Corrections or additions?

This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the

October 10, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights

reserved.

Trenton’s Time

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

Sovereign

Bank arena; the imminent opening of the new Marriott hotel and

conference

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

headquarters

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

administrator,

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

studied

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

competitors

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

islands.

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

remove.

In his mind’s eye, Palmer sees multi-use high rises going up on vast

tracts now used to accommodate state workers’ automobiles during

office

hours.

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,

pointing

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

describe

the scourge of asphalt, he calls for Dennis Gonzalez, the city’s

acting

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

offices

and homes will sit in high rises above the garages.

Public policy gurus have been quoted of late declaring that New

Jersey’s

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

houses.

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

private

employers, including Merrill Lynch, Bloomberg, Bristol-Myers Squibb,

Princeton University, and Sun Bank. Some may take space in the

waterfront

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

baseball

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

neither

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

downtown.

It has been a disgrace, he says, that people calling the Chamber of

Commerce for lodging information are told there is no hotel in

Trenton.

"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,

scheduled

to open in March and employ 300 people, is an important symbol of

Trenton’s gradual climb back from the economic shift that sent

manufacturing

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

October afternoon.

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

elsewhere

in the city, but not so near the hotel. "I’d like to get a

Starbucks,"

he says.

Starbucks may be an apt symbol for the future Palmer seeks for

Trenton.

A History of Trenton: 1679 to 1929, published by the Trenton

Historical

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

development

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

elimination

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

prosperity

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

economic

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

be found.

Palmer says the first layer of that base had to be remediating

brownfields,

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

development.

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

residents,

house and condo buyers looking for a suburban alternative, a place

where they can walk to restaurants and clubs after work. A Starbucks

crowd.

The city already has a ballpark, an arena, and a performing arts

center

as draws, along with a good number of restaurants and new clubs,

including

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

businesses

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

traffic again.

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,

including

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

organization,

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

fruitless.

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

accomplish

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.

"Something

you can’t find in Nassau Park." Important elements of that

difference

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

working

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

Atlantic

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

Rhinehart-Fischer

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 —

perhaps

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

advisable

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

afraid.

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

performances.

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

neighborhoods.

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

waterfront

development will bring.

In stating that his target market rate home buyer is as a person

between

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

unemployment

rate in half, but while Palmer says he is confident any coming

recession

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

fast-growing

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

Street

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

future."


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