The City of Trenton has a strong urban character. Many neighborhoods
have a high concentration of historic homes;
contain a mix of commercial and residential uses, a condition that has increasingly become attractive to homebuyers;
are designed to promote walkable access to amenities; and
are within proximity to transportation infrastructure that reduces the need for car ownership.
In addition, Trenton has a great variety housing products (attached, semi-attached, urban detached, suburban detached, and estates) in a number of sizes. As such, the City offers residents a variety of choices when it comes to the type of neighborhoods that they might want to live in. Moreover, Trenton is well positioned to take advantage of a growing interest in dense urban living in small to moderate sized cities.
Nonetheless, many of these assets are under or poorly maintained. Many (historic) homes are in need of significant maintenance. Many sidewalks, streetlamps, street signs, and roadways are all in need of replacement. Moreover, the prevalence of vacant and abandon homes discourages further investment and depresses the housing market.
In the downtown, office buildings, government facilities and surface parking lots dominate current land use. The first two are necessary and important to the success of the future of downtown, however their dominance stifles revitalization efforts: the City feels empty after 5:00 pm. The problem with excess parking is a frequent concern of Trenton residents and planners, and is often mentioned in previous reports, stakeholder interviews, and during public engagement. There is a lack of on-street parking, but excess, though unavailable, off-street parking. An on-street space can provide between 2.5-3 times the amount of available parking compared to a private space. Much of the off-street space is dedicated and unavailable to the public (Downtown Parking and Sidewalk Report – 2008).
In addition, many downtown small mixed-use buildings are currently vacant on the upper floors. According to the Downtown Master Plan (2008), this is primarily because downtown property owners were permitted to abandon the upper floors of their buildings in the 1950s. Many owners demolished the stairways that provided access to the upper floors to maximize ground level square footage. This reduces the stock of lower-cost residential units downtown, which makes it more difficult for people interested in urban living to move downtown.
Finally, Trenton’s downtown is currently a collection of disjointed, similar businesses/enterprises that are only loosely understood and form informal “districts” within the downtown. These districts (in most instances) need significant improvements to the quality of the private and public spaces, more clearly defined borders, and improved branding and wayfinding. If properly designed, such efforts have the ability to make areas more inviting. An excellent example of where “placemaking” efforts have been highly successful is along S. Warren Street: one of the more vibrant areas in the Downtown.
Ownership and Land Use
The City of Trenton faces many land ownership issues. The State of New Jersey owns a considerable amount of land in the City. Although 38% of the 2013 fiscal year revenue came from State Aid and Tax Relief, the State does not pay the City property taxes and occupies some of the most valuable land in Downtown Trenton. Complicating the issue, the State has the right to use their land as they see fit. In addition, Trenton is home to many non-profits who are not required to pay real-estate taxes. The combination of these two factors places considerable stress on the City’s budget and its residents: a relatively few number of residents and businesses must support the cost of providing services to a relatively large geography. This is one of the reasons why the City of Trenton had the highest effective tax rate (4.881%) in Mercer County
in 2016, even as the City struggles to provide basic services.
The City has also accumulated a number of urban scars that resulted from decades of redevelopment efforts. The most notable was the demolition of Stacy Park and the downtown neighborhoods, which are now occupied by a limited access highway and parking lots that cut the city off from one of its most valuable resources: its waterfront. Moreover, large portions of the Canal Banks neighborhoods are covered in surface parking. This is not to suggest that all redevelopment efforts have failed: the redevelopment of the Roebling Complex is progressing steadily. The City announced in 2016 that 138 lofts will be constructed on site. Despite not attracting as much spin-off redevelopment as expected, the construction of Arm & Hammer Park as well as the Sun Center has converted former industrial lands into community assets.
Finally, the City continues to struggle to transition from a 20th Century industrial city to a modern downtown for the larger Mercer-Bucks region. The City has had significant success transitioning brownfield sites to productive uses, but much work remains. There are still a number of industrial areas which do not meet the needs of modern industry. In addition, the concentration of historic properties also comes with a cost: they often cost more to maintain, rehabilitate, and retrofit to make them attractive to modern living and working needs. This cost is often too burdensome in a City that has high concentrations of poverty and a generally weak economy.
NJ Board of Taxation (http://nj.gov/counties/mercer/commissions/tax/taxrates.html)