In early 2015, the City completed a re-examination of the 1999 Land Use Element and the subsequent 2005 re-examination. This ensured that the City was in compliance with all State requirements. However, the City had been in the process of undertaken a comprehensive effort to create a new master plan (Trenton250). As part of that effort, the City has created a community-driven vision and set of guiding principles (see Vision Report). This Land Use Report reflects the goals and Initiatives identified to date.
Land Use and Community Character
The following section provides a description of the physical conditions and land use trends in the City of Trenton. The most up-to-date land use map for Trenton is provided in Figure 1. The Current Zoning Map, which includes redevelopment areas, is provided in Figure 2. There are three sources of information for this map. The base is MOD-IV tax data. However, Trenton’s tax assessor use a lead-lot recording system that, when mapped, leaves a number of parcels unverified. At some point, Isles updated the database to address this issue. However, it is unclear exactly when this was completed. As such, the updated Isles file is used only when there is no information here no information provided through the MOD-IV Data. Finally, information from the Trenton Neighborhood Revitalization Committee (TNRC) vacant property survey was added to the map. This data is the most accurate data on vacancy and abandonment that current exists in the City.
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.
Land Development Ordinance and Zoning Map
The City of Trenton’s previous Land Use Plan was written in 1999 and a re-examination report was completed in 2005. In the 2005 re-examination, the City made no significant changes to the goals and objective section. As such, the City has been ostensibly operating with the same land use goals and objectives for the past 25 years.
Trenton’s Land Development Ordinance (LDO) was last updated in 2010. The current zoning follows a Euclidian model: where a premium is placed on separating uses into distinct zones and there is minimal regulation of the form of buildings. Such a code is inconsistent with the actual use of land within Trenton that residents and stakeholders have identified as special. Many neighborhoods typically have a mix of commercial and residential uses and the historic character of neighborhoods is often cited as one of Trenton’s greatest assets.
At the same time, the land use regulations in Trenton are in disarray. There are standards for a Downtown District within the Land Development Ordinance (LDO) but there are no areas which have been mapped as such. Likewise, the Pedestrian Mall zone is identified on the Zoning Map but there are no corresponding standards in the LDO. Although City staff has acknowledged these two districts are the same, such confusion makes the land development more difficult and cumbersome. Moreover, issues such as these send the signal to property owners that they do not have a strong and supportive partner in the City who clearly understand their goals and can quickly move high-quality projects through the development approvals process.
Other issues are less egregious but nonetheless make the development process more cumbersome. For example, the code uses a system in which permitted uses in one zone are built off of the permitted uses in another zone. For example, the Business A principal permitted use section (315-106) states, “Buildings and other structures and uses permitted therein are all those permitted in the Residence and Mixed Use Zone Districts ….” This forces the user of the code to flip back to pervious sections of the code to identify what is permitted in the zone. This not only makes the code more difficult to use but increases the chance that a change in one zone will have unintended “ripple” effects throughout the rest of the code. As a result of this kind of language, Detached single-family dwelling units are a permitted use along State Street in the Downtown, an inappropriate use for that area.
A discussion of how Redevelopment Area Plans work in New Jersey may be helpful to some users. According to Cox & Koenig, an authority on land use regulation in New Jersey,
“The redevelopment plan, when adopted, supersedes applicable provisions of the development regulations of the municipality or constitutes an overlay zoning district within the redevelopment area. When the redevelopment area plan supersedes any provision of the development regulations, the ordinance adopting the redevelopment area plan shall contain an explicit amendment to the zoning district map included in the zoning ordinance. The zoning district map as amended shall indicate the redevelopment area to which the redevelopment area plan applies.”
This explanation makes clear, there are two types of redevelopment area plans: those which (1) supersede applicable provisions of the zoning code, and those that (2) provide additional regulations to the zoning ordinance. In both cases, the City preserves all redevelopment powers granted to it by the State.
Redevelopment Area Plans
The City has upwards of 40 redevelopment area plans, many dating back to the 1980s (the Grand Street Redevelopment Area Plan was adopted in 1984) while many are much more recent. Redevelopment Area designation is an important tool that the City can leverage to promote its community-driven vision. The designation allows the City to provide 30-year abatements and PILOTs, both of which are powerful incentives for development. At the same time, it allows the City to exercise the power of eminent domain for a greater public purpose and implementation of the community-driven vision. These are critical revitalization tools that the City cannot afford to squander.
Nonetheless, the redevelopment landscape in Trenton is highly confusing. To start, some of the designated redevelopment areas are small, such as the Capital Plaza Redevelopment Area which covers just over 36,000 square feet (.83 acres). Other designated redevelopment areas traverse whole neighborhoods: the Canal Banks Redevelopment Area covers more than 210 acres of land in downtown Trenton.
Neither of these conditions is inherently better than the other, and many cities effectively use redevelopment at a variety of scales. Instead, the issue in Trenton is that the redevelopment process is confusing, largely due to the variety of ways in which Trenton has written its redevelopment area plans. For example, the
General District Regulations are remapped in the Redevelopment Area Plan and not updated on the Zoning Map (e.g. Bernard Street and Canal Banks Redevelopment Areas)
Zoning districts cover the same area but additional standards or requirements are placed on developers in the redevelopment area (e.g. Coalport Redevelopment Area and Hermitage Avenue)
The Redevelopment Area Plan creates hybrid zones that use the General District Regulations in LDO as starting point but then add additional standards (e.g. “Residential 2” district in the Humboldt-Sweets Redevelopment Plan)
New zones are created in the redevelopment area plan which are separate and unique to that redevelopment area (see “Commercial/Residential” zone in the Hermitage Avenue Redevelopment Plan)
Complicating this framework, some redevelopment plans point to General District Regulations that do not exist in the ordinance. Examples include the “Commercial/Residential” (C/R) in North Clinton Redevelopment Plan; the “Open Space/Parks” Zone in North Clinton and Center City South Plans; and the “Pubic Use” Zone in the Hermitage Avenue Plan.
Such a complex redevelopment framework makes the process difficult for all those involved. Property owners and developers have difficulty understanding which regulations control their property and what they can legally build. This increases the cost of development and undercuts any confidence they may have that the City as an active partner in the development process. On the other hand, these complicated regulations make it difficult for the City to enforce its regulations, slowing down development process and making it more onerous and cumbersome for its staff. Finally, the current regulatory framework almost assures that residents will not understand what can be built in their City. This leads to distrust of City government and of the development process in general. Most critically, the confusing nature of the Redevelopment Area Plans raises doubt about their legality and the City’s standing to enforce them.
There are two underlying issues that create these problems. First, the City has gone decades without a comprehensive re-evaluation of their redevelopment plans. As a result, changes in the Land Development Ordinance have not been folded in the redevelopment area plans. Second, the City has not established a strong policy for how to write redevelopment area plans so that they remain current, are easy to use, and can be legally enforced. The recommendations in this Report and in the Land Use and Community Form Plan will provide a framework for doing this going forward.
Land Use Regulation:
Trenton will use zoning and the City’s redevelopment powers to encourage the construction of projects that are consistent with all goals and objectives of the Master Plan, including but not limited to the Vision Report.
Good Governance in Land Use:
The City will have a zoning ordinance and redevelopment area plans that are clear, easy-to-understand, and enforceable.
NJ Board of Taxation (http://nj.gov/counties/mercer/commissions/tax/taxrates.html)
a.k.a. “zones”. Found in Article XII of the LDO. Examples include RA, RB, RB-1, and MU