Real re-development

When you get right down to it, the only thing that really counts as re-development is money being spent to improve a property for an economic purpose.

That’s it.

Building a new museum, cleaning the streets and writing a new master plan simply don’t count. They don’t produce direct economic benefit. Often times they DO lead to new economic development because a developer prefers to invest on clean streets next to spiffy new art museums.

With this in mind I found it interesting to compare and contrast two “re-development” articles in today’s Trenton Times (June 18, 2008).

The first article, in the business section, announces that a new supermarket, Food Bazaar, is coming to Ron Berman’s Roebling Market. This is big news!. Whether or not Trenton is actually underserved by grocery stores would take some analysis to figure out, but there is no doubt that adding a large store like Food Bazaar will add variety and competition to the market. We can only assume that Food Bazaar’s management is sophisticated enough to have evaluated both the opportunity and competition in Trenton and the surrounding area.

Neighboring retailers in Roebling Market look forward to the ability of the anchor tenant to draw new customers. I know because every time I’ve gone into Roebling Liquors for the past two years, Yashesh Patel has bent my ear about the latest rumour concerning the empty supermarket space.

This is real economic development. Food Bazaar is making an investment. The shopping center’s merchants get a benefit. City residents have a new competitor to their bodegas.

This development also makes the residential real estate market around Roebling Market more attractive. This is good news for HHG development who plans to build a large loft development across the street. Presumably they’ll be able to sell the units a bit quicker than if the store didn’t exist. The nearby Ice House loft owners will get a similar benefit

To be honest though, Food Bazaar will not be as attractive to the high end food buyers HHG will want to attract as say a Whole Foods. But on the other hand, Whole Foods certainly couldn’t have made the business case to come to Trenton, yet.

All this talk of economic benefit and business cases stands in stark contrast to the second article in the front section of paper where Mayor Palmer announced the city’s new master plan.

Trenton has produced countless master plans since I’ve lived here and I’ve read a few of them. Not one appears to have directed anybody to do anything. It’s not even clear why Trenton is producing master plans. I’m not aware of any developer that lives and breathes by such a plan. I don’t know how it affects the day to day life of the city. I am aware that the city needs to have one in order to apply for some grants. It’s a check mark item, an expensive check mark.

A city master plan isn’t re-development. It’s just words on a paper.

In fact, the Trenton master plans I’ve read don’t even spell out useful steps to re-invent the city. You can search this web-site and find much more concise recommendation for how to do that.

Rather, a master plan is a more of an urban planners mental exercise in imagining what a city could look like. This is fine if the government can somehow turn a vision into tactics.

Is the city doing anything differently the day after the plan was released than before? Doubtful.

In some cases a plan can even be harmful.

What if a developer has a different notion about how the city should evolve. In my book, the guy with the dollars to invest wins the argument. Trenton doesn’t always work like this. Developers are trotted through City Hall and asked to kiss the Mayor’s ring and then to go through the humiliation of a city council meeting.

My approach to city involvement in development is “Hands Off”. The city should help only when asked but otherwise focus on providing excellent city services. That means “on demand” technical inspections, clean streets, fast permit approvals and high quality infrastructure improvements. Don’t tell me I need to develop downtown if I’d rather develop in Chambersburg.

I remember a conversation with Assistant Business Administrator Dennis Gonzalez several years ago when I was interested in building a loft in the Bell Telephone building. I told him I wanted an elegant 5,000 SF loft downtown. He told me that if I wanted that kind of space I should move to Hiltonia. What a dumb thing to say!

I was willing to invest up to $500,000 in downtown Trenton and the city official I talked with told me I shouldn’t do it.

Real re-development is investing real money in for-profit ventures. The city’s proper role is to not only encourage development but to make it as easy as possible.

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