If the short, silver-haired 65-year-old man seen downtown Trenton shaking hands and bantering good naturedly looks for all the world like a politician on the campaign trail, there’s a good reason: It’s Robert Torricelli, also known as “The Torch,” former U.S. congressman and senator and current partner in Woodrose Properties.
In 2002 Torricelli abandoned his re-election campaign after accusations of ethics violations, seemingly ending his 20-year run in politics. Since then his activities have included open space advocacy, rescuing animals, trolling Chris Christie on Twitter, acting as a lawyer for the MEK (an Iranian opposition group in exile that was on the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2012), and teasing a potential return to politics.
He also runs Rosemont Associates, a lobbying firm, and the Rosemont Foundation, a charity that he started with money left over from his aborted re-election campaign. The foundation has donated to breast cancer research, land preservation, animal welfare groups, and domestic violence charities.
But Torricelli’s career in real estate has taken up most of his time. His company has more than 50 properties in 10 states, including several prominent projects in Mercer County.
Torricelli’s venture into real estate started in 2003 with a single house, and bigger investments soon followed. “I started the same thing in Florida, in Palm Beach County, bidding on a multifamily dwelling, then a third one, an office building,” he says.
Torricelli specializes in buying existing buildings and renovating them. “The model is buying buildings in good locations, with solid structures that are in significant disrepair, and restoring them,” he says.
Today Torricelli’s Trenton holdings include the PNC Bank building on State Street, the Subway restaurant on Warren Street, and the CWA headquarters building.
He bought Pete Lorenzo’s steakhouse on Clinton Avenue in Trenton, the landmark restaurant near the train station where the capital city’s political elite hobnobbed over expensive meals until it closed in 2009. Torricelli was a regular there himself, and when he tore down the steakhouse in 2013 to make way for a planned energy-efficient office building, he kept some of the dishes for himself. He likes to use them when he entertains guests at his Hunterdon County farm.
“I actually have pictures of myself having lunch there with Brendan Byrne,” Torricelli says “The state government was run out of Lorenzo’s as much as the state house for 40 years.” The property is currently a parking lot, and Torricelli says he now plans to build housing there instead of an office building.
His latest project is the first Starbucks in Trenton, located at the corner of South Warren and Front streets. The store will run on a unique business model compared to other Starbucks, in that it will include an in-store classroom that the company will use to hold job training programs for local youth. When classes are not in session, the room will be available for local community groups. The store is planned to be one of 15 such community-focused Starbucks locations around the country.
The Starbucks is a project with a political connection. A decade ago Torricelli travelled to a mayor’s conference in Las Vegas with Trenton’s then-mayor, Doug Palmer. Torricelli was there when the mayor, in a speech, called out the CEO of Starbucks, who was in the audience, and asked him why every state capital except Trenton had a Starbucks.
“That was 10 years ago, and we never gave up on it,” Torricelli says.
Nothing in Torricelli’s background prepared him for a career in construction. He grew up in Franklin Lakes, the son of Salvatore Torricelli, a lawyer, and Betty Torricelli, a school librarian. He had a lifelong interest in politics. As a child he ran in a student “mayor for the day” election at the same time as his father was running for actual mayor of the town. He won, and his father lost. His childhood bedroom was decorated with red, white, and blue and a bust of Abe Lincoln.
Bob Torricelli went to Rutgers, graduating in 1974 and getting a job as an assistant to Governor Brendan Byrne in 1975. Two years later he graduated from Rutgers Law School and continued assisting Democratic campaigns. He earned a master’s in public administration from Harvard in 1980, and in 1982 he successfully ran for congress. He remained a U.S. representative until 1996, when he became a senator, beating Republican Dick Zimmer by 10 points and becoming a star of the Democratic party in the process. Somewhere along the way he earned the nickname “The Torch” for his brash style. The Torch became a fixture in tabloids in the early 1990s when he dated Bianca Jagger.
In 2000 Torricelli’s senatorial future was looking bright. He had led the Democrat’s senate campaign in a successful election cycle that saw them pick up four seats. But his political career abruptly ended in scandal two years later, when a Senate ethics panel admonished him for accepting lavish gifts from Korean businessman David Chang, who told investigators he sought and received favors from the senator. The gifts included a TV, a stereo system, and some jewelry. Chang went to prison for campaign finance violations.
While the scandal sunk Torricelli’s campaign (and gave Frank Lautenberg the chance to take his place in the Senate), he can still truthfully boast that he never lost an election. With his political career dashed, Torricelli wasted little time embarking on his second act. “I was always interested in business,” he says. “I learned as I went.”
He counts among his mentors such real estate moguls as Jack Morris, owner of Edgewood Properties and developer of numerous properties throughout Central New Jersey; Chris Paladino, president of New Brunswick Development Corp., a private nonprofit company that is redeveloping New Brunswick; and Charles Kushner, a developer and Democratic party donor and the father of Jared Kushner.
Among the skills Torricelli picked up along the way are backhoe operation, and he can often be found working the machinery on this or that construction site. “People are always amazed that I often operate the backhoes,” he says. “Frankly I’m the best at it because I do it a lot.”
He says renovating properties provides a certain kind of enjoyment that politics never could. As a lawmaker, Torricelli steered about $1 billion in federal funds to New Jersey to build affordable housing. But he says that the comparatively smaller projects he has worked on as a developer have given him more satisfaction.
“It’s creative and permanent,” he says. “One of the things that frustrated me about service in Congress was at the end of the day, it’s hard to touch and feel what you’ve achieved. The achievements (at a site) are real and permanent, and you can touch and quantify them on any given day. I love the idea — whether it’s pouring concrete, building a structure, or renovating a building — that I can feel a sense of permanence. I love the idea that I’m creating living space where families and children can get old and have holiday visits. It’s a very warm and comforting feeling.”
Torricelli, a longtime advocate of open space, says his projects have been renovations or reconstructions of existing buildings (Lorenzo’s is an exception.) “We have never cut down a tree and we will not build on agricultural land,” he says. “We will not destroy open space. One thing I will not be in life is a hypocrite. I believe that in life you put your money where your mouth is.”
He describes his overall approach to business as “conservative,” and says his company has a relatively low debt to value ratio. “It’s because I’m older,” he says. “I’m probably unnecessarily conservative. It would have been different if I had started the business at 25.”
‘Obviously I’m in the best financial state in my life, but I’m distressed at the state of the country.’
While not officially involved in politics, Torricelli doesn’t hesitate to offer his opinions. He says his properties in Trenton have suffered because the state government has treated the city with “benign neglect.” That’s one reason he held off on his office building project near the Trenton train station. He also blames Chris Christie’s decision not to fund a tunnel expansion to New York City, a decision he says has caused incalculable damage to the state’s economy.
Torricelli says his political ties have not helped him in his business career, and that he has never breezed through an approval process. “People never want to be seen as doing a special favor because of politics,” he says. “The scrutiny in the approval process sometimes becomes difficult.”
The senator’s political past haunts him at unexpected times. Several years ago he was working to renovate the PNC Bank building, a former “greasy luncheonette” near the state house, with apartments on the upper floors.
“The building was in a state of disrepair when we bought it,” Torricelli says. He bought the building and adjoining row houses with the intention of turning the upper floors into office space. He went to inspect his newly purchased property only to discover it was occupied by squatters. There was no furniture or utilities, but the residents had a broken refrigerator with a “Torricelli for Senate” bumper sticker on it. He had planned to offer the squatters money to relocate, but left the task to a partner after seeing the sticker. “I couldn’t deal with asking them to leave,” he says.
Woodrose also bought and restored the Golden Swan Hotel, an 1810 building at 101 South Warren Street that had been abandoned for years. He bought it from the city for $1. “Other developers had been designated to refurbish it and failed because it was very difficult financially to make it work,” Torricelli says. The building started out as offices, but he says he plans to convert it to almost all residential units.
Torricelli says he has been doing so many projects in Trenton because he believes the city is on the verge of a turnaround. He thinks the city will soon reach a “critical mass” where investment snowballs and the city’s fortunes reverse. He says the Roebling Lofts project could be the “piece of the puzzle” that kicks off greater redevelopment.
Woodrose Properties has about a dozen employees, and Torricelli says the company is doing well. “I’m happier now than I’ve been at any other time in my life,” he says. “Obviously I’m in the best financial state in my life, but I’m distressed at the state of the country.”
He is especially tough on Chris Christie. He slams the governor for his 2010 decision to cancel the ARC rail project, which would have dug two new train tunnels under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. Torricelli called the cancellation “the worst public policy decision of my lifetime” and that it has affected taxes, employment, and quality of life in the state. “I’ve invested in a lot of other projects in Harrison and Morristown that are impacted by it,” he says.
Torricelli is particularly irked by the tunnel cancellation, since he had a hand in getting it funded in the first place, having gotten funding for the tunnel into a post-September 11 recovery bill. “It was after 9/11, the country was unified, and people were very sympathetic to New York and New Jersey,” he says, noting that getting a project like that funded again would be much more difficult in the current political environment.
Torricelli has also opposed Christie’s plans in Trenton to demolish the agriculture, health, and taxation buildings and relocate the state government offices to two new buildings on Willow Street and the corner of John Fitch Way and South Warren Street. “It’s more of the city building glass boxes surrounded by surface parking lots,” Torricelli says. “What the state is doing is a 1968 model.” He has joined a group called Stakeholders Allied for the Core of Trenton, which opposes the office plans and says they are likely to harm downtown businesses.
Christie and Torricelli were not always opponents. In 2001 President George W. Bush launched Christie into the public spotlight by appointing him U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. Torricelli gave his blessing to the nomination after Christie promised to appoint a professional with federal courtroom experience as deputy if confirmed. Torricelli says that Christie had also assured him he would never run for public office.
As for his own political future, Torricelli isn’t saying whether he will make another run for office.
“I’ve thought about it. And I may,” he says. “But if it doesn’t happen, this has been the best time of my life.”
Woodrose Properties, 63 Bridge Street, Lambertville. 609-773-0335 or woodroseproperties.com.