Christie Administration’s Push for New Government Offices in Trenton Stymied

Demolition of two state buildings and construction of two more fail to get go-ahead from State House Commission

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The Christie administration’s plan to push through financing for construction of two new state-government office buildings before the end of Christie’s tenure appears to have stalled, after lawmakers took notice and others said the project would not meet appropriate planning and code standards and was rushing the approval process. The proposal, calling for the demolition of two current state buildings and the financing and construction of another two, failed to win final approval earlier this week from a panel that oversees the sale and lease of state property.

The State House Commission, a panel whose members include lawmakers and executive-branch representatives, decided to hold back approval of two items related to the office-building project on Monday, and that forced the state Economic Development Authority to delay consideration of both the financing and a budget for the project on Tuesday.

What happens next to the more than $200 million project remains to be seen, but the delay is winning praise from some residents and city planning advocates who have been questioning the direction of the proposed government-building realignment since Gov. Chris Christie first announced it last year.

With the delay coming in the final weeks of Christie’s tenure — he’s due to leave office in January under term limits set in the state constitution — the future of the project could now be determined by Gov.-elect Phil Murphy after he takes office in early 2018.

Generating opposition

[img-wide:/assets/17/1115/2114]First announced in September 2016, the Christie administration’s plan calls for the construction of two office buildings in the downtown area of Trenton to house the departments of Agriculture and Health, and the Department of Treasury’s Division of Taxation. The plan also calls for existing buildings to be demolished, and possibly turned into parking once the new construction is complete. Christie touted the plan as a way to reduce the overall state footprint in Trenton, and has predicted it will generate more economic development and private-sector investment in the city, which has struggled in the wake of the Great Recession.

A consultant hired by the Economic Development Authority also determined that new construction was a better option for the state than trying to renovate the existing buildings or leasing new space. But the office-building project has been generating opposition from some Trenton residents and planning advocates, leading to the formation of a group called Stakeholders Allied for the Core of Trenton. Their concerns aren’t centered on the state’s decision to make changes to its footprint, but on how the project has been drawn up and advanced by state officials.

Fears of harm to downtown Trenton

For example, group members fear the building plan could harm the city’s core, downtown retail area as thousands of state employees would eventually be moved farther away from shops and restaurants, and from the city’s renovated train station. They 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.

“We need mixed-use, public-private partnerships, and density at the core of our downtown,” said Anne LaBate, a member of the group, during an interview yesterday.

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.

Conflict with city’s master plan?

LaBate and other stakeholders were on hand Monday when the State House Commission took up the issue, with several testifying before the panel’s members. State Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) also raised concerns, including about whether the project conflicts with the city’s own master plan and could do 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,” said Gusciora, whose district includes downtown Trenton. “This is the end of the Christie administration, I think that this decision should be reserved for the incoming (Murphy) administration,” he said.

The commission also heard from Tim Lizura, the EDA’s president and chief operating officer. Asked why the project needed to advance immediately amid the concerns that were raised during the meeting, Lizura said the effort actually started several years ago with a full analysis of state workspace.

“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,” Lizura said.

Not ‘ready to move forward’

Ultimately, the commission members decided not to advance the project, voting to hold off action on both items.

“My concern isn’t so much that it’s at the end of an administration, my concern is that it just doesn’t appear as though it’s ready to move forward,” said Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego (R-Burlington). “It seems like there are more pieces here that need to come together before this goes into effect.”

The commission’s lack of action also prevented the Economic Development Authority from voting to move the project forward during a meeting that it held on Tuesday. Erin Gold, a spokeswoman for the EDA, confirmed yesterday that it wouldn’t move ahead without all the necessary approvals. “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,” Gold said.

In addition to working with consultants, the EDA is also involved in the project’s financing in a way that is similar to how the agency was used earlier this year to help finance a $300 million renovation of the executive section of the New Jersey State House in Trenton. In fact, earlier this month, Treasury issued on behalf of the EDA a formal request for proposals from firms seeking to serve as a trustee for a proposed bond issue for the office-building project.

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. And even though state lawmakers sued earlier this year to try and block the financing of the State House renovation, a state Superior Court judge ultimately ruled against them. The issue is now the subject of a case before the court’s Appellate Division.

Can’t ‘let city rot at its core’

But the borrowing issue for the office-building project appears to be on hold without final approval from the EDA. “Treasury will proceed in reviewing the responses (to the RFP) when the project receives the required approvals,” said agency spokesman Willem Rijksen.

LaBate, president of Trenton-based Segal LaBate Commercial Real Estate, said urban development “is very complex,” and she hopes officials can “get back to the drawing table” with a new gubernatorial administration coming in.

“If we let the city rot at its core, we’re dead in the water for generations,” she said. “This is a key thing.”

Peter Kasabach, executive director of NJ Future, a statewide planning organization, is a city resident who’s been involved in a number of economic development and community development efforts in Trenton over the last 25 years. Saying that he is speaking as a private citizen, Kasabach stressed the need to ensure that the state makes decisions that are good for its host city’s future.

“We’re now at the point in Trenton’s renaissance where you can’t always take the easy route,” Kasabach said.

Carly Sitrin contributed to this story.