Building on Trenton’s Historic Assets

Jennifer B. Leynes

I still remember my first trip into Trenton. At the time, my husband and I were living in Georgia, preparing for a move that would bring two born-and-bred Southerners to live in New Jersey. Knowing nothing about the local road network, I looked at the map and selected the most direct route from our hotel on Route 1 in Princeton to my job interview on East State Street. The drive took us past a seemingly endless array of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century semis and rowhouses. Most were, at best, tired looking:  battered by years of deferred maintenance and neglect, they stood as mere shadows of what they once were.

Many people – visitors, suburban neighbors, even Trenton residents – only see Trenton in this light. Chipped paint. Missing architectural details. Boarded up windows. Vacant lots. But to see only what’s missing, what’s been lost, is to view the glass as half empty, to see the bad and turn a blind eye to the good. And there is good, for those with the vision to see it.

What Trenton has cannot be bought, and cannot be built new:  genius loci, a sense of place. It’s in the eighteenth-century manor house of William Trent and the utilitarian yet beautiful Old Barracks. It’s in the nineteenth-century factory buildings whose production coined the phrase, “Trenton Makes, the World Takes,” and the surrounding streets lined with stately brick worker housing. It’s in the beautiful landscapes of Cadwalader Park and Cadwalader Heights, both work of the eminent designer Frederick Law Olmsted. It’s in every ward, north, south, east, and west. It’s in streets of private homes and in business districts. It’s in Trenton Central High School, in City Hall, and in the State House. It’s anywhere that has meaning for Trenton residents, and it’s everywhere that breathes the history of this city and its people.

Trenton’s history and its historic buildings surround us and tell us much about who we were and who we are today. The Broad Street Bank in its heyday was the city’s first skyscraper, a modern marvel with revolving doors and a private banking room for women. Less than a decade ago, it stood derelict and seemingly forgotten, surrounded by scaffolding to protect passers-by from falling debris. Today, it is a beautifully renovated apartment building, offering a style of downtown living that Trenton has not seen in many years. Not only does it reflect our past, but it also offers a glimmer of hope for the future, that redevelopment of existing buildings can bring new life and new energy into our city.

The challenge, then, is to build on that hope – to find ways to reuse and reinvent the resources that we have.  Frankly, we have little choice. We cannot tear down blocks of downtown or entire neighborhoods of rowhouses. We don’t have the means to start over and build new. Nor should we. Ironically, while we underutilize our historic assets, suburban towns like Robbinsville and Plainsboro are building “town centers” in an effort to emulate historic downtowns like that of Trenton. In places like Princeton and Teaneck, they have renovated their historic schools to meet the needs of 21st century students. Newark and Jersey City are reinventing themselves in part through reuse of historic buildings.

Historic preservation is not a new idea. The United States Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act in 1969 to encourage the identification and protection of historic resources. New Jersey not only has its own law for the protection of historic resources but also a model Rehabilitation Sub-Code designed to make renovation and reuse of historic buildings less onerous for property owners.   Preservation laws date to the early decades of the twentieth century in some American cities, and the City of Trenton has long had a Landmarks Commission to regulate change in its historic districts, from Mill Hill to Greenwood-Hamilton and many points in-between. Respecting history and reusing historic buildings is not a novel concept. Many cities have successfully reinvented themselves, one neighborhood at a time, through renovation and restoration. There is no reason the same approach cannot work in Trenton.

So how do we get from here to there? Clearly, financial incentives are needed to encourage property owners to invest in their homes and businesses. Some already exist:  income-producing properties that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, either individually or as a contributing resource in a district, are eligible for a federal tax credit for historically sensitive rehabilitation work. A similar state tax credit has been introduced in the New Jersey legislature; this bill, as proposed, would provide a tax credit for rehabilitation of private homes as well as income-producing properties. Its passage would be a boon to Trenton and other New Jersey cities seeking to utilize their historic assets.

Grants and tax abatements for property owners should be explored as a means of encouraging investment in Trenton’s historic properties. The Trenton Historical Society runs a small grant program to assist private homeowners in renovating their houses, and its success attests to the need for financial assistance.  A larger, city-run program is also needed to assist property owners. Again, the concept is not novel:  municipalities in New Jersey and throughout the United States provide direct financial assistance to property owners for renovations. Other communities offer property tax abatements to offset the expense of renovating a historic building. The City should explore both possibilities, drawing on the experience of other municipalities to develop an incentive program for historic preservation.

Finally, the focus for the present should be on the residents and business owners in the City of Trenton. We must stop waiting for the next big developer to come in and rescue us. We don’t need more water towers painted with names of developers whose plans never come to fruition. What we do need is to invest in ourselves. If we build back our city, reclaiming one house, one factory, one commercial building at a time, then the developers and outside investors will come. And when they do, we will be in a position to demand that they play by our rules, build what we want and need, and respect who we are and how far we have come.

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1 comment so far

  1. Linda Schwartz on

    Can I get an “amen?!”


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