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Trenton Economic Development Series: Re-envisioning the Waterfront

Trenton Economic Development Series: Re-envisioning the Waterfront

The Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce Hosted the Trenton Economic Development Series on November 4, 2022 to discuss the rehabilitation and redevelopment of the Trenton waterfront. 1435 Capital was a proud sponsor of the event.

Recently, this past Friday, November 4, 2022, The Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce (PMRC) hosted the Trenton Economic Development Series: Re-envisioning the Waterfront to discuss the rehabilitation and redevelopment of the Trenton waterfront. Opening remarks were made by Trenton’s mayor, W. Reed Gusciora. George Sowa, the Chief Executive of Greater Trenton moderated a panel with local leaders to discuss how Trenton could re-envision the waterfront and redevelop it. For the last four years, PMRC’s Trenton Economic Development Series has held three topical events a year covering issues such as healthcare innovation, the economic recovery act, and the residential revolution, among many others.

As the Chamber’s website explains: “The Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber has a vital role in fostering economic development in the Capital City. With the support of business, community, and government leaders from across the region, the Chamber has become a catalyst for Trenton’s economic revitalization and growth.”

Moderator George Sowa is the CEO of Greater Trenton, a privately funded nonprofit formed in 2015 to address the coordination of “downtown economic development projects,” according to its website.

After Trenton Mayor W. Reed Gusciora starts with opening remarks, the first half of the day’s meeting, Sowa says, will include a presentation from planning firm Wallace, Roberts, and Todd (WRT) principals Woo Kim and Keiko Tsuruta Cramer on how riverfront activation might be able to reimagine a different future for Trenton.

By referencing past successes in cities of comparable size, the two urban design leaders are to share what implementations might be realistic and relevant for Trenton, the funding required, as well as the benefits, Sowa explains.

This is followed by a panel discussion with Julie Krause, Aaron Watson, and Maria Richardson where participants will not only speak to the Route 29 Boulevard initiative, but what is already in motion throughout the city via separate, fully funded federal grants — the rehabilitations of both the old wharf and area parks — as well as future proposal ideas.

Krause is the senior advisor of special projects at the Office of the State Treasurer, who, since Governor Murphy issued Executive Order 40 in 2018, now works to help bring the city’s “comprehensive master plan,” also known as Trenton250, to fruition.

The number ‘250’ coincides with the 250th anniversary of Trenton’s incorporation, and the policies for implementation build on guiding principles such as the establishment of good governance, a safe city, and an attractive destination for arts, culture, and social opportunities by 2042.

“We established the State Capital Partnership, which basically directs the state to work collaboratively and proactively with Trenton, Trenton community, Mercer County and other partners to support Trenton on its vision for revitalization and prosperity, and much of that vision is grounded in the city’s master plan, Trenton 250,” Krause says.

As a certified urban planner and Titusville resident, Krause formerly worked at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection with a focus on “urban environmental issues,” according to her PMRC bio.

Watson, who serves in multiple roles both occupationally and in this discussion, is the deputy administrator for Mercer County, the director of transportation, and the executive director of the Mercer County Park Commission.

A lifetime resident of Mercer County, Watson is the brother of NJ Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman and the son of late assemblyman John S. Watson.

Watson credits “the governor’s EO initiative” for this progress, saying that while he has been in government for more than 30 years, he “cannot remember when there was such a time that we had all these different entities come together for the purpose of supporting our capital city.”

Richardson, the director of recreation, natural resources, and culture for the City of Trenton, is the last member of the panel. Each participant represents the ongoing partnerships between New Jersey’s governmental and organizational entities, enlisting the efforts of the city of Trenton (Richardson), Mercer County administration (Watson), the Department of the Treasury (Krause), and nonprofits such as Greater Trenton (Sowa).

“It’s not often that government entities get together and get on the same page for something. But right now, I think that everyone is rowing in the same direction, and we’ve got great momentum. We also have great political will at every level to do the right thing,” Watson says, noting the efforts of the DOT and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in particular.

“I think we all recognize it’s high time that we come together and we begin to collaborate… [to] leverage our resources to figure out [what’s best],” he says, adding that “the irony in all of this is that Route 29, while it was conceived as being this wonderful highway to move cars — and like I said, I come from transportation, I recognize the need [for] that — it also creates a problem for us as well.”

According to the Trenton Department of Housing and Economic Development’s page on “Reconnecting to the River,” of the city’s “5.5 miles along the Delaware River…the majority of the riverfront is inaccessible to the city’s 90,000 residents” due to Route 29.

Watson explains that the highway “bifurcated the city from the waterfront,” and other towns such as Burlington and Bristol have since reopened theirs. The county administrator says that Trenton developments started with Route 29, the ballpark, and even state offices, but “[we] recognize there’s really an opportunity for us to do better, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do; we’re trying to work together to figure out how we can maximize this wonderful resource.”

While it may have been devised for better commuter access, Route 29 has remained a physical barrier for those living in the capital city, with its construction identified in a July 21 NJ Spotlight article as furthering “what advocates see as the legacy of racist urban-planning policies” for encroaching on the surrounding community’s civil and environmental justices.

Motions to change the four-lane highway have gone unheard for decades despite the city having received smaller grants for the Waterfront Reclamation and Redevelopment Project in 2016. President Biden’s 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law designates the RCP as “the first-ever Federal program dedicated to reconnecting communities that were previously cut off from economic opportunities by transportation infrastructure” to supplement any prior funding.

In one case of freeway removal in 2017 New York, Rochester replaced the “eastern segment” of a beltway known as the “Inner Loop” with affordable apartments and housing units; the downtown area then proceeded to attract “$229 million in economic development from $22 million in public investment,” according to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Portland’s Harbor Drive, which was converted into an urban boulevard for a variety of uses including parkland and public open space in 1974, is the first known instance of urban planning that has affected positive change in neighborhoods formerly by high-traffic roads.

New Jersey’s Route 29 Boulevard project would entail a similar adoption of mixed-use development to expand the city’s recreational areas, as well as redesign the traffic pattern and to provide better connections to the Delaware River.

For transportation to continue flourishing from the tunnel, the “boulevard-ization of the highway,” according to Watson, will transform the city into one that is “more pedestrian friendly” and feature bicycle paths for added connectivity.

The administrative groups involved, Watson emphasizes, also realize that making “a conscious effort at bringing Trenton back” is an impossible task without the direct inclusion of community voices.

Although the upcoming event is held after the USDOT application has been submitted, Sowa explains that this PMRC event is a timely discussion of what the state, city, and other parties have put forward in their submission.

“I think the timing is fortuitous right now that we have all this bipartisan infrastructure of all money that’s coming down from the federal government. I think we’re all excited about [it], some of it is specifically designed to reconnect communities, and that’s what we’re going to pursue,” Watson, who is also a member of the PMRC board, continues.

Krause explains that this is all built on the vision of residents, so if the grant application is successful, “there will be an incredibly robust community engagement approach to this to ensure that Trenton residents and the Trenton community are active in expressing what their desire is, how they envision it, what components they want to see in the project, whether it’s related to equitable economic development strategies, particular features or accessibility; this is meant to be a plan by and for Trentonians.”

Partnerships like these, she adds, “requires the support of so many, expertise, and perspective — it’s only possible through the collective action of us together.”

“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to make it safer, trying to provide connectivity, and we want to be able to open up that beautiful waterfront,” Watson says, noting that no matter “the actual specifics of the design,” he hopes it will be a “catalyst” for other citywide actions.

Currently, similar plans for the city’s wharf and parks are set to be completed “well in advance” of the Route 29 project decision; the venue for the Chamber’s event, Cooper’s Riverview, is in close proximity to the wharf that Watson “grew up on,” he says.

“Years ago, it was a very important wharf to the city of Trenton and commerce, but since then, it became one of the most popular fishing spots in the Delaware River, and the county, some time ago — over a decade ago — put a park there,” he explains. “One of the things that they failed to do was the proper geotechnical work to figure out the structural integrity of the wharf itself, and as a consequence, the wharf failed, and then this place has been virtually abandoned for almost 10 years.”

While the Mercer County Park Commission closed the site for safety reasons, they could not prevent fishermen from illegally entering the premises. For nearly that entire decade, though, as Watson explains, they have been searching for partners to “restore this beautiful asset to the city of Trenton.”

Now, that dream is finally being achieved through teamwork, with Watson noting that they were able to figure out that NJDOT planned to repair the wharf and do the proper flood mitigation, then joined their efforts in bringing the structure back to life.

As a result of this, the MCPC were able to “marry” their funding with DOT to work together; once the latter’s wharf project is completed, DOT can incorporate MCPC’s designs, and the county side will then pay NJDOT’s contractors.

“This is a sort of unheard-of collaboration, but it’s really a step in the right direction — took us a long time to get here, but we think we’re finally here,” Watson adds, sharing that the wharf’s public reopening can be expected in the near future.

The county’s oversight of South Riverwalk Park, a flourishing green, natural space, is another feature that Watson wants to highlight at the Chamber’s upcoming event. He calls the site, which is located over the Lamberton tunnel, “a gem that a lot of people are just not aware of, and we’re trying to expose them to that every day.”

One of the long-term goals for the park project, he adds, is to provide increased connectivity to other trail systems in various towns.

Krause says that the Chamber’s panel discussion will recognize “this shared vision to reconnect the city of Trenton to its riverfront,” one that “has been envisioned and desired” since Route 29’s beginnings, but “articulated in plans as early as the late 80s.”

She looks forward to sharing the riverfront’s beauty as well as its accessibility — in particular, Krause expects to discuss the wharf reconstruction, and new opportunities for recreation and economic development.

The announcement and awarding of the federal “Reconnecting Communities” grant is not until early 2023, according to the DOT website, but other projects continue to flourish as a result of the state’s cross-agency, collaborative process.

“I think the beauty of this is, as we well know, that Trenton is a majority minority town, and so this is a significant investment on all three levels, including the nonprofit sector, to be able to bring all those entities together into something that the county executive [Hughes] is particularly proud of with all of his endeavors,” Watson says.

Rather than add to the polarization of the Trenton political scene, Watson acknowledges that the Chamber event will show how this partnership “is the antithesis of that — this has fostered cooperation between all three entities and again, the nonprofit world, to do the right thing by the city of Trenton, and we’re committed to doing that.”

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