The construction of two new state government office buildings was given initial approval yesterday by an under-the-radar panel of lawmakers and executive-branch officials during a meeting that came about only after legislators from both parties were swapped in for colleagues, seemingly to make sure the proposal would be passed.
The $220 million building project, which also calls for two existing structures to be demolished, has drawn criticism from Trenton residents, business owners and lawmakers who represent the city, and it failed to win approval from the State House Commission last month after both Democratic and Republican lawmakers sought to table the matter while also asking for the state to provide more details.
After the makeup of the panel was changed for yesterday’s vote, the 7-0, bipartisan approval appeared to be a lame-duck move to get the buildings passed and quickly financed by the state Economic Development Authority, avoiding any vote by the full state Legislature.
With Gov. Chris Christie due to leave office by the middle of next month, the financing for the building project could go before the EDA as early as next week. That means the project — and several other new Juvenile Justice Commission facilities also authorized yesterday — could be far along in the approval process once Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Murphy takes over for the Republican Christie.
The EDA’s spokeswomen did not respond to requests for comment and more information yesterday.
Plan was first mentioned in September 2016
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 space 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.
Officials from EDA and Treasury praised the project during yesterday’s meeting in Trenton. They suggested they have listened to local residents’ recommendations, including tweaking building locations and ensuring they would not have cafeterias so that state workers would still have a reason to leave the buildings and visit local businesses.
“Our approach is cost-effective and reasonable,” said Christopher Chianese, director of Treasury’s Division of Property Management and Construction.
Members of local building trades also testified before the commission, saying the project will generate much needed jobs. Diana Rogers, Trenton’s director of housing and economic development, said city officials support the project, and see the estimated $220 million in investment as a significant opportunity for the capital city.
“We see this opportunity as a way to spur development in the downtown,” Rogers said.
Residents worried about state’s footprint in city
But several Trenton residents and local business owners, including members of a group called Stakeholders Allied for the Core of Trenton, also attended the lengthy hearing and spoke out against the project. They said their concerns aren’t centered on the state’s decision to make changes to its footprint in Trenton, but on how the project has been drawn up and advanced by state officials.
For example, the new buildings the state is proposing would be single-purpose structures and not the kind of mixed-use facilities that have become a hallmark of modern, urban-redevelopment projects. They also questioned the location of the new buildings, saying they would fall outside of the core, downtown area at a time when officials should be trying to enhance density.
“We’re not saying, ‘Hey, let’s not build these buildings, but let’s build it smart,’” said Dennis Jones, a Trenton resident and local business owner.
A mixed-use element would also bring some much-needed tax ratables to a city that right now has nearly a third of its land owned by the state, and thus not subject to local taxes, said Anne LaBate, a local realtor.
“We’re a company town, and you’re the company,” LaBate said.
Ingrid Reed, a former member of the Capital City Redevelopment Corporation, faulted the state for advancing the project without first waiting for a completed impact statement from the agency she used to serve. “Until you have that, it seems to me it’s premature to make an arrangement to finance,” said Reed, formerly the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics’ New Jersey Project, who is also chair of NJ Spotlight’s governing board.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) held up redevelopment efforts in New Brunswick, where mixed-use development is clustered around the city’s New Jersey Transit train station, as a model the state should be using in Trenton instead of the current plan.
“This was such a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of, but this administration wants just a quick hit to put the buildings anywhere,” he said.
Last month, when the commission failed to advance the building project, Gusciora stood in as a voting member for Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester), who could not attend the meeting. But this time around, Moriarty was the voting member, and he cast his vote in favor of the project.
Bramnick, absent for most of meeting, voted ‘yes’
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) was also among the legislators swapped-in as an alternate member, and he cast a “yes” vote even though he spent most of yesterday’s meeting in other parts of the State House, missing much of the testimony that was offered about the building project. Several other members of the panel were also outside of the meeting room at various times during the hearing, and at one point it had to be briefly adjourned due to the lack of a quorum.
Still, the building project ultimately was approved by the panel, as were the three proposed Juvenile Justice Commission facilities, which Attorney General Christopher Porrino said would cost about $175 million to build. The votes on those projects, however, came without approval from Moriarty and Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), who both called for a delay to give officials in the communities where the new buildings will be located — which include Winslow in Camden County, Ewing in Mercer County, and Woodbridge in Middlesex County — more time to analyze the state’s proposals. Porrino strongly defended the building projects, saying they would modernize existing facilities that are outdated, costly to maintain, and have drawn criticism from social-justice advocates.
But Winslow Mayor Barry Wright, who attended the hearing, said his community had received little communication from the state even as those projects have been advancing within the Christie administration.
“Maybe this is why people have no trust in the government today,” Wright said.
The Economic Development Authority is scheduled to hold its next public meeting on Tuesday, but it’s unclear whether the financing for the proposed buildings will be put up for a vote since an agenda for the meeting has yet to be released publicly.
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 financing for a controversial $300 renovation of the State House in Trenton, a state Superior Court judge ultimately ruled against them. The issue is now the subject of a case before the court’s Appellate Division.