By Anne LaBate and Iana Dikidjieva
While some look for the stars to align magically to solve a problem, the Stakeholders Allied for the Core of Trenton have been working continuously to embolden our elected leadership to align in the interest of innovative, sustainable, and transformative development in downtown Trenton.
It is to that end that we have been actively petitioning Governor Murphy’s administration to reject the infamous Christie-era planning for state office development that prioritizes simple expediency above all else.
Governor Murphy can instead embrace this once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage state office needs as a catalyst to a visionary urban economic development project, providing the spark to ignite a much needed revival of our Capital City.
It will not be the simple project the Christie administration conceived, but in the words of H.L. Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The expedient Christie proposal not only lacks input and support from most City of Trenton elected officials and community members, but it also largely ignores the vision outlined in our Trenton 250 Master Plan.
How we came to this point is worth retelling.
It was September of 2016 when then Governor Christie announced what he called a revitalization plan for Trenton, touting private investment and saying his plan would “create a vibrant downtown scene.”
But immediately Trenton residents and downtown business owners recognized the plan was not likely to spur revitalization and far more likely to be devastating to our downtown. The private investment was non-existent. The development sites were far afield from our downtown businesses — selected not because they were optimal locations for office buildings, but simply because the state already owned the land.
Just as the Trenton 250 Master Plan was being completed, at significant expense to the city and with extensive public participation, the Christie Administration chose to ignore its guidelines and vision.
Clearly, it was time to organize, and Stakeholders Allied for the Core of Trenton came together, comprising Trenton residents, downtown business and property owners, smart growth advocates, and urban planners.
Since then we worked to inform the public and advocate for changes to Christie’s plan. We held public meetings, developed alternative concept plans, published op-eds, created a website, and with extensive use of social media, gained much support from most everyone who looked objectively at the state’s plan.
We were gratified that urban development and economic development professionals who examined the plan were virtually all in agreement with our analysis. Not only was the state’s plan likely to damage our downtown, it represented a massive missed opportunity to leverage transformative development, a mixed-use public private partnership, along the lines that have been successful in cities throughout New Jersey.
But our efforts had no effect on the Christie administration. As his term in office wound down, Christie, ever seeking to “squeeze all the juice out of the orange,” was running out of time to reward friends and supporters with legal fees and contract awards. What might be good for Trenton’s downtown was the very least of his concerns.
His team routed project approvals through relatively obscure state commissions rather than the full legislature, thereby avoiding the type of public review we expect for major state projects. In November, 2017, the members of the State House Commission, led by Trenton-based New Jersey Assembly member Reed Gusciora, recognized the project as half-baked and voted to table the decision to a future meeting. We thought, finally, sanity had prevailed.
But Governor Christie was not to be stopped. The State House Commission, which typically meets once every three months, convened just three weeks later in December — but with the legislators who found the plan objectionable bounced from the committee. Christie got his vote and the project went barreling forward.
It was then that we sued for an injunction to stop the bond sales needed to fund the project. There were several reasons to do so: There is a constitutional amendment that requires a public vote on such expenditures, and that had not happened. The State Building Authority is supposed to be in charge of developing facilities for the state, but this project had been routed through the NJEDA instead, avoiding a full review by the legislature. And no impact studies had been completed even though they are required for state development within the area designated as the Capital City Redevelopment District.
But we had no luck in the courts. The judges seemed to say, “Who were we to challenge this Governor?” Just a week before the end of his term, Governor Christie was able to reward his buddies with bond underwriting and bond counsel fees.
So where do we go from here?
Stakeholders Allied for the Core of Trenton is striving to get Governor Murphy’s Treasury Department to take the following actions:
Institute an immediate moratorium on expenditures related to this project, including all pre-development contracts and activity.
Defease the bonds: The NJEDA bonds sold in January will severely limit the state’s ability to control project costs, obtain the best deal structure and project design. The state treasurer should complete the necessary analysis and process to defease the bonds (refund bond buyers) in order to allow maximum flexibility, cost-benefit and conformance with both City of Trenton and the Capital City Redevelopment Corporation (CCRC) master plans.
Expedite a thorough project review and the completion of impact studies mandated by CCRC legislation and the Environmental Assessment mandated by Executive Order 215 of 1989, for all major state construction projects, to be completed by the NJDEP.
Convene an advisory commission to broaden input beyond just state officials, to assure the project proceeds in a manner that will allow for creation of the required state office space, while addressing parking needs, fostering the use of public transportation, giving due consideration to the tax ratable impact for the City of Trenton among other considerations. Such a commission would include local elected officials, along with Trenton stakeholders and urban development experts.
We continue to encourage all concerned Trentonians and stakeholders to let elected officials and Trenton mayoral and city council candidates know your position, and demand that candidates state their own on this important issue.
We also ask that everyone visit our website regularly to read candidates statements.
And we urge all Trenton citizens to make sure that your voice is heard, most importantly on election day May 8 (and on the probable runoff on June 12).
It’s time to act for excellence in downtown development. We can’t afford to wait for the stars to help us.
Anne LaBate and Iana Dikidjieva are co-chairs of Stakeholders Allied for the Core of Trenton.