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Controversial Christie plan to demolish three state buildings is back on the table

The Christie administration is still trying to push through $220 million in financing for the demolition of three state office buildings and the construction of two new building. The plan is opposed by many business and civic leaders in Trenton, who say the move would hurt the downtown core of the capital.

The State House Commission, which controls the sale and leasing of state owned properties, tabled the project a few weeks ago because it did not meet planning and code standards. But the commission, under pressure from construction labor unions and others, is set to reconsider the matter tomorrow at 9 a.m. at the State House. A second review by the state’s Space Utilization Committee was scheduled for 2:30 p.m. but is no longer listed. Christie, the state treasurer, two NJ Assembly representatives and two NJ Senate representatives are members of the commission (view the list and contact info. here).

The plan calls for the demolition of the buildings that house the State Department of Agriculture, State Department of Health, and the New Jersey Department of Treasury’s Division of Taxation. The sites would likely be used for parking. New, smaller office buildings for the agencies totaling 400,000 square feet would be built surrounded by parking lots and other state buildings, away from the heart of the downtown business area.

Stakeholders Allied for the Core of Trenton (ACT) has called on legislators to hold off on the project and create a better plan that would enhance the downtown area.  Anne LaBate, a member of the group and president of Segal LaBate Commercial Real Estate, said the sites for the new buildings are poor locations, and the state needs to look at various factors when considering where to locate offices.

“Urban development is complicated and delicate. You can’t look for simple solutions,” she said, adding that the officials could look beyond state-owned land when searching for new office spaces.

“There are numerous buildings and sites in the core of the city that are ripe and ready, and already on the market that people can’t give away. They never looked at them,” LaBate said. “There  was no consideration given to proximity to downtown or making it easy to get to the Trenton Train Station. Also, if buildings are located in more remote areas, they will be empty more than they are occupied. If they are in mixed-used developments with apartments nearby, the lots could be in use at night by residents. It’s a successful system that works elsewhere.”

As an example of the impact the move could have on a single business, the New Jersey Department of Treasury’s Division of Taxation currently is located at the corner of West State Street and Barrack Street,  and houses about 1,000 employees. A new Starbucks just opened around the corner to serve residents and state workers. It is safe to say that moving the office will affect Starbucks, which employs Trenton residents.

LaBate said government agencies across the country are entering into public-private partnerships to create mixed-used developments that foster vibrant downtown centers. In other parts of New Jersey, there are also examples, such as the $172 million New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, a partnership among Devco, the city, Rutgers University, Middlesex County, the state Economic Development Authority, the New Brunswick Cultural Center, Pennrose Properties and the New Brunswick Parking Authority, and 11 other groups.

The Capital City Redevelopment Corporation, an organization that was created to ensure that state development projects do not negatively impact the redevelopment of Trenton, also has not signed off on Christie’s project. The group lobbied the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to rework the plan and come up with one that promotes public and private partnerships and mixed-use development.

Christie’s administration would avoid legal restrictions on the issuance of new state debt by borrowing $220 million  through the state’s Economic Development Authority, just as Christie did earlier this year to help finance the $300 million renovation of the New Jersey State House.

Residents and business leaders in Trenton were hoping that the project would be tabled until Gov.-elect Phil Murphy takes office in early 2018. They hope Murphy would be more open to keeping the offices in the heart of the downtown area, where thousands of state employees currently support shops and eateries. Critics of the project also say the design of the proposed new buildings is not modern, and question why the state would build new buildings instead of leasing space from private developers.

Gov-elect Murphy’s director of communications, Dan Bryan, did not respond to emails from Planet Princeton seeking comment from the governor-elect on the issue.

Assemblywoman Liz Muoio, who represents the district Trenton is in,  said no one is against the idea of new construction in Trenton, or against the idea that something needs to be done regarding the current buildings. “My main concern is that any plans take into account the long range plans and vision of the city – as embodied in the Trenton 250 Master Plan,” Muoio said. “Just as people in any town would be seeking the same assurances in the face of a large scale development project, the residents of Trenton understandably want to know that their vision for their city is being considered and respected. They deserve those assurances, and that’s what I will focus my comments on to the committee tomorrow.”

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, who also represents Trenton, opposes Christie’s plan because it will harm the city.

Construction unions want the project to move forward as it is. Lawyers and bond companies also stand to profit from the deal.

This story was updated with comments by Liz Muoio.