front Street pedestrian mall, a mix of restaurants,
offices, and retail stores that will soon be opened up to vehicle
Schure, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Bradford College (Class
of 1980), obtained a master’s degree in preservation planning from
Columbia. There he met his wife, Anne Weber, an architect with the
Carnegie Center-based Ford, Farewell, Mills & Gatch, who introduced
him to Trenton via her work on a number of restoration projects,
the State House Building. While Weber was living in Mercer County
and working on projects in Trenton, Schure was commuting to work with
the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington. He flew
all over the country doing fee for service consulting for that
but knew "there would come a day when I didn’t want to get on
another airplane." He assumed he and his wife would settle in
Washington when that day came, but instead they fell in love with
a 250-year-old house in Princeton and decided to stay put.
Schure works with the retailers, helping them to improve facades and
signage, and the display of goods as well. It’s an uphill battle.
Brand conscious consumers look for well known stores such as the Gap.
Trenton is not alone in struggling with retail. "Almost every
city has had its retail core scooped out," he says. "And if
that wasn’t bad enough, we have catalogs and the Internet." People
like to shop near home — even from home — and Schure knows
that trying to turn Trenton into a retail destination would be
Or at least it would be if the goods offered were those consumers
could pick up anywhere. "The strategy," says Schure, "is
arts and entertainment. You have to find a way to bring people in,
to let them have a good time." Holding events is one way to
this. Schure has instituted warm weather farm markets on the mall,
adding arts and crafts — one of a kind items — to the fruit
and vegetables. The open air events draw office workers, and also
people from outside the city.
"We want to be something different," says Schure.
you can’t find in Nassau Park." Important elements of that
already are in place. Right in the downtown area, Shure points out,
is the Old Barracks. Built during the French and Indian War, it is
the only surviving fort from its era, and has recently been restored.
Revolutionary War sites abound in Trenton, and the city has been
hard on heritage tourism.
But while families might visit historic sites a few times a decade,
entertainment and the arts could bring visitors to Trenton once a
week or more, and induce at least some percentage of the artists,
and their patrons, to make their homes in the city. The Trenton Arts
Connection, housed in offices right above Schure’s, is working to
make Trenton a home for artists and a destination for those who want
to experience their work.
The group has tried — for three years in a row — to get low
income housing tax credits to turn an old Bell telephone building
into live/work space for artists. This type of project is innovative,
but has worked well in other areas, among them Minnesota. Bell
sold the building to the arts group, of which Schure is a director,
for $1, and he is hopeful that the money to convert it will be raised.
Meanwhile, the group is having success with smaller projects, creating
two or three work/live spaces for artists.
Adding another piece to the art and art and entertainment strategy,
Schure has just kicked off Trenton First Fridays. The first strolling
entertainment evening was held on October 5, but Shure emphasizes
that the monthly event is in a shake-down stage and will not be fully
ready for prime time until March. First Friday takes aim at a crucial
element of success for any venue — critical mass. If Trenton is
to become a regional draw, as Schure hopes it will, there must be
a number of reasons to come downtown. For First Friday, businesses
will band together, some staying open well past normal closing time,
to give visitors a flavor of the city.
Art and antiques dealers will display their wares on
Warren Street, nearby restaurants, including Delight of India, La
Cocina Criolla, and Utopia, will be open late, and the
Gallery will be displaying original art. All of these are on or near
Warren Street, close to the almost-finished hotel. Another arts area,
much of it brand new, has taken root across from the Sovereign Bank
Arena on Broad Street. Called Trenton Makes, this arts district also
will take part in First Fridays.
Anchored by the Urban Word, Trenton Makes includes the Conduit, the
new dance club, a number of art galleries, a book store, a record
shop, and more. Schure says he tried hard to find space downtown for
the complex, but was not able to do so. Having arts venues spread
out in the city is a challenge, but he is working on ways —
light rail, perhaps a trolley — to tie them together. He also
wants to include established venues such as the Passage Theater.
An element in making First Friday — and Trenton itself — a
success, is banishing the perception of crime. Palmer says violent
crime against strangers, the type of acts people fear most, are no
more frequent in Trenton than they are in downtown Princeton.
Schure agrees. "I don’t tell people to come to Trenton and leave
their cars unlocked," he says. Common sense precautions are
in any city. Follow them, and there should be no problems. Schure
himself got over his fear of Trenton before he moved here. He used
to worry about his wife, working late at night and on weekends on
projects in Trenton while he was in Washington D.C. "Are you sure
you’re all right?" Schure would ask her. "Are there people
there with you?" He says his wife reported that she never felt
When he interviewed for his job, Schure was clear that he wouldn’t
leave his house in Princeton. He estimates it will take many years
to finish restoring it, and he intends to finish the job. Choosing
to live in suburbia can be a problem with Trenton boosters, who, he
says, often take the attitude that living in the city is the only
real way to show dedication. Schure doesn’t agree, seeing his role
as sort of an ambassador from the city to the suburbs. He frequently
accompanies friends to events in Trenton, and has taken to sending
out E-mails spreading news of new restaurants and upcoming
Reactions have been positive. He reports that "no one has said
`Oh, you were so wrong. I’m never going to talk to you again.’"
Still, Trenton remains a hard sell, but less so now to visitors, and
even to home buyers. Gonzalez, the director of economic development,
is new on the job. He just closed on a house in the Mill Hill section,
but had a heck of a time along the way. "We found a house in the
West End," he says, "but we got into a bidding war. It went
for $5,000 or $6,000 more than the asking price." Other houses
he looked at sold before he could put in an offer. The same thing
is happening in Hiltonia, the mayor’s neighborhood. "In 1995,"
Palmer says, "there were seven houses for sale on every block.
People would say to me `What’s wrong with this place?’" Now it
is nearly impossible to find a house for sale in Hiltonia. The same
is true in all of Trenton’s stable neighborhoods.
But many of the city’s neighborhoods are not stable, and that is a
problem this is not getting noticeably better. Palmer says some think
he is focusing too much on downtown, and not enough on the
He denies this is so, but does say the money to make a substantial
difference in the poorest neighborhoods will have to come from an
expanded tax base, from the ratables he hopes private sector
development will bring.
In stating that his target market rate home buyer is as a person
the ages of 28 and 40, Palmer says, without saying so, that his city’s
schools are still troubled. Educating a disproportionate share of
the county’s poorest residents, they lag far behind in test scores
and graduation rates. Many of the city’s middle class residents send
their children to private or parochial schools. Still, the system’s
new superintendent, James Lytle, has received broad approval, and
$32 million is being put into new buildings and renovations.
The economic boom that some say has just ended cut Trenton’s
rate in half, but while Palmer says he is confident any coming
will not hurt the city, some worry a further slowdown could plunge
Trenton’s fragile working poor, some of whom work in stores and hotels
along Route 1, into crisis.
Challenges there are, but Trenton does have a lot of what the region
needs. It sits at the junction of Routes 1, 95, and 295, and its train
station, scheduled for a $30 million renovation, is the sixth busiest
in the Northeast, boasting stops by nearly every Amtrak express train.
A light rail link eventually will bring workers in from the
suburbs that lie to the south of the city, and the mayor hopes to
extend it from the train station into the city, running up State
toward the Capitol, and making several stops along the way.
If Palmer is successful in wresting all those parking lots from the
state, Trenton would also be among the loveliest areas in the region,
boasting a long waterfront along a clean river that hosts wood ducks,
cormorants, ospreys, and even the occasional bald eagle.
Late in his third term, Palmer says people ask "How come I don’t
seem all stressed out?" The man who decided at the age of 10 that
he would grow up to lead Trenton says: "It’s because I see the
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