This article was originally published in our sister paper, U.S. 1 Newspaper.
When Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson cut the ribbon at an imposing brick building on 71 Clark Street on October 4, it was a ceremony more than 40 years in the making.
The Roebling Lofts apartment building, formerly Building 101 of the steel rope making complex built mostly around 1917, has been a target for redevelopment since the factory shut down in 1974. Last month the repurposed building welcomed its first 40 or so tenants.
The apartments at Roebling Loft, built by Trenton-based developers HHG, are on the top end of apartments available in Trenton. Rents are as high as $2,150 for ground floor two-bedroom units, with income-restricted studios going for $1,085.
The most remarkable feature of the 100-year-old wire rope manufacturing building is its large windows, which flooded the building with light when it was a factory. HHG kept the windows in place, replacing the panes with high-efficiency glass. Because the apartments are lofts, each one gets at least one massive, 12 to 16-foot high window. The building is full of other environmentally friendly features like high efficiency HVAC systems, LED lighting, and recycled materials everywhere.
Officials hailed the opening of the apartments as a milestone in efforts to bring about a revival of Trenton’s economic fortunes. “This is a great day for the city of Trenton,” Jackson said. “This is in a capital city where folks said this type of environment cannot exist. We do the impossible when folks say it can’t be done.”
HHG, a firm with a long history of renovating historic buildings in Trenton, won the right to redevelop the Roebling site in 2011 when the Mercer County Improvement Authority, which owns the property, gave it control of the site. The $35 million project was financed by Fulton Bank of New Jersey, the Bank of Princeton, federal historic tax credits, and $16 million in economic development tax credits from the state economic development authority.
Plans for repurposing the Roebling Wire factory in Chambersburg go back to the mid-1970s when developers wanted to raze the old factory buildings and put up a strip mall with a K-Mart. At the time, local residents objected to the destruction of the historic buildings, where many of them had worked, and since then, proposals have focused on repurposing the industrial site’s brick and steel behemoths.
In the mid-1980s, Columbia University graduate student Clifford Zink created a plan to redevelop the three-block site by turning the old factory buildings into shops, apartments, and civic buildings. Throughout the decades, developers and the state and local governments have built various projects in the area, all on the same basic idea: that the neighborhood could draw visitors, workers, and residents based on its striking architecture, central location, and connection to the city’s history as a center of industry.
People who seek to spur a renaissance of Trenton hope to follow a game plan set by other former industrial cities that have modernized their economies. That plan involves redevelopment of historic buildings and using a thriving arts culture to draw visitors to the city, sparking further investment. This plan is bolstered by surveys that show younger workers prefer living in walkable communities and like the city more than the suburbs.
The developers, John Hatch, David Henderson, and Michael Goldstein of HHG, are also repurposing a nearby boiler building as office space and building an entirely new structure on the site, as part of a plan to bring offices, apartments, and upscale shops and restaurants to the area. The proposed development includes 200,000 square feet of office space and a central square called The Railyard, which would double as a concert and festival venue.
In some ways, the site is more appealing than ever before. The completion of Route 129 in 1994 makes it easily accessible by car, and the completion of the nearby Hamilton Avenue light rail station offers easy transit access as does the Trenton Transit Center, which is within easy walking distance. Nearby, another former Roebling factory is the venue for two of the city’s most popular events, the Art All Night festival and the Punk Rock Flea Market.
Entertainment venues like the CURE Insurance Arena and restaurants like Trenton Social and Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon are on South Broad Street just on the other side of Route 129. Just across Elmer Street is the Roebling Market shopping center anchored by the Food Bazaar supermarket, which specializes in Latin American, South American, and Caribbean food.
Goldstein believes the 138-unit lofts building will be rented out by young workers (especially when the offices are complete) and retirees alike. If the early renters in Roebling Lofts are any indication, there are signs that this strategy has a chance of working.
After the ceremony, dignitaries and developers mingled with its new residents over beer and wine in the building’s fourth floor lounge. The centerpiece of the room is the fatigue machine, an apartment-sized steel contraption that workers once used to test steel ropes by stretching them to the breaking point.
Niall Lessard, 28, works for his family’s business, and previously lived with his parents in Princeton. He said he wanted to move in with his fiance and live in the city.
Cheryl Brown, 50, is dean of students at the STEMCivics Charter School in Ewing. She is renting a two-bedroom unit with her husband, her adult daughter, and her dog. She says she owned a house in Ewing and wanted to downsize. “This is really nice,” she said. “I’m holding out hope for the environment around it to change.”
The environment around the lofts, the neighborhood of Chambersburg, was once an Italian-American outpost famous for its restaurants that has since transformed into a majority Latino district. It’s still a hot spot for food, with places like Sabor Latino on Roebling Street, Riconcito Latino on Hudson Street, and Puerto Barrios on Chambers Street earning high ratings from reviewers.
However, the neighborhood sometimes shows up on police blotters. In February, Michael Brancolino, 53, was gunned down in broad daylight about a block away from Roebling Lofts at the intersection of Hudson Street and Hamilton Avenue. Police told news reporters Brancolino was not the target of the shooting. There was another non-fatal shooting on Hudson Street on September 10.
On the Internet, where residents can voice their opinions anonymously, they are blunt: “The entire surrounding neighborhood is a drug-infested slum,” said one post on apartments.com.
Revitalizing a run-down area can often appear hopeless at first, as David Robinson, one of the new Roebling Lofts tenants, can attest. In many ways Robinson represents the kind of tenant whom developers and Trenton boosters hope will move to town. He’s an artist and baby boomer empty nester who before moving to the lofts, lived for a time in his nearby Pearl Street studio, where he carves wood and runs a business building rustic gazebos and other structures.
Since he has worked in Chambersburg for decades, Robinson has no illusions about the neighborhood. “It’s literally ‘The Wire’ outside” he says, referring to the HBO drama series about the drug trade in Baltimore. “I have people sitting out front of my stoop every morning. I had to call 911 a couple weeks ago because a woman just passed out, lying on the sidewalk like she was dead. I will not be surprised if I see somebody dead in front of my shop tomorrow.”
But Robinson has seen firsthand how an old factory building filled with artists can be the beginning of a neighborhood’s renaissance.
Robinson grew up in Concord, New Hampshire, in a conservative household. He went to the University of New Hampshire for a year but left after deciding college wasn’t for him and moved to San Francisco. “I was kind of this innocent little guy going out there by myself in the big city,” he said. He drifted around for a while in typical early 1970s hippie fashion, joining the Hare Krishnas briefly and living in a house with 30 other people. He eventually started going to night school again, at the City College of San Francisco, and began working for a sculptor he met there.
The sculptor didn’t pay Robinson but provided him with a place to live: a giant, two-block long former canning factory in a neighborhood called the Dogpatch. The former American Can Company plant, built in the 1930s was 600,000 cavernous square feet, with concrete floors and pillars and an elevator that was big enough to drive a Volkswagen into.
“It was just cool,” Robinson says. “I just kind of camped out there for a while, then suggested to my bosses, ‘wow, you should make some apartments here.” Before long the factory had 50 studio apartments. The accommodations were far from luxurious. The apartments were just glorified boxes and they shared a communal shower. But the units were appealing to the starving artist types then flocking to the city, and they turned the factory into an unplanned art colony. Robinson recalls there was a rope swing hanging from the ceiling.
“All these artists started moving in,” Robinson said. “There were paper makers and dancers. There was a woman from New York who was an abstract painter. The guy across from me, his wife was a dancer and he was into metalwork. He made bars for dancers to put their legs on and stretch.”
At the time, the San Francisco waterfront was also rough around the edges. Robinson recalls there was a Hell’s Angels bar across the street, and another bar called “Tugboat Annie’s” where the owner, the titular Annie, constantly had to break up fights.
The creative people who moved to San Francisco and into Robinson’s factory building and other places like it would form the countercultural part of the tech industry. “There was definitely a resurgence,” Robinson says. “It was sort of the beginning of Silicon Valley, that whole mentality.”
Today the neighborhood surrounding the old factory is full of $5,000-a-month apartments, microbrewers, and cocktail bars. The building itself has a winery, half a dozen restaurants, and upscale businesses including a store that sells $268 pairs of clogs.
The comparison with Trenton isn’t a perfect one. For all its problems, Robinson recalls that San Francisco didn’t have blocks of empty storefronts like Trenton does, and the city was building infrastructure, such as the BART train system, that would help propel its development as an urban center. For another thing, the lofts are among the more expensive apartments in Trenton, so they may not be as appealing for artists with marginal to nonexistent incomes like the hippies who came to San Francisco in the 1970s.
Still, Robinson is encouraged that HHG has quickly rented out the first apartments in the lofts while the rest are still under construction. He is surprised the lofts got built at all, considering the track record of Trenton projects that have been announced only to be quietly abandoned years later.
“Once I heard this was happening, I was on it immediately,” he says. “But so much happens in Trenton that is just talk.”
Robinson says he chose to move to the lofts to get a fresh start in a clutter-free home. He previously lived in Pennington with his wife and his daughter, who has suffered from brain cancer since she was a child and has required constant caretaking. Robinson’s mother and sister recently died, leaving him with many belongings to go through, and he also separated from his wife. To Robinson, a new apartment seemed like a good place for a clean slate.
“What attracted me was all this space,” he says. “It’s clean and brand new, and I’m not going to bring all this stuff with me.”
Robinson’s apartment is a one-bedroom about 30 feet long by 18 feet wide, which he plans to fill with furniture of his own making. “The light is just fantastic with the huge windows,” he says.
HHG built the apartments on spec, assuming that renters like Robinson would follow. It’s not the first time HHG has renovated a historic Trenton building. All three partners in the firm live in Mill Hill, the neighborhood where the company got its start by renovating 25 historic homes in the 1990s. Since then they took a smaller industrial building, an oyster cracker factory on Center Street, and turned it into 18 condos.
Goldstein, a former technology entrepreneur and CEO of Probaris Technologies, is in charge of finance and marketing, while Henderson and Hatch, both architects, do the design work. Goldstein is married to June Ballinger, the recently retired artistic director of the Passage Theater, while Henderson and Hatch, a couple themselves, co-parent two children together with a lesbian couple who live in the same neighborhood. Hatch and Henderson have lived in Trenton since the late 1980s.
Their long experience in the city gave them a very clear goal when looking for redevelopment sites. “I went on a tour to find the best possible factory we could develop,” Hatch said at the ribbon cutting ceremony. “Having seen every building in the city, this is the best one.”