Archive for the ‘Real Estate Development’ Category

Trenton’s 2017 Report Card

Governor Christie is trying to throw a lot of money at Trenton.  Notably he wants to build an $18M pedestrian bridge from the Capitol building to the Delaware River.  This report highlights the city’s progress (or lack thereof) in 5 basic measurements.   One has to ask whether that kind of investment will move the needle in improving any of these important measures.

It’s not enough, to say we did something, or are working on something or want something to happen.  Rather, the results are what matter.

All five of the following are “lagging” indicators, meaning they represent the past, but they are objective and widely used measurements collected in a consistent way across the state and nation.   There’s no hand-waving with these numbers.

  • Crime levels as measured by the Uniform Crime Report
  • Population growth as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau (in the case of Trenton, every year)
  • Graduation rate as measured by the NJ Department of Education
  • Median Household Income as measured by the U.S. Census, and
  • Economic success as measured by our Tax Base

Crime is up and so were murders

The 2016 Uniform Crime Report represents last year’s crime

  • Uniform Crime Reports for 2016 are 3313
  • This is an increase from 2015 of 8.7%
  • Murders were up from 17 in 2015 to 21 in 2016

Holding the rate steady would give the City a C, but since the both the murder rate and crime index increased I’m giving it a D.

Source: NJ State Police

Trenton is losing population

Trenton’s 2016 census estimate is 84,056 residents.  This is a 1% decrease from 2010’s population of 84,913.

You can’t revitalize a city by losing population.  It implies that our economy is shrinking, we’re not a desirable place to live and that our property values are going down.   New Jersey as a whole is gaining population at a 1.7% rate.

For continuing to lose population in growing state for the 4th year in a row (since I’ve been tracking), Trenton gets an F.

Source: US Census Bureau

Graduation rates have declined

The Trenton school district’s 2016 graduation rate was 66.55%.  This is a slide backwards over 2015’s rate of 68.63% which had been a big improvement over the year before.

Just about 2/3 of Trenton kids are graduating now.  But still 1/3 don’t graduate high school which is appalling and continues to explain the high level of lawlessness in the city.

The State of NJ is spending a fortune on a new school but I’ll guess it won’t fix our problems.   We also have a new superintendent but Trenton is a bit of a revolving door in that regard.     One of these days Trentonians will do the right thing and lobby for school choice, county-wide integration or both.

Because we slid backwards, Trenton gets an D.

Source:  NJ Dept. of Education

Incomes in Trenton are down yet again

Median Household Incomes in Trenton are down again to $34.257 (2015 numbers) from $35,647 (2014).  These are the latest numbers we have but represent a disturbing trend in Trenton.  Not only are we losing people, but evidently, we’re losing higher income people.    Furthermore, 28% of people in Trenton live in poverty.

New Jersey’s median household income is more than double Trenton’s at $72,093.

For having shrinking incomes, a 4th year in a row in a wealthy state, Trenton gets an F.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Tax Base is up a bit

Trenton doesn’t maintain a current publicly available tax list,  so I’ve to use the Dept. of Community Affairs web site.  It gives our tax base as $2,022,437,610 (just over$2B) for 2016.  This is up  from the $1,996,653,658 I reported last year.   The number includes properties with abatements and PILOTs so I think its likely indicative.

It’s tough to say whether this inconsistent reporting is really indicative of $22M in new investment.   However, I do know that $2B is enough of a tax base to support the city and we need something like four times the tax base to pay for our municipal and school budgets.   We have a long way to go and not too many projects in the pipeline.

As a comparison, Hamilton’s tax base is over $5B and tiny Princeton’s is over $6B.

For a tax base that at least isn’t shrinking but will nonetheless lead to higher taxes I give Trenton an D.

Source: Department of Community Affairs

Is the city turning around?  Not yet!

  • The numbers are about the same as last year
  • If you believe numbers don’t lie then we’re not really improving

If a Mayor and City Council really were interested in progress they would highlight these 5 numbers in every meeting, every State of the City and with the State.    Every dollar spent would be to improve the numbers year over year.   Instead, for the 17th year in a row (since I’ve lived in Trenton) all I get from our government is hand waving.

Link to the 2016 Report Card

Link to the 2015 Report Card

Link to the 2014 Report Card

How to Redevelop Trenton for Dummies

I really dislike those books.  The titles are demeaning to people who just want to learn something at a basic level.   But who am I to say; it’s a wildly popular series.   I suppose the title has a little empathy for the person who wants to learn “How to use a computer”, “How to Garden” or “How to do Arithmetic”.
So here I am in year 17 of the Trenton Revitalization Doug Palmer told me was underway.   It’s not! Trenton has steadily slid backwards (based on objective metrics).

And yet the State of NJ, Mercer County and occasionally the Feds continue to throw millions and millions of dollars at Trenton.   We got a hotel, a ballpark, an arena, a Rt 29 conversion, a Light Rail, a Train Station redo, a nursing school, a new Housing Project or two and what do we have to show for it?   Nothing!  We’re still losing population; our tax base and per capita income are still losing ground against the rest of the State.

So maybe we do need some condescending help with the problem.   Maybe the Mayor and Governor need a copy of “How to Redevelop Trenton for Dummies”.

Over the years I’ve likely written enough essays to fill the book but perhaps I need a good outline.  Outlines help keep books simple and suitable for “Dummies”.    The book would have only four chapters and plenty of pictures and examples.  What it wouldn’t have are chapters on how to spend vast sums of taxpayer money on public venues that don’t impact the local economy.   An $18M bridge from the State Capitol into the Delaware River is a distraction just like the Ballpark and Arena were.

Chapter 1 -  CLEAN and NEAT

This chapter will cover:

Chapter 2 – It’s the Tax Base Dummy

In this chapter, we’ll cover some basic economics and math like:

Chapter 3 – Transparency and Accountability

In this chapter, we’ll cover basic public relations technique like:

  • Using the Internet as a communications tool
  • Getting voters bought into your plan, assuming you have one
  • Robo-calling, “Less is More”
  • Answering citizen concerns
  • Modern technology and how “trouble tickets” help organize citizen complaints
  • The connection between budgets, spending and priorities

Chapter 4 – Making Trenton a Living Hell for Criminals

This self-help chapter will cover:

  • Responding to citizens before it’s too late
  • Leveraging private surveillance
  • The Economics of Crime
  • Criminal databases for everybody

Parks and Re-election

Building parks is what politicians do when they simply don’t know what else to do.

Imagine you’re in charge of a “down on its luck city” with high crime, low income levels, bad schools minimal industry and population loss.  You have only $1 dollar, no make that $20,000,000 left to spend.   The question is, on what do you spend that one time only $20M?

Hmmm …..

If you’re an observer of successful urban revitalization maybe a few things would come to mind:

  • How about a stimulus package for urban homesteaders that would attract investment?
  • How about site development for a light manufacturing facility?
  • How about a big investment in technology and surveillance for the police including body-cams?

All seem worth a thought.   But they have one problem in common.  They aren’t parks.

People love parks, or at least the notion of a park.  Perhaps we have fond childhood memories of playing in a well-kept park with mom and dad.  Perhaps, we remember playing baseball or going on a picnic.

Parks are like catnip for residents that don’t know any better.

“People do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners or designers wish they would.” Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Parks take regular expensive maintenance.  Parks are magnets for drug dealers and prostitutes.   Parks use up land that could be converted to taxable property.  Unless a lot of operational funding is thrown at a park, it’s at best a drain on a city’s finances and at worst a breeding ground for everything wrong with a city.  Parks are what we should do after we’ve achieved some revitalization success.

Parks are what politicians build when they don’t know how to do real revitalization and when they know they’re citizens can be fooled.

That’s what’s going on in Trenton.  Gov. Christie says new Trenton park ‘first step’ to reconfigure Route 29

Faced with his last year in office and in collusion with a governor also in his last year in office, Mayor Jackson realizes that he can’t point to much that’s moved the needle in Trenton.   Instead, he’s lost or wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.   So, what to do?  Build a park or maybe two.

There are a large number of Trenton residents that will immediately reach for their rose colored glasses and think back to pleasant childhood memories to convince themselves that, yes, absolutely, a park will turn Trenton around.   New residents hoping to build new $300,000 homes will flock to Trenton because of our parks.   Criminals will be repulsed by the beauty of the new park and will immediately forgo a life of crime, go back to school, get straight As and find a well-paying job.   That’s what parks do.  The power of parks.

If parks were the linchpin of our Mayor’s overall grand plan (not that anyone believes that) then why hasn’t he shared it with the public?  Why didn’t he base his campaign on it?   Parks were never part of any plan, they just sort of came up and he said, “yeah, sure, then the people will think I did something positive”.

It’s just the opposite, Trenton is taking money out of the “political capital” bank and instead of investing it in to trans-formative initiatives, wasting it on parks.

Linking the un-linkable in Trenton

What does a $130M loft complex in Chambersburg section of Trenton, an $18.3M pedestrian bridge, a $135M proposal to build two new single purpose state owned office buildings at the edge of downtown, a state funded $13M plan to tear down empty houses throughout the city, a $2.3M plan to add features to Cadwalader Park in western Trenton, a $180M high school and a $300M plan to refurbish the New Jersey State Capitol building have in common?

The answer is, NOTHING.

Together these projects total in value $778M.   That’s a lot of money.   Only one of these include private money (Roebling Lofts) and even it benefits from substantial State subsidies.

We have to assume that State of New Jersey doesn’t have the citizens of Trenton’s best interest at heart.   But that doesn’t mean the City of Trenton should let all of this public money be wasted.

We have a very large private project nearing completion of its first phase at the old Roebling complex.  Let’s start with that.   Which of the public State and City projects directly support its success.  If the answer is none, let me suggest that our leaders start over in their thinking.

Citizen response to Palmer and Prunetti’s Op-Ed on Trenton redevelopment

Jane Jacobs is perhaps the most influential writer on urban redevelopment in our time.   Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a bible to many on what works and doesn’t in urban revitalization.   In it, she argues that the infusion of large sums of government money into revitalization projects is cataclysmic.  Instead, gradual money that ebbs and flows, fails and succeeds, is what is needed.

The very premise that a large infusion of government money into downtown Trenton will help, no matter how tempting, is fundamentally flawed.   We don’t have to re-read Jacobs to understand this.   Over $150,000,000 in government funds were spent in Trenton 20 years ago to build what Messer’s Palmer and Prunetti called the “Opportunity Triangle”:  The ballpark, the arena and the hotel.   The promise was that these large government investments (yes, our hotel was owned by the city) would stimulate other development in Trenton.

IT NEVER HAPPENED!

Palmer and Prunetti were wrong, way wrong.   They proved how wrong politicians can be at great public expense (the hotel went bankrupt). Bob Prunetti, defended another government project, Thomas Edison State College’s development of Glen Gairn Arms site, by claiming that the patrons at the ballpark were stimulating development as late as 2014.   There is no evidence of this at all.  He was making up a conclusion that was not founded in fact.   Palmer, as late as 2013 told me that he always wanted to sell the hotel to a private owner, yet he never did. After he left office, the hotel, that was built for $60,000,000, was sold in a fire sale for $5,000,000.   Trenton taxpayers lost millions.

So why is it that the Trentonian thinks these two should have an audience regarding the use of public funds in Trenton redevelopment?  (Guest Oped: Palmer and Prunetti: Trenton needs to follow successful examples from other cities)

They shouldn’t.

They had their chance and don’t have anything to show for it.  In the 90s, when they were in power, the country grew economically while Trenton slid backward.   They simply failed to position Trenton to ride the wave of growth that swept the country and  therefore set the city up for the current trend in urban re-population.

Even one of the examples of success they reference in their Op-Ed,  an expensive but uncompleted project in Atlantic City is dubious.   A project that hasn’t even been completed can’t, by definition, be called an economic development success story.  Spending money with no results isn’t success. Who would think otherwise?

Governor Christie’s plan for Trenton has already been roundly criticized by citizens that actually live and work in downtown Trenton.   It’s a tone-deaf proposal that Ms. Jacobs would have railed against.

Prunetti and Palmer propose to change the investment a bit and morph it in to different mixed use project.   However, this still represents a big, risky government directed project.  It’s fundamentally predisposed to have cataclysmic results like stifling streetscapes, crowding out other projects or simply failing (like the hotel).

Who knows why these two former politicians decided to pitch this specific plan.  Perhaps they are somehow connected to it?   Perhaps they haven’t learned the lessons of cataclysmic government money and really think this will work?   I don’t know.  What I do know, and all rational Trentonians should know, is that their track record has been disastrous for Trenton.   The Trentonian has done a disservice to Trenton in publishing their Op-Ed and giving it the credibility that comes with “print”.

We’ve become numb to “Losing”

Living in Trenton its easy to understand the appeal of Donald Trump’s message.

As a city, we’re losers so often that it just feels normal. So when we hear a guy talk about turning that around and being winners again, or just doing things well (as a government) it’s attractive. You wonder, what would that feel like?

What would it be like if we didn’t have our money stolen, if we could hire a real IT firm, if we could enforce our laws (big ones and small ones), if we had a tax policy that didn’t punish new investment?  What would it be like if we could communicate and enforce trash disposal policies instead of seeing it thrown all over our streets?

What would it be like if we didn’t get confused by letters saying our buildings were vacant, our water bills were past due and our taxes weren’t paid when they really were?  What would it be like if our water department weren’t running one illegal scheme after another out of their building?

What would it be like if our leaders could be transparent about the city’s issues? What if they didn’t brawl at public meetings?  What would it be like if we didn’t have to file Open Records Act forms to get information from the city, what if they just posted it online?  What if our Mayors didn’t get sent to Federal prison?

What would it be like if our snow was plowed, our potholes were fixed and our broken sidewalks and streetlamps were restored to their original state?

What would it be like if the only hotel in town weren’t about to close and taxpayers hadn’t spent $65M to build it?  What if hockey teams and arena football teams didn’t fail in Trenton?  What if we didn’t give away prime real estate to “connected” non-profits that don’t pay property taxes?  What if we could have a budget passed before the fiscal year starts?  What if we could pay for our own schools?  What if they actually graduated most of the kids?

What if the contaminated dirt at MLK school had been dealt with honestly?  What if we didn’t invite corrupt developer Robert Kahan in to Trenton? What if we didn’t fall for the Manex ponzi scheme? What if we hadn’t turned the historic Douglass House in Mill Hill Park into a drug den? What if we hadn’t forced the Broad Street Bank to be rent controlled? What if we hadn’t ignored Chambersburg’s concerns before the restaurants left?

What if simple building inspections only took 4 hours (like in Philadelphia) instead of 3 weeks?   What if you could communicate with the city through its web site and via email?

What if our property tax rate wasn’t the highest in New Jersey (the state with the highest property taxes in the nation)?  What if drunks and drug dealers didn’t infest our streets?   What if thieves were actually afraid of being caught?

What would it be like if we could recommend that a friend move to Trenton?

What would it feel like to live in a city of winners?


SoBro in Trenton isn’t such a far off dream

For several years various individuals and groups have played around with the notion that the 300 Block of S. Broad could and should be much more than it is.   It’s a compelling notion.

The block is one of the most trafficked in the city and has some great historic building stock.  It’s part of the Old Mill Hill Historic District and as such is adjacent to the second most prosperous neighborhood in the city (in terms of median income).   It’s near downtown, the train station and the arena so it’s easy to find.  It’s home to the venerable Mill Hill Saloon, the hip and trendy New Trenton Store and Studio and the new Whitaker condo development.  The block has a lot going for it.

However the block struggles.  Half of the retail store fronts are empty.  Foot traffic is light and too much of the foot traffic we do have is up to no good.   Furthermore none of the individuals and groups that have tried have managed to generate sustained momentum past the talking stage.

Can anything make a difference on the 300 block of S. Broad?

It could take just a few investors with common cause to turn the area around.  I’ll be upfront and say that I’m already one of them as the only owner / occupant on the block.   Because of that I’ll take a position on what this common cause should be.

We have plenty of retail and rental space catering to a demographic short on money and not particularly concerned about style.   As has been written many times on this blog, Trenton can’t revitalize its economy on the back of this demographic.  Instead we’ll need to attract childless, young people with disposable income.  That is, the much sought after millennial.  This is exactly the approach HHG is taking in its new Roebling Wire Rope District project just 3 blocks away.

Just four new businesses catering to the millennial market could put us on the right track

Trenton Social owner, TC Nelson, has it right when he proposes to call the portion of S. Broad between the Sun Bank Arena and Market street, SoBro, including the 300 Block of S. Broad.   This branding is a play on well-known SOHO district in New York and conjures up images of trendy clothing shops, art galleries, coffee shops and restaurants catering to young hipsters.   Of the 20 or so retail spaces on the street, three businesses are already going after that group with varying degrees of success.   But success loves company.

If just four new businesses opened in SoBro it could provide the critical mass necessary to turn the area into a destination for millennials throughout the region looking to escape the strip mall and avoid the pricey streets of New Hope.   If a walk from Trenton Social to Mill Hill saloon could include a stop at a gallery, shopping for Trenton made gifts at New Trenton, a coffee and desert and who knows maybe even a comic book, then I’d say we’d have something.  With targeted retail like this, SoBro would become not only a destination to visit but also a place in which to live.   When that happens the virtuous circle of revitalization will have begun.

Some city government “help” could go a long way

Everything is hard in Trenton and for something good like the birth of SoBro to happen we might just need city government to lean forward and help.   When I say help I don’t necessarily mean provide funding.  Instead, it would be nice to think that if an investor group got organized, the city would send a representative with authority to act to come to a meeting and ask “What can we do?”

I’d say there is plenty the city can do.  Keep being aggressive with abandoned property fines and enforcement.  We need to force the derelict owners on the block out.  Help us find a way to keep the streets and sidewalks clean.  Make sure street lighting is maintained.  Be helpful in making the permitting and inspections processes easy

The problem may not be so big that it can’t be solved for modest amounts of money

A Plan for Addressing Vacant / Abandoned Properties in Trenton

The fundamental reason Trenton has abandoned / vacant properties in Trenton is that it costs more to rehab a property than it would be worth once completed.   We can help developers and potential homeowners by lowering their financial cost, establishing a more fluid market for vacant / abandoned properties and creating a marketing message that includes more people who might be interested in living in Trenton.

I estimate the number of abandoned / vacant properties to be over 3,300.

In general Trenton will have to attack the problem of revitalization of abandoned / vacant properties one neighborhood at a time starting with downtown.   We don’t have the resources, yet, to address the entire city at once.

Our efforts will address both city owned and privately owned abandoned, vacant and underused properties.   For city owned property our goal will be to get them on the tax rolls, not make money from selling them.

1) Lower the cost of revitalization

Enhance our tax and subsidy package for redevelopment

  • A standardized Revenue PILOT for large projects reduces risk for developers and provides transparency for all taxpayers into how the city works with large developers
  • A graduated abatement on improvements of up to 15 years.  This includes the existing 5 year abatement plus a new abatement in redevelopment areas as per NJ law
  • We will add an additional subsidy on improvements in the downtown district

Reduce risk for redevelopers by

  • Improving the public safety situation while development is going on
  • Increasing code enforcement on adjacent buildings in focus areas

Launch Homesteading in a few neighborhoods

  • Properties will be sold to homeowners for $1
  • Abatement Programs will apply
  • Buyers will be matched with local contractors and architects where needed
  • Neighborhoods will apply to participate and will be required to show support

Demolition: where a buyer wants it and our professionals agree it’s appropriate, we will sell a property to a developer, cleared.

2) Establish a more fluid market.

Use the NJ Abandoned Properties Act in Trenton for the first time.  It’s been used now in Jersey City

Track all vacant properties with help from

  • Efforts from non-profits like Isles, TCCA
  • Expanded responsibilities in our economic development and inspections department to track and identify vacant properties (our proposed budget will include funding for this)
  • Making a city-wide ticketing system available that allows residents to report abandoned properties

Outside Legal help on Closings to speed up a process that has been woefully slow and disorganized

4 hour inspections appointments instead of the current practice of allowing 22 days to review simple plans

3) Create demand by

Establishing a public / private marketing entity “Trenton Sells” co-founded with realtors and developers. This group will be the conduit for our marketing efforts.  It will:

  • Publish a web site and newsletter
  • Target Millennials along the Northeast corridor
  • Publish our vacant property inventory on the web site
  • Hold regular Open houses for the city

Matching up homebuyers with architects and contractors.   We can make renovation easier for buyers buy helping them find local development help that knows how to work in Trenton

Developing a neighborhood level branding plan. Neighborhoods will have the opportunity to sell their neighborhoods by establishing the right message. Hopefully the Master Plan includes this work

Pitching to New Urbanist Developers. There are developers who specialize in building urban neighborhoods.  They are part of a large and growing national trend.  A revitalization-minded Economic Development department will seek out these developers and invite them to Trenton.

Key Reorganization tactics

Reorganize inspections under the Economic Development Department. This will focus inspections on the job of meeting our goals

Set measurable goals that require us to put property back on the tax roles

  • Increase our ratables by 10%
  • Increase our population to 90,000
  • Track our progress on reducing abandoned properties

State regulatory Asks

The job of a Mayor is to make sure the State is working for us, not against us.  A Trenton Mayor should work with our legislative team and urban Mayors across the state to enact pro-redevelopment legislation.

Land Banks: Potential enhancements to our ability to use Land Banks beyond what is currently in the Abandoned Properties Act.  We want to provide mechanisms engage for-profit firms to help and to make sure our laws help us deal with quiet deeds and that they don’t prefer subsidized housing.

Land Value Tax: A two tier tax system can be used to make it harder to hold on to vacant land and profitable to develop it.  Land Value Tax legislation would provide a cleaner mechanism to encourage redevelopment than tax abatements as it would be available to all property owners.

Urban Income Tax Zone: Push to have Trenton become a test city for an urban income tax zone.  The maximum income tax bracket in Trenton would be set at 2% instead of 5% making it very attractive for higher income New Jerseyeans to move to Trenton.

A Downtown Investment Program for Trenton

Many things have led to Trenton’s economic problem but they aren’t unique to post-industrial America. If you don’t understand how it happened I can recommend some books.

The question is how to turn it around. Some cities have. Some have done fairly well simply by having good leadership over the years. Trenton, like Detroit, hasn’t been that fortunate.

We’re in a situation where brave leadership will have to offer creative solutions.

Our crime situation can’t change quickly. Our public schools can’t change quickly. Our taxes are chronically high because our tax base funds only 1/3 of our budget. Therefore we can’t afford to invest much more money into police, schools or infrastructure.

So what can we do?

I suggest that we create a Downtown Investment program that seeks to increase our tax base to a point where it can once again fund city services. It has three key elements:

1) Fund an investment subsidy of 10% on any rehab investment of over $100,000. Because our tax rate is currently 4% well will recoup this investment in under 3 years, a 33% ROI. This will be available only to market rate, residential development not seeking abatements or PILOTs. Residential investment needs to come first and will eventually drive retail and commercial investment.

2) Target millennials and professionals with no kids. Over 1,000,000 people like this live within 30 minutes of Trenton. This is mostly who’s bought in Trenton over the last 10 years and it squarely fits the broader demographic trend towards America’s urbanization. A marketing program (web site, newsletter, some advertising, open houses, Realtor and developer organization) will embody this targeting.

3) Start small and offer the program (for now) only in Downtown Trenton. Scholars and Trenton activists have long pointed out that revitalization efforts need to be focused and start at the center. Trenton has had problems with execution in the past, starting small will let us see whether this works, and fix it if if it needs fixing. Downtown is the place to start as it allows us to spread outwards from there. If it’s successful downtown we’ll expand the program, one neighborhood at a time.

With modest investments funded just out of our budget, we can hope to increase our tax base from just under $2B to over $2.4B in 10 years. State participation in the program will help and other policies could also speed up the process. This will stop our vicious cycle of decline and start a virtuous circle of revitalization.

“The End of the Suburbs”

The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher is a wonderfully accessible book for beginning urbanist that need grounding in the demographic trends that are creating opportunities for cities like Trenton.

Last year the Trenton Times carried a review of the book but it seems appropriate for Reinvent Trenton to add a few words.

Ms. Gallagher has honestly built her narrative of the drivers of new urbanism on the backs of authors that have come before her including Jane Jacobs, Richard Florida and James Howard Kunstler.   This is important for Trentonians attempting to come up to speed on the best thinking about what can drive Trenton’s growth.

The basic theme in Gallagher’s book is that fundamental demographics and attitudes are driving a shift back from suburban to urban living.  This is good news for cities and bad news for suburbs that have likely overextended their spending and debt.

The demographic trends involved include an older child bearing age, lower number of married couples and therefore fewer children.   This, coupled with a shift in attitude amongst millennials that shows a preference for urban living and against owning a car, has started a profound shift in American lifestyle.

The trend has been with us for many years says Gallagher but become most pronounced during the Great Recession that has left great swaths of suburban McMansions abandoned while home values in cities suffered only slightly.   In fact cities are now growing at a faster pace than suburbs and according to Gallagher, home builders like Toll Brothers, the Godfathers of the McMansion, have noticed.  Builders have shifted their efforts to building luxury condos, lofts and New Urbanist development that mimic older cities.

Cities like Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore have already felt the benefit.   New Jersey towns like New Brunswick, Montclair and even the post-Sandy Jersey Shore are being built with a New Urbanist feel.

The question for Trenton is will we lift a finger to ride this fundamental wave of migration?

For us it means pitching developers like Toll Brothers on our city, offering a sane development environment that works with developers instead of against them.  It includes a new tax structure.   It includes increasing our walkability, perhaps by rethinking our transit system in favor of trolleys.  And most of all it includes a small well-disciplined government that can support new development.

There are millions of young people living in our region who, given the opportunity to live in a great urban space would jump at it.   It’s up to Trenton to make help facilitate an environment that allows buyer and seller to come together.   We’re not there yet, but I can see Jane Jacobs vision of a city that constantly reinvents itself coming to life here.

I recommend The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher to Trentonians hoping to get an easy to read overview of our city’s possible future ($14 from Nook).

For me the other refreshing story here was who recommended the book to me.  I’ve read quite a few books on cities and have publicly bemoaned the fact that Trenton’s politicians appear to be under educated on the latest thinking.  However, in this case mayoral candidate Jim Golden recommend The End of the Suburbs and I jumped at the chance to read what was driving his thinking.