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Op-Ed: Who Cooked Up the Trenton State Office Development Project?

No one seems willing to take the blame (understandably), but the new administration should shut the project down until it can be evaluated and rethought

USE-NEW torricelli
Former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ)

One of the very catchy tunes from the hit Broadway show “Hamilton” recounts that when a key decision was made back in the late 1700s, “No one else was in the room where it happened.” As Gov. Chris Christie prepares to leave office, his parting shot for our capital city has us questioning: Who exactly was in the room when this happened?

Who decided that a new state office building plan for Trenton should only consider state-owned land as possible development sites? Who decided not to use the leverage of a state lease to develop mixed-use residential, commercial, and state office buildings? Who decided not to gain tax ratables for the city of Trenton by attracting private developers?

The current development plan for constructing two new office buildings to replace the current state Departments of Health and Taxation ignores every lesson of urban planning in the last 40 years. It’s no wonder that no one claims credit for the concept or design.

The construction of two suburban-style office buildings on state land surrounded by surface parking lots, with no mass transit and no integrated residential or commercial development, was an understandable proposal by the Meyner, Hughes, or even Cahill administrations. By the end of the Byrne administration in 1981, we knew better. Downtown urban areas do not need to attract thousands of cars. They need to attract residents or mass-transit commuters to the greatest extent possible. Office workers can contribute to the urban landscape, not by our creating self-contained boxes, but rather by integrating them into the urban environment through mixed-use development. That is what we need to do now in Trenton.

The irony is that the New Jersey Economic Development Authority has been the promoter and major investor in mixed-use, public-private partnerships, in cities throughout the state. The result has been creative projects from Jersey City, Newark, and New Brunswick to Camden. Why not Trenton?

Rather than even test the market for private partners, the NJEDA is planning another massive bond offering, exacerbating New Jersey’s notoriously overextended debt burden, to construct two simple state buildings. Which raises the issue again, whose proposal is this?

In some respects, it doesn’t matter. The debt burden, construction, and use of these buildings will all rest on the Murphy administration. The lost opportunity to use the new buildings as leverage for federal mass-transit expansion and lost tax ratables will be Murphy’s as well. The decision of what to build properly rests with Phil Murphy.

All planning and expenditures for the current development plan need to stop now. These buildings have been in disrepair for decades. There’ll be a new administration in 30 days and these decisions need to await them.

Once in a generation the state addresses its office needs in Trenton. Let’s get it right and let’s build something that we’ll all be proud to claim as our own.

Robert Torricelli is a former United States Senator and, as the owner of Woodrose Properties, an investor in numerous Trenton real estate projects.

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