The Train Station Redevelopment Plan

If you’re a Trenton watcher and haven’t been living in a cave, then you’ve noticed our shiny new $60M train station. The Trenton train station is unique along the Northeast corridor in that not only is it the 6th busiest station but it has both Amtrak, NJ Transit, NJ Light Rail and Septa carriage.

Every day hundreds of people from mainly outside Trenton travel through our station. They typically spend as little time in Trenton as possible.

The city is proposing to change that.

It is leveraging a generous state tax incentive to encourage commercial development around urban NJ’s train stations. I have to say, I’m for the tax incentive. The state and federal government have spent $Billions over the year building roads to increase sprawl, it’s good to finally put some balance in the equation.

With the incentive behind it, the city has courted three developers to build three seperate large projects immediately adjacent to the station. I think this is great and can’t see any downside. I even support demolishing the historic-ish building on the north side of Greenwood Ave. to make way for the building.

However,there are two big questions that come to mind as I review the current version of the city’s development plan for the area and come away from tonight’s (6/25) public meeting on the subject.

Tonights Public meeting was rough

First, let me say that while holding public meetings is always a good thing, tonight’s was conducted poorly. The consultant in charge never had control of the meeting, gave a weak presentation and did a terrible job of facilitating. It was as if he’d never run a public meeting. I’m sorry I have to say this, but the meeting did little to instill confidence in the process. And in the Mayor’s own words, public confidence is what is needed to make this project fly.

On to my issues, one is principled and two are economic.

On principle, we as neighbors, should never abuse our power to take property through eminent domain. By abuse, I mean seizing property from an owner of an occupied building who doesn’t want to sell. Even though the Supreme Court (the Kelo decision) has ruled that a city can do this, that doesn’t mean we should. Imagine if it were you. No matter how badly I might want new movie theaters, nice shops and restaurants, modern architecture and grocery stores, taking advantage of a neighbor isn’t worth it.

Councilman Jim Coston’s blog points to this article reflecting on the Kelo Supreme Court decision three years later. (BTW – all Trentonians should be greatful to have a councilman who actually does his homework on city issues.

My second issue is economic. I don’t know if the broader plan to develop the area around the initial three projects will be an economic boon for the city. I don’t know because I haven’t tried to run the numbers nor has the city. This is a large project being proposed by a city administration with a long history of proposing unfeasible projects (Performa, Manex, Leewood, Trenton Town Center, Champale). Before we tangle the neighborhood up in years of master developer hell, we should at least run the numbers and let the press and public vet them. I’ll be glad to help on this.

Finally, the city’s plan, as it currently stands, is overly prescriptive. The plan dictates quite a few aspects of the neighborhood much like the planned communities of the past. Highly planned cities have a questionable reputation. Rather, it seems a smarter idea to take the organic approach and let individual developers build up an area within a broad set of guidelines, rules and incentives. I’d like to know more about why our planners feel the need to be as directive as they are. I’m willing to be proven wrong about this.

There isn’t much I’d like to see more than a new revitalized neighborhood in Trenton. However, neither the consultants nor the city have given me or the public any confidence that the project will have a net benefit to Trenton’s bottom line.

I’m not buying it …. yet.


I’ve uploaded the city’s current plan for the train station area. It’s dated April 2008 but I don’t believe the plan is final or approved by city council. However, the plan does call for the use of eminent domain. It’s also linked in the right hand column under “City Documents”.

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16 Responses to “The Train Station Redevelopment Plan”

  • Dennis:

    The problem here is you don’t have the whole economic picture. What Trenton needs are jobs, and jobs that have staying power. When Trenton was at the height of it’s historic success it was all because of jobs.

    These plans propose bringing thousands and thousands of jobs to Trenton. We can build pretty neighborhoods forever and never get rid of the crime, bad schools, and filth that infests our city; jobs and economic success is the only way to bring this dead city back. CLASS A OFFICE BUILDINGS ARE THE VERY BEST RATABLE, IN ANY CITY.

    We have an 8 Million dollar budget gap. How do we solve this problem? How do we put more cops on the street when we have an 8 Million dollar budget gap??? We can’t. Period. I talked to some East Ward officers who told me that their daytime force has been cut from 11 officers to 4 because of budget shortfalls. 4 OFFICERS FOR THE WHOLE EAST WARD! That just can’t be safe in any city, let alone Trenton.

    The properties on the corner of Greenwood and Walnut bring in less then 200,000 dollars in property taxes, do you know how much a 25 story Class A, LEED Platinum certified office building with a major corporate tenant would bring in? $2,500,000 even with AGGRESSIVE tax abatements. That’s more then 1/3 of our budget gap covered. Now put up three of those buildings and BAM, balanced budget.

    This is only one side of the story. Look at any major city that has lead projects with Major Class A office space. Silver Springs, MD – Stamford, CT, all these cities city amazing amounts of secondary development around that office space. People want to live where they work, and the speculators know that. They will come in and fix old historic homes and put up retail space.

    This project, particularly Vista Center, which pays close attention to environmental concerns and the aesthetics and connectivity of a public plaza with public art, will be the catalyst to totally re-invent Trenton.

    That is why these eminent domain issues and issues of historic buildings are MINOR in the face of the overwhelming economic boom these buildings will bring to Trenton in the form of amazing ratables and waves of secondary development.

  • I agree with the organic approach you’ve described regarding development projects in Trenton. I think developers such as HHG, Roebling LLC and Centre St. LLC should be sought out and encouraged to take on as many projects in Trenton as they can manage. It is my belief that development success stories like Mill Hill are driven by small, local, private developers and dedicated property owners (not an earth shattering observation, I know). These small projects will slowly draw attention and attract residential growth which will lead to more commercial growth as markets develop for things like groceries, restuarants, and entertainment. In my view, it basically follows the moral of the story about the Tortoise and the Hare. Trenton should move ahead slowly but, surely.

  • Dennis: based on your comment here and over at The Front Stoop, it would seem you have so much of this plan thought out, at least on the surface. But those of us with some knowledge of history can easily see the flaws; there may not be many, but they are HUGE. The first is obvious: almost every single large scale development project in this city has failed, and maybe this one has been thought out differently; maybe there’s no way it can fail, but public trust is severely damaged at this point. Related to that is the fact that this city’s administration holds the reasonably intelligent and productive citizens of Trenton in utter contempt. The outside world sees this, and it is a huge deterrent for anyone else to come here. You get us to move in, take our tax money, and then want us to shut up when we — for instance — only have 4 police officers on duty in our ward at any given time.

    Another huge obstacle to winning public support — if that’s even a priority of the administration — is that there’s no reason for the city and the developers to be so hellbent on the Greenwood/Clinton location. Blighted places so very close to the proposed Transit Center, like the block of East State Street, behind the station, and the Walnut/Chestnut intersection a bit to the east, scare the bejesus out of potential tenants and businessfolks, who must see that when they ride the train. So what if we have shiny, tall new buildings when right around the corner, is utter hell?

    More on location: You can feel free to write off my opinions since I am one of those “shortsighted” people who is focusing on the gas station and two lovely homes slated for demo if this project inexplicably manages to attract some tenants. I focus on those establishments because I have a hard time justifying eminent domain, especially in this situation, because there is actual AVAILABLE real estate adjacent to the train station. If the city encouraged these “benevolent” developers to build these dream towers on East State (a perfectly sensible spot, given its proximity to the station), instead of a non-blighted, attractive corner, it would do the city some good, including the existing residents, and the potential, new tenants/residents, by eradicating just a wee bit of the cancer in this city.

    Sometimes, with cancer, a band-aid (or a scarf) is the best that can be done. However, in this case, Trenton’s malignancies will continue to spread if the city thinks it can put a shiny new building on a heavily trafficked corner, but continues to ignore the festering rot surrounding it.

  • Dennis:

    The best sites and most attractive sites to tenants are the ones closest to the station, that’s just a cold hard fact of real estate, and have you figured out why there are only 4 officers in the ward at a time yet?

    Budget Gap

    How do we fix the budget gap and increase further funding for police, community programs and education?

    Simple. More tax dollars. Do you want to pay more taxes, because I certainly don’t, so where can we get a ton of tax dollars without putting further strain on the schools or tax paying residents?

    Corporations in office buildings. Now you might ask, what about all the state offices? Problem there is, they barely pay any taxes at all, in some crazy tax scheme hatched decades ago to attract the state’s offices here.

    So where do we go now? Major national corporations seem to be the answer.

    Where do major national corporations want to be? Right next to the train station, as perfectly situated as possible, and in a sales pitch to these corporations, if given the choice do you think they would want to be right next to the station or blocks away, walking through who knows what kind of mischief? Don’t we need everything on our side as a city including the best possible location in the city?

    Have you considered other issues like design? The location you mentioned on Greenwood is perfectly located because the parking garage can be hidden behind the building on the slope of the hill. Do we need more gigantic concrete monsters in plain view as they would be in the other locations you mentioned? This location would provide the perfect opportunity to hide that garages, and provide shared parking to the other components of this development.

    How do you know eminent domain will be used? Perhaps all those properties will be rightfully purchased. Even if they aren’t, the positives for the city just weigh far to heavy on the scale to not do whatever is needed to generate those tax dollars needed to clean up the streets and better educate our children.

    You said:

    “Sometimes, with cancer, a band-aid (or a scarf) is the best that can be done. However, in this case, Trenton’s malignancies will continue to spread if the city thinks it can put a shiny new building on a heavily trafficked corner, but continues to ignore the festering rot surrounding it.”

    That’s simply not true, these buildings will be huge economic engines with follow up major residential and retail components, if these economic engines are plopped on that heavily trafficked corner you will soon see secondary investment from smaller speculators in the surrounding hoods.

    It happened in Stamford, CT and Silver Springs, MD to name a few cities, it happens all the time in places like The LES in Manhattan and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Areas once filled with blight are invested in by major real estate interests and the development spreads like tentacles from the original investments.

    Think big picture.

  • Thank you, Dennis, for your thoughts on ratables. Just like the Wachovia building which is, I believe, 2/3 empty. What firms are going to move into these 25 story office buildings? And no doubt, the developer will come to council and whine about needing a 40 year pilot. By the way, what happened to your many publized projects that were going to save Trenton? Let’s talk about KHov. You didn’t even notice when the company began the slide downward. PatriciaStewart

  • Jeffrey:

    EMINENT DOMAIN: I’d like to clarify it’s USE from it’s ABUSE.

    eminent domain should only be used when there is a clear, compelling public purpose, documented in a publicly developed and adopted plan—whether it is a plan for redevelopment, open space, toxic cleanup, infrastructure, parks or other public purpose. If there is a such a public purpose—and this could be to increase the density of transit centers and create affordable housing in suburban office parks as well as to rebuild “blighted” urban areas—then surely it should be the case that whoever owns the home or business, be they rich or poor, should be equally protected and equally subject to the appropriate use of eminent domain.

    The point in question is how the public purpose should be established, how performance measures documented, and how the treatment of home and business owners can be made fair and equitable. Once we establish these nonpartisan standards, it becomes irrelevant whether or not the plan is for an area that is inhabited by the rich or the poor. Redevelopment in urban, suburban, and rural areas brings the promise of smart growth to produce room for economic prosperity at the same time as protecting natural resources, improving environmental quality, decreasing auto-dependency and reducing the concentration of poverty. It is of enormous public benefit to redevelop downtowns, transit stations and other areas of public value—whether they are dilapidated or underutilized—to make them more dense, mixed-use, safer, and more vibrant and productive. The public value and re-birth of the Trenton’s Transit Center and it’s surrounding areas is the catalyst and the heart of a renaissance for Trenton that no other efforts before can be compared with at this juncture in our economy. We need to really understand its importance to Trenton’s prosperity. There is no other part of the city that can turn Trenton around and put a new face on Trenton than the Transit Center area. This is crucial and vital to Trenton’s vibrancy.

    If taken a comprehensive approach with conditions and performance measures, the use of eminent domain can be a win/win scenario. It’s been a win/win scenario in more places than it hasn’t. Cities all over the country are using eminent domain to reinvest in transit oriented development with much success for the previous owners and the new vibrant community.

    ABUSE of eminent domain is when there is no clear public purpose, no public involvement and the transfer of property is political. None of that has been apparent to me with this current plan for Trenton. Maybe I’m naive.

    EMINENT DOMAIN is not a dirty word as its been portrayed.

  • Great start to the conversation so far.

    Here’s the way I see it.

    Let’s put eminent domain aside for a second. As I said in the original post it’s more of a principal than an economic argument. I’d like to set up a separate post to discuss this, “How good does the opportunity have be to kick a person out”?

    Back to the economic merits. My main issue is with the top down down approach to developing the area surrounding the three proposed projects.

    Two things. First there is a school of thought expoused most famously by Jane Jacobs that bottom up organic development is almost always preferred to massive top down government led projects. This is “big picture” issue. Trenton has had a tendency to attempt home runs rather than let smaller developers hit base hits.

    Secondly, I’d like to challenge Dennis to paint his big picture. How exactly are you computing the economic benefit of the whole project or even just the three Class A buildings. You can’t just say its wonderful to have thousands of jobs in Trenton, you have to explain what it means. How many of those people will move here? How many already live here and are unemployed? What is the cost to support the buildings (infrastructure, police, fire etc.)? What will the buildings pay in tax after abatements? What’s a reasonable per employee spend? How much of that spend winds up in the tax coffers? If large numbers of people move here, what are the costs to serve them?

    It goes on. We need to start painting the big picture but we need to do it with facts or at least reasonable assumptions. Saying a thing is good because it sounds nice (i.e. jobs) is no longer enough.

    Either the planners (or maybe Dennis) needs to tell the story and those of us who have the inclination to review the story need to buy in. However, until then, I’m not taking the administrations word for it that this is a good plan.

    See my article on Trenton Dynamics for more on painting “big pictures”.

  • Dennis: Maybe we can all do some looking into how Stamford and Silver Spring accomplished their goals: with community support? By using existing buildings? And if so, how many, and to what extent? What condition were those municipalities in prior to their revitalization? As bad as Trenton? Were people clamoring to live and work and hang out in those places (at a transit village)? My guess is yes — to some extent, because that’s what it happened, and that’s why those places are experiencing success. Trenton IS centrally located, but really, buyers aren’t banging down the door to move in; consumers aren’t coming to this city to shop, or even to eat. We need to see the people come first before we can justify a huge building project.

    Plus, neither Stamford nor Silver Spring is the capital of its respective state, unlike Trenton; and I wouldn’t have brought it up, except you mentioned the bad deal our city has with the state. I don’t think the bad deal we have with the state is sole the reason we’re in a budget crisis; years of mismanagement and poor decisions have brought us here. If the city is continuing to get hosed by the State, why don’t we start to look at solutions, or work-arounds…can we charge a city wage tax to all non-resident employees? New York and Philadelphia both do that, and people continue to work there. It’s a drag for the employee, but the extra few percent on the dollar we bring in will help with the budget shortfall you mention, and may help increase the number of officers on the street, and maybe we won’t even need a transit center to supposedly bring in big tax dough to offset our budget hell.

    Oh, and I mention East State, and will continue to do so, because even though the block behind the train station is in rough shape (and continues to be in rough shape as one heads east on that street), because there are old abandoned buildings (most with “good bones” AND vacant lots; and on the block to the west, things begin to look up: there are businesses and government buildings, and it’s not too far from City Hall; plus, there are parking lots, and a large parking deck right there. A new Transit Center might just be perfectly situated at that location, and maybe I’m nuts, but when I park there, I feel safe enough walking to the station, or the offices/restaurant just outside that spot. I feel just as safe as I do if I’m walking along Greenwood/Clinton — though, admittedly, I’ve only done that walk once, and that was to take pictures of all the spots we’re talking about. There’s a heck of a lot more fast traffic at Greenwood/Clinton, which may necessitate traffic studies and slow down efforts, etc., and that wouldn’t be the case over on East State.

  • Jeffrey:

    It’s really hard to compare Stamford and Silver Springs to Trenton since the physical ‘make up’ is different. With that I mean, those towns’ train stations are centrally located amongst its business district and have always been the case. Trenton will be, in a sense, creating a central district that never existed AT its train station. So in this respect, I think a big vision is needed to restructure its physical ‘make up’ to be oriented to the train station. That’s tremendously different than organically filling in and expanding a physical landscape that is ‘ripe’ for reinvestment.

  • Jeffrey:

    ADMIN, I’m new to your blog having just discovered it today and I do believe a healthy discussion on Eminent Domain is badly needed in New Jersey because New Jersey can no longer continue a pattern of sprawl development. This state, being so dense and close to build out, will need to concentrate its efforts on redevelopment to accommodate growth and re-establish its cores/hubs/central districts. The urban cores will need this tool to be available if needed.

    Making a title of “How good does the opportunity have be to kick a person out”? doesn’t address WHY it’s needed. It creates a discussion on value which doesn’t equate to a clear, compelling public purpose. Its hard to put a value on a opportunity and the positive affect of that opportunity on a possibly ‘many’ number of people. That’s why it has to be a clear, compelling public purpose, publicly developed and adopted.

  • Dennis:

    I think we could go back and forth forever on this and I’m not sure I really have the time to answer all of those.

    I’m not sure what KHov project Patricia Stewart is talking about but I think she thinks I am another Dennis.

    I would encourage all of you to just keep an open mind and wait, I’m sure the developers have rooted this HUGE investment in all the Big Picture statistics that Dan is talking about. I think we will be hearing from them soon, and until I hear their side of the story, not city hall’s, like you, I’m not going to pass judgement.

  • Zac:

    I am not passing judgement on this plan. I am going to keep an open mind. I do believe that we need to have a plan for our City. Now, the question is How do we the people work with the next Mayor, Admin and Council ? I think the community must get more involved. We can tell the Mayor, Admin and Council what we want. We must know that a development is going to benefit the City. Dan raise a good point about the net benefit. I would hope that our current and future elected leaders will really do their homework . I will continue to ask questions about development in our City. And, if someone or anyone want to sue me…its okay I’ve been threaten with a lawsuit before. :-)

    I would like to see smaller developments in our city. (not housing) If the Admin can develop large plans…. Why not plans for smaller developments too? Why not a movie theater? Why not a jazz club? Why? Why?

  • Jeffery,

    I promise my complete thoughts on Eminent Domain but I’m also thinking about a poll that gauges how far and for what reasons Trentonians would go for it.

    Also, in Urban Dynamics or systems dynamics in general you typically solve for a “level”, let’s say per capita income. For a company it would be shareholder value.

    Dennis, all you have to do is the homework that backs up your support of the project and everyone will shut-up. The has never done an economic benefit analysis (I asked). Perhaps it’s up to you.

    Thanks Zac. Thanks Pat.

    Chrissy, you and I are waiting for Dennis’ analysis.

    Already, quite a few folks have read and gotten value from this exchange.

  • The KHov project I mentioned was slated for South Trenton on the old Champale site. We of the South Ward are still waiting for development. The odds of winning a megamillion lottery are better than the odds of the city actually completing a pie-in-the-sky scheme. PatStewart

  • The station plan should be approached with great caution — a good many mistakes have already been made in this area, and the opportunity costs of pursuing the city’s gauzy drawings are high, considering alternate uses of public money in more-established commercial neighborhoods around state and county government buildings. The station plan could be a home run, but it could also be a dud without much consequence economically. Agreed with Dan that careful analysis is called for.

    Finding and locking in adequate and stable private-sector occupancy will be the key. I remember meeting developer (and former Camden scrap-steel magnate) Syd Sussman after he had just completed Station Plaza more than 15 years ago. He was bursting with pride, and professed to be astonished he had stayed in the steel business so long when he had now discovered the “true source of wealth” [real-estate development]. Sad.

    In any case, in hindsight, his visions of private-sector tenancy were fleeting. Before long he was at the public trough, and the Plaza was occupied almost entirely by government tenants. Government tenancy works for developers and their bankers, but it’s a big problem for the retail and housing markets. One of the reasons Trenton does not support enough quality retail is that it’s a “lunch-only” crowd. By and large, for reasons of class preference (and for not a few, reasons of racial prejudice and fear) many hightail it out of town at 4:30 or whenever their shift ends. To many of them, social mobility was moving out of Trenton to Hamilton or one of the other townships. They have no desire to hang around after hours, spend scarce money, or heaven forbid buy and occupy property. (PS – you can save the flames — I was a state worker.) Only the political class will patronize a dinner-time venue like Lorenzo’s, and without a substantial and reliable dinner trade, few entrepreneurs can afford to invest in anything but the lowest-end fast food.

    While commercial bankers aren’t much better than state workers (which is why it’s disturbing if the Wachovia building on Front St. is still largely empty), they’re a step up as far as the marketplace is concerned. Anyone who works in an entrepreneurial culture that doesn’t keep what used to be known as “bankers’ hours” should be the highest priority target for attraction. This is what Trenton lost when it lost its industrial headquarters decades ago (you have read John Cumbler’s classic, haven’t you all?

    Possibly the plan bruited about several years ago to build the new NJ Transit headquarters at Trenton train station might have been acceptable, since at least NJT has a large procurement budget that causes certain private sector actors to want to be located physically proximate to key decision makers (the defense base “gate” effect). However, that’s now moot since the HQ was placed at Newark.

    So in retrospect, are we better off that Syd knocked down that row of gorgeous S. Clinton Ave. brownstones to build Station Plaza? (Albeit much deteriorated and in use in the late 1980s as drug-saturated rooming houses, these were fine buildings, represented by just a sole surivor on the south side of East State Street, occupied by lobbyists, last time I checked.)

    Dan, a housing-oriented policy would have reclaimed those brownstones as owner-occupancy rehabs and pursued some mixed-use development closer to existing concentrations downtown, at least until critical mass was achieved in one of them.

    Any way that’s just one of the mistakes that have been made at the train station, along with others such as (1) failure to provide a safe, attractive, and short-distance walking corridor to downtown; (2) decision not extend light-rail all the way downtown; (3) manifold stupidities along the State Street corridor itself, of which more in future posts.

  • Renee:

    As we sit and wonder how the rich and powerful developers will decide how the lives of the ordinary people will be effected by their magnimous way thinking , let us pray.
    Throughout all the rhetoric and meetings that have and will be planned in response to the ever growing failed projects with the City of Trenton, perhaps they need some help. No one would know this situation better than the regular folks who live here. East State Street and the surrounding Greenwood, Clinton Ave area are resplendent with homes. Perhaps not the homes of development choices but homes, nonetheless.
    The families who occupy those homes, should and must have a say into what happens in their communities. Certainly, thinking about them and their legitimate issues are the least of the developers concerns at this point. And, yet the common folks were not included in any of the major thinking that it obviously took to develop the Broad Street Bank, which by the way is a miserable failure. Perhaps if the expensive suits, would have inquired with the common folk, they could have dodged a large bullet. Fact one, any project developed within the City of Trenton will need to include the suggestions, observations and support of the citizens of the prospective communities. It’s vital to not only the economic growth but the safety and security of any and all projects deemed to support the developers and well as city cohesiveness. Regarding the subject of eminent domain, before the issues is genuinely discussed, it should be reported that in 2005, Attorney General Anne Milgram stated that there were many abuses of Eminent Domain in the state of New Jersey. She stated that deceptive developers intentionally abused this prospective to gain access to communities they felt would benefit only their interests. She further stated she would work diligently to see that such abuses would cease and desist in New Jersey. In a report filed by Ronald Chen, Public Advocate to Governor Corzine in 2005, Mr. Chen stated that eminent domain laws in the State of New Jersey were outdated and desperately needed to be revised, towards todays realestate interests and market. Mr. Chen felt that many citizens have suffered within the confines of so-called, land uses only to later find out that the same land uses, were only to benefit development for profit. In this frame, most homeowners were left out of any concern in the project. Thus leading to theft of not only private homes but tracts of land that showed promise in many aspects. Because of the report, legislation has been presented to the legislature and is still awaiting a vote. This delay gives neither the developer or private citizens a clear decision regarding their rights on this subject. I would only hope that an honest, exchange of options and/or ideas will prove to benefit all and lead to many wonderful projects to come

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