December 20, 2017

State Committee Approves Controversial Trenton Project

By Anne Levin

New Jersey’s State Leasing and Space Utilization Committee Monday approved a controversial state office buildings project in Trenton that has been vigorously opposed by some city residents, business owners, and some members of the local government. The three-member committee voted unanimously to allow the development plan for state office buildings, which would tear down two existing government buildings and relocate them outside of the central downtown area.

Representing six opponents of the plan including Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, former Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer, and city realtor Anne LaBate, attorney Bruce Afran filed a lawsuit Monday afternoon against the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA) and Governor Chris Christie, charging the plan violates the New Jersey constitution because it doesn’t allow voters to have a say.

“The governor is pushing through a bond issue to build two new office buildings for the departments of health and taxation,” Afran said just before filing the papers. “Instead of putting the bond on the general election ballot, they have decided to run them through the EDA that normally doesn’t require a public ballot for its bonds.”

Under the constitution, new debt in bonds must be authorized by voters. “The EDA can do this only when the money to pay the bond doesn’t have to be paid by taxpayers. It must go on the public ballot,” Afran said. “Payment of the bond funds is going to come through lease payments. It is a device to prevent the public from being able to vote on the bonds.”

Christie first presented his plan in September 2016 to tear down the Taxation building on Barrack Street and the Health and Agriculture building on South Warren Street to make room for redevelopment. But the State House Commission voted last month to hold off on the plan until newly-elected governor Phil Murphy takes office in January. Opponents say that constructing two suburban-style office buildings on state land, surrounded by parking lots and away from mass transit and downtown restaurants and businesses, ignores tenets of good urban planning.

Those against the plan formed a group called Stakeholders Allied for the Core of Trenton, and they recently launched a GoFundMe page to help pay for legal and other costs. “This could be quite devastating for our downtown,” said LaBate. “Urban development is complicated and can be delicate. Changes like this can be very harmful to small businesses.”

Relocating state workers from the central downtown to buildings next to surface parking lots means “… they will walk out the door and jump in their cars,” Labate continued. “This is not good planning. This is everybody’s state capital. This will eat away at a struggling tax base, and will weaken the tax base. It doesn’t have to be that way. So many communities are stabilizing themselves with development done right.”

Asked why Christie and his administration have pushed the plan through, Afran said, “I can’t get into the governor’s mind, but I can say that many political figures like to leave a monument behind them. Maybe he believes there are good things here, but my clients and every planner say these buildings would be destructive to the city because they pull thousands of people from the business district to the periphery, just repeating the failed planning methods of the ’60s and ’70s in Trenton.”

Construction union leaders have been supportive of the plan. “Understandably these unions want to see these buildings go up, and no one wants to hurt anyone’s employment,” Afran said. “But there can be far more jobs. Long term employment will rise if it’s done the right way.”