State government must help or get out of the city’s way





This article appeared in the January 2007 edition of the Trenton Downtowner

Water, water every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
−Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

By Dan Dodson

Downtown Trenton is awash in a virtual sea of surface and deck parking owned or operated by the state. Yet potential apartment dwellers and condominium buyers thirst for a place to park their vehicles overnight, and finding none, must look elsewhere for a place to live.

The decks are locked up at night, unusable by potential downtown inhabitants, while the surface lots are simply not open to the public to begin with. They waste the most valuable land in the city and destroy downtown Trenton’s ability to attract residents with disposable income. They are a scourge to the city’s efforts to revitalize.
The $30M Broad Street Bank redevelopment project is the most important revitalization effort in Trenton, and if our elected officials are thinking about anything other than ensuring its success, they’re thinking about the wrong thing.

Trenton’s economy today is anemic at best. Our local consumer base is barely above subsistence level, with a per capita income of around $15,000, according to the 2000 U.S. Census; we’re near the bottom in New Jersey. For the most part, our population is not attractive to either merchants who desire high disposable incomes or businesses who desire skilled workers.

However, the Broad Street Bank has the good fortune of being close to one of Trenton’s most successful neighborhoods, Mill Hill.

Mill Hill by itself isn’t big enough to support the type of retail establishments its residents might like (galleries, fashionable shops, upscale restaurants). The successful completion of the Broad Street Bank will boost the Mill Hill area’s population by almost one third. That’s a big step forward.

Naysayers who argue that people won’t move to Trenton are not in command of the facts. Home prices in Mill Hill have risen by around 30 percent in recent years, with new homes going for around $400,000. The most expensive rents in Trenton are already over $1,500 per month and the Broad Street Bank (which officials hope will soon be cleared for occupancy) is nicer and more convenient than those buildings. It can attract more high-wage earners downtown.

The state has so far refused to share the parking deck across Montgomery Street from the Broad Street Bank. Tenants in the building could park there at night while the deck is otherwise empty and would be happy to pay for the privilege. Converting this parking lot to 24-hour daily operation is critical to successful development downtown.

There is no more important initiative for State Senator Shirley Turner, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora − than overturning the state’s refusal to open this and other parking facilities to the public. Trenton’s representatives in state government should not take “no” for an answer when it comes to urban development.

In addition to our state induced parking woes, the government has dealt yet another damaging and insulting blow to Trenton and the Broad St. Bank by mandating that its unrestricted market rate apartments should actually have an income cap.  You read this right, if you earn too much money the state thinks you shouldn’t live in downtown Trenton. This flies in the face of attracting wealth to our city and is also downright discriminatory.  The public was misled when it was told that 80% of the Broad St. Bank building would be market rate.

Successful urban projects are the first and most important step towards reducing sprawl, getting cities like Trenton off the public dole and putting a crimp in crime by allowing the bright lights of around-the-clock life to shine on our downtown street corners.

Government can also play a role in curbing the practice of real estate speculation in Trenton by helping the city apply NJ’s abandoned buildings law. Speculators hold properties, letting them rot while hoping others will improve the city around them, thereby making their investments more valuable with no effort on their part. This was the case with the Broad Street Bank before Bayville Holdings LLC bought it.  The law could have been used to force the sale sooner and at a lower price.

In addition to inefficient land use, other state policies such as property taxation, highway spending and crime prevention should also be reconsidered with an eye to urban revitalization.

We need help getting off of the drug of state aid and back on the road to self-sustainability. The state needs to rethink its approach to land use, abandoned building reclamation, crime prevention, highway spending and taxation in light of urban revitalization.

The Web site (which I operate) has a subscriber list of more than 350, most of whom are eagerly awaiting a unique Trenton living space. Trenton can turn on a dime if only government can create a truly pro-development environment that attracts developers capable of attracting higher wage residents.

But Trenton can’t afford to continue being the state capital if our state government continues to suck the life out of our economy.

Dan Dodson is a management consultant and Leadership Trenton Fellow.

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Copyright 2006, Dan Dodson