This article was originally published in the December 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
The Christie administration’s fast-track plan to demolish three state buildings and replace them with two structures away from Trenton’s downtown hit a speed bump.
The State House Commission tabled approval for the outgoing governor’s plans until Governor-elect Phil Murphy arrives in Trenton in January. The action is a victory for the Stakeholders Allied for the Core of Trenton (ACT).
The group was launched in late 2016 as a response to Chris Christie’s announcement regarding the razing and moving the state treasury, agriculture, and health buildings.
“These plans will disperse state employees, depriving downtown businesses of their much needed patronage, and stymie efforts to build a denser, walkable, transit-oriented downtown in accordance with state and city plans,” notes the Stakeholder website.
The group involving Trenton business owners and city planners argues for a plan that embraces mixed use and public/private partnership.
Organizers have used a website, social media, and media coverage to mobilize community members to lobby the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA) to change the plan.
The EDA is an independent state agency that finances small and mid-sized businesses and has been involved with the planning and bond issuance for the project exceeding $200 million.
As reported in New Jersey Spotlight, “By going through the EDA, the Christie administration can avoid tight legal restrictions on the issuance of new state debt that are written into the state constitution.”
The Stakeholders, continues NJ Spotlight, “also have faulted the design of the proposed new buildings for lacking vision and modernity, and have raised questions about why the state is seeking to borrow money to build new office buildings instead of just leasing them from private developers.
“Others have argued the project has not yet received an approved impact statement from the Capital City Redevelopment Corporation, an organization that was created to ensure that state development projects do not negatively impact the redevelopment of Trenton, and violates the organization’s urban code.”
EDA president and CEO Tim Lizura refuted the Stakeholder claims and told the State House Commission, “While it seems like it’s being pushed, it is actually a very methodical process, which takes quite a few months, and if you don’t continue the momentum on that you can get mired down.”
EDA consultants have argued that “new construction was a better option for the state than trying to renovate the existing buildings or leasing new space,” reported NJ Spotlight.
But New Jersey State Assemblyman, Trenton resident, and State House Commission member Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) raised concerns about the project’s conflicts with the city’s own master plan and potential harm to the ratable base.
“I would urge and beg my colleagues on this commission to put this on hold, to allow further public input. This is the end of the Christie administration. I think that this decision should be reserved for the incoming (Murphy) administration,” said Gusciora.
With at least one member believing that “more pieces” needed to be connected before approving the project, the State House Commission voted to table approval. The action prevented the NJEDA from voting to advance the project.
As EDA spokeswoman Erin Gold told NJ Spotlight, “In order to get to the next phase of development, the State Office Building project requires various state approvals, including from the State House Commission. The EDA will not advance the related final budget and bond issuance to its board until the project receives the required approvals.”
Fred B. Dumont, EDA board member and business manager of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers Local #89, was critical of the decisions and told the Trentonian newspaper the building plan was a bipartisan effort involving Gov. Christie, State Senate President Steve Sweeney, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, and Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson and would involve 100 percent union workers.
Dumont, a Hamilton resident, then focused on Gusciora. “His one task was to sabotage that project. There were so many meetings before this and he didn’t go to one. He waited until it was a done deal and then came in and sabotaged it.”
“I voted alongside six other members to postpone the decision until the incoming Murphy administration had time to review the project,” writes Gusciora in a statement. “Prior to the vote, there were no public hearings and little input on the plans. The capital city deserves better treatment, and a more thoughtful plan that would serve as an economic catalyst by building in the downtown core, rather than on its fringes.”
He says the capital city “has been shortchanged by an administration that has invested woefully little in urban redevelopment. The two state projects the governor dedicated to Trenton were a $300 million state house renovation, and a $20 million pedestrian bridge to nowhere. He didn’t — and doesn’t — care about developing Trenton productively, in a way would make the city a source of pride.”
The assemblyman also asked why only state-owned property was considered for the project. “No consideration was given to land within the city’s designated commerce center or near the NJ Transit and River Line hub, both of which are regulatory requirements that EDA ignored. Why would they choose to build outside these zones, yet commit taxpayer dollars to fund the project? Moreover, if future designs are to encourage mass transit options for state employees, why would the plan make it more inconvenient for workers to get from a transit hub to their offices? It seems that EDA commissioners are unaware of their mission to support, rather than hinder, economic development.”
After stating his support for mixed-use development to help stimulate the local economy, Gusciora accused Gov. Christie of choosing the “easiest, rather than the best, option for Trenton.”
“Trenton needs proactive leadership at all levels of government to ensure that it can reach its full potential,” writes Gusciora. “This plan was unilateral, short-sighted, last-minute, and disastrous for the city’s future; and it would be better served with a more considerate evaluation of its merits, and a plan that promotes the social and economic development of our state capital. I have seen progress in our city in the past few years. With a more engaged governor, Trenton can truly live up to its potential.”