Trenton's downtown and waterfront will be the economic center of Mercer County and the Central Jersey Region
As the economic engine of the city, Trenton's downtown must be a major focus for economic revitalization. Key economic development issues affecting the downtown and waterfront include:
a limited capture of retail demand,
limited downtown development and growth,
a fragmented arts and culture industry, and
a disconnected waterfront dominated by highway infrastructure and underutilized surface parking lots.
As outlined in the Trenton Citywide Economic Market Study, Trenton's weak downtown retail market is defined by significant gaps in retail opportunity due to both market conditions and negative perceptions of the city. Simply stated, there is demand for services, but the downtown does not provide the right business supply to capture these workers and its regional share of retail. As a result, shoppers either don't seek amenities in Trenton or are forced to go outside the city due to market limitations. While there is a surplus in some retail categories, downtown workers are generally leaving Trenton because there are not enough grocers, convenience stores, personal services, and general merchandise stores to serve their daytime needs.
Compounding these downtown retail challenges, Trenton has experienced a prolonged period of limited development and business growth, and a lack of market-rate housing construction. Major investments in Trenton, including the Trenton Transit Center, the Sun National Bank Center, and Arm & Hammer Park have not attracted sufficient spin-off development. Few businesses have been created as a result of these facilities, and many businesses that do exist near these venues have not successfully capitalized on the foot traffic. Developable parcels near these facilities remain vacant or underutilized. Further exacerbating the challenge, many large parcels in key development locations - including the waterfront area - are owned by the state or county. These parcels remain extremely underutilized, unproductive, and generate no tax revenue for the City.
In instances where the City has used redevelopment as a tool for sparking private investment, there have been mixed results. Various projects have been constructed, only to have been converted into office space for the state or county when no private sector tenants could be found. In addition, many plans have simply sat on the shelf, largely unsuccessful in advancing toward implementation. Interviews with stakeholders and City staff indicate several reasons for the lack of progress:
in some cases, these efforts have failed to meet state requirements for financial support;
in other cases, project visions were too large to be feasible;
a few efforts have lacked sufficient coordination between City leadership and developers;
lack of coordination between City departments and accountability to the plans;
some have been plagued by recent unfavorable market conditions for redevelopment; and
redevelopment sites have not been widely marketed to prospective developers due to limited budgets and staff resources.
However, market conditions are improving, particularly for residential development, and financing is increasingly available. As a result, market-rate development is beginning to occur in Trenton.
Arts & Culture
Arts and cultural organizations can be significant economic drivers in Trenton; nonprofit arts expenditures per capita in 2010 were higher in Mercer County than several nearby counties according to the National Endowment for the Arts. However, Trenton's primary challenge regarding arts and culture is the fragmentation of the industry. Despite having a significant presence in the city with a wealth of attractions and venues, Trenton arts and culture groups have not effectively communicated their efforts, including marketing/promotion, branding, and event coordination. In addition, several venues and facilities are significantly underutilized. Furthermore, Trenton has tended to focus its tourism efforts on its historical heritage more than its arts and cultural heritage. Funding to support the industry is a challenge as well.
The economic development initiatives for downtown are focused on continuing to create a great place for people to live, work and visit. This effort starts by focusing efforts on facilitating new construction and rehabilitation to attract new and current residents to downtown. As downtown attracts more residents, business owners should see expanded opportunities for retail growth. Establishing a creative district downtown, while strengthening Trenton’s arts and cultural offerings city-wide, will also support efforts to expand retail. Creative districts have been shown to be drivers of economic development while providing critical cultural amenities for residents.
If Trenton is able to steadily build stronger residential, retail, and cultural sectors, the downtown is likely to become a destination for new or relocated businesses, regardless of the industry. This is because Trenton is the natural downtown of the Central Jersey Region, a region that has a strong economy but which provides few alternatives to suburban offices. As employers begin to compete for high-quality talent, it is likely that some will see urban amenities (e.g. walkable streets, access to transit, and cultural diversity) as a competitive advantage.
The following section provides a more detailed framework for how to drive economic revitalization of the downtown.
In executing this Downtown Strategy, the first thing the City must do is ensure that the State remains a stable employer in downtown Trenton and that it does not lose its base economy. Although relying on a single employer as a backbone for the economy is not advisable, the City must not underestimate the important economic role this industry plays in its economy. Nonetheless, effort to reduce the footprint that the State occupies, while maintaining the same level or more of employment, will open up development opportunities for private employers and new residential development.
Attract Market-Rate Housing
Next, the City must leverage its best redevelopment opportunities to attract market-rate rental housing development downtown. There are currently limited quality market-rate rental units available in the heart of downtown. However, these types of units are exactly the kind that new and current residents, looking for modern urban living, are seeking out. Not only are these potential downtown residents less likely to have the financial ability to buy homes or condos but they are also less likely to do so in an unproven market like downtown Trenton.
Nonetheless, new market-rate residential construction will not happen without City support: the market downtown is untested, and there are few high-quality “shovel ready” sites. As such, the City must incentivize new residential development to provide the catalyst for future change.
The importance of getting people to live downtown cannot be understated. Currently, there are not enough people living downtown to support a diverse enough retail environment that will make Trenton a destination. Currently, retailers are almost exclusively dependent on 9-to-5 office workforce for clients, one of the reasons the downtown “shuts down” in the evenings. This is a particularly unfriendly business environment for retailers, and especially for food and entertainment establishments.
Each new resident that the City can get to live downtown increases the total number of dollars that will be spent downtown. Moreover, they will diversify the kinds of retail that is in demand and increase demand for retail after traditional business hours. This latter point is critical. A more diverse client base downtown will likely give downtown retailers a better opportunity to capitalize on the thousands of employees who come to Trenton every day. It is difficult for a business to remain profitable by only serving a government-salaried 9-to-5 workforce. However, the combination of both residents and office workers should give more retail establishments a stronger foundation for growth. More retail will make downtown an even more attractive place to live, which will in-turn attract new residents to downtown.
Efforts to attract residents to the downtown are strongly supported by other recommendations made in this and other Trenton250 Topic Reports. Strengthening arts and culture amenities in Trenton should be a cornerstone for making the city, and downtown especially, an attractive place to live. Moreover, recommendations to improve parks and trails, as well as improved mobility options, will be welcome amenities to anyone looking to live in the city. Nonetheless, these investments will only have the desired spillover effects if the City, County, and State can continue to encourage the development of market-rate housing in the downtown.
Support Arts & Culture
The City should strongly support efforts to establish a creative district downtown while strengthening Trenton’s arts and cultural offerings city-wide. Such districts have been proven to attract new younger residents that interject vibrancy into areas that need it. Investments in a creative district will be good for the City and the citywide arts scene, good for downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, good for artists and makers, good for local businesses both established and emerging, and good for all who come to look and listen, stay and play, exploring the full range of Trenton’s historic assets and newest works of art, formal parks, and reclaimed gardens.
As noted earlier, the combination of both residents and office workers should give more retail establishments a stronger foundation for growth. More retail will make downtown an even more attractive place to live, which will in-turn attract new residents to downtown. As such, the City will need to cultivate the growth of downtown retail to capture the economic impact of the downtown workforce, residents, and events. This means supporting and nurturing a cluster of unique and homegrown retail, restaurants and events to increase social opportunities and a niche downtown in comparison to the suburbs and surrounding towns.
Leveraging Anchor Institutions
Anchor Institutions are large entities, such as colleges and hospitals, which have long-term investment horizons and vested interests in making their host community better places to live, work, and visit. In the short-term, the City should ensure that existing anchor institutions (Thomas Edison State University and Mercer County Community College) integrate into revitalization efforts and that their long-term development goals support and are supported by the Master Plan. In the medium and long-term, the City should work to create partnerships that would encourage other educational institutions to come to Trenton and facilitate the growth of current institutions.
Staff, faculty, and students of these institutions will contribute significantly to the downtown economy. Their staff and visitors support retailers, service businesses, and hotels. They can also be important drivers of residential growth. As such, they have the potential to be important medium and long-term drivers of revitalization in the downtown.
Capitalize on Key Physical Assets
While the City works on the above sectors of the downtown economy, it cannot lose sight of the importance of capitalizing on two of its major locational advantages: the Trenton Transit Center and the Delaware Waterfront. Redeveloping either one of these areas has the potential to change the economic development landscape in Trenton significantly. Nonetheless, these projects are only likely to attract private sector development if and when the City can demonstrate success in smaller-scale revitalization efforts. These projects are long-term efforts that will require sustained investment and planning from local, county, regional, and state entities. Instead of being “silver bullet” projects, they will likely be the long-term game changers that are the result of sustained dedication to building a broad, well-rounded economy throughout the city. Additional initiatives such as improving regional bike-pedestrian trail access, connecting the downtown to the waterfront, and placemaking initiatives will further reinforce the “livability” of downtown.
A Well-Rounded Reinforcing Structure
These investments in creating housing options downtown; investing in arts, culture and retail; and supporting anchor institutions are likely to have a snowball effect on the downtown economy. Each new resident increases the total number of dollars that will be spent downtown. Moreover, they will diversify the kinds of retail that is in demand and increase demand for retail after traditional business hours. Arts and culture will reinforce this effect, bringing even more people downtown who will visit Trenton’s shopping and dining establishments.
More residents, more retail to support them, and a stronger arts and cultural environment will make downtown significantly more appealing to higher-wage industries and companies. Nationally and regionally, there are businesses looking to relocate in urban areas to attract and retain high-quality employees who do not want to work in suburban office parks. Trenton is the natural and historic downtown for the Central Jersey region which has a robust and diverse economy. By creating a downtown that is amenity rich and provides a variety of housing options, the City will attract new business and diversify its economy.
Moreover, continued investment in new residential development will demonstrate to investors that there is a market for redevelopment in Trenton. Establishing a market record is critical since it will reduce the risk of future investment by demonstrating that developers can make profits in the downtown. Stated differently, establishing a development record in the downtown will “fertilize the ground” for future investments. This will put the City in a strong position to capitalize when major infrastructure and amenity investments, such as the re-alignment of Route 29 or the extension of the RiverLINE, do become a reality.
It is about More than Just Downtown
Efforts to build a stronger downtown are strongly supported by other recommendations made in this and other Trenton250 Topic Reports. Improvements to parks and trails; enhanced mobility options; better neighborhoods and retail districts; as well as improved education opportunities in the surrounding neighborhoods will make downtown Trenton stronger. Likewise, a stronger downtown will reinforce these efforts in the surrounding neighborhoods. As such, the City must coordinate recommendations in this section with neighborhood efforts identified in this and other Topic Reports to ensure that Trenton progresses as a well-rounded city that has opportunities for all residents.