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Trenton as a “City-Wide Area in Need of Rehabilitation”

I’ve been aware of the activities being conducted under the banner of the Trenton250 Project. This is the City of Trenton-led effort to involve local residents, property and business owners, planning experts and officials, and other stakeholders in a long-range Master Plan to re-develop the City over the next several decades in advance of Trenton’s Sestercentennial (I had to look it up) in 2042.

I’ve been aware of it, but not very conscious of it. Over the last several months, the Project has convened many public meetings and issued several documents and surveys in advance of its efforts. Sorry to say, I will admit, I’ve missed all of them.

This week, a neighbor of mine and current member of the Trenton Planning Board, David Peiffer, alerted me to an impending deadline of this coming Monday, August 15, for members of the public to submit formal comment to Jeffrey  Wilkerson in the City’s planning department on the many draft documents posted for review since mid-July.

David directed my attention to a specific document, the “Housing Report Brief” that can be found via a link on this page.  Upon reading the section that David pointed out to me, I was moved to send a letter to Mr. Wilkerson. You can read more below, but the gist of the specific draft proposal I read would involve designating the ENTIRE expanse of the City of Trenton as an “Area in Need of Rehabilitation.” That is, the ENTIRE City would be designated for redevelopment and eligible for a range of measures that, up until now, only specific areas in one of the city’s many, many, many legally-defined redevelopment areas could qualify for. Among other things, this would mean the entirety of the City of Trenton would be formally considered “a blighted area.”

So, you may ask yourself if (like me) you are a property owner in a neighborhood that you don’t consider to be “blighted” in the least, what does that kind of label mean to my property value?

That’s a good, question, and one that I asked of Mr. Wilkerson. Read on, below.

If you have a chance this weekend, please take a look at some of these draft proposals and, if you see something odd or potentially bad, or innovative and potentially wonderful, send a note by Monday, August 15, to Jeffrey Wilkerson at info@trenton250.org.

Thanks again to David Peiffer for bringing this to my attention!

As emailed, August 12, 2016:

Jeffrey Wilkerson

Planning Director

City of Trenton

319 East State Street

Trenton, NJ

Dear Mr. Wilkerson:

I would like to commend you and your colleagues who have been working on the Trenton250 planning process. It has been, to date, a thoughtful effort at looking ahead at the City’s future in ways that incorporate the participation of expert opinion, professionals in and out of the City, and the public. Having served as a member of the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment for 12 years, and having participated on the taskforce which previously revised Trenton’s Land Use Ordinance, I am personally familiar with many of the issues involved, and appreciate the value you place on the importance of public transparency and participation.

Today, I will reserve my comments to one part of the Housing Report brief I find troubling, as it has been presented in this draft. As the Trenton250 effort proceeds to the next phase, I look forward to expanded discussion on this matter, and further background. On Page 5, in your section titled “Develop Tool Kit to Improve Housing Conditions,” I read this:

“City-Wide Area In Need Of Rehabilitation Designation: Designation of an Area in Need of Rehabilitation is a special designation allowed under New Jersey Law that empowers the City with tools for improving the area designated. Specifically, it would allow the city to (1) undertake a program of repair and improvement to structures, including providing five-year property tax exemptions and abatements to support redevelopment and rehabilitation of properties; and (2) Exercise all the redevelopment powers EXCEPT acquiring private property by eminent domain. Of particular note, the designation would provide the city with enhanced tools for the disposition of property. Specifically, the city could transfer property to certain entities without having to go through auction. As a result, the city could choose developers who are best equipped to achieve their goals and to set a price for the transfer of properties that is appropriate for the type of development it seeks.”

I am concerned to read of an action that would so designate the entire city as needing rehabilitation as it is defined in the state’s authorizing legislation. There are many, many, many areas of the city, as discussed elsewhere in your Draft, that are the locations of specific redevelopment plans, many of extremely ancient vintage. I understand the appeal of an approach that holds out the prospect of reducing much of the complexity of neighborhood redevelopment. But I do wonder if such a wide, shotgun-style approach is suitable for neighborhoods not in redevelopment zones and not in need of the kind of rehabilitation envisioned by the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (LRHL).

Of the several criteria defined in NJSA Title 40A:12A-5, there are many areas of the city, such as the Cadwalader Heights neighborhood in which I reside and own property, that don’t honestly meet any of them. There are no buildings that are substandard and unsafe; no abandoned industrial buildings; none that are “detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the community;” and so on. As a property owner, I must frankly say that I am concerned about the future value of my property and my neighborhood when it becomes designated by city ordinance as an Area in Need of Rehabilitation.

Trenton has difficulty enough attracting new citizens, investors and property owners. I moved to the City nearly 20 years ago because I and my family fell in love with our house and our neighborhood. We knew nothing about the City when we first started looking here. I can guarantee you that if we were prospective homeowners from outside the City or State looking today on Realtor.com or Zillow.com, and we saw a notation on a listing to the effect that “the property is located in the Trenton Area in Need of Rehabilitation,” and found out that such Area encompassed the entire City and is legally considered a “blighted area,” well, we would pass over the entire City without a second thought. Regardless of the beauty of a specific house or neighborhood, such a designation will affect the value of that house and neighborhood.

Speaking as a property owner, what will that do to the value of my investment? I look forward with great anticipation to hearing more about this matter during the next phase of your planning process. I imagine my fellow residential property owners in Cadwalader Heights will, too, as no doubt those in the rest of on the City.

Speaking as a former member of the Zoning Board, I read Title 40A:12-6 as a description of a process under which the determination of such Areas in Need of Development is to be done in a very deliberate and careful fashion, to be supported, in the words of the statute, by “substantial evidence” (40A:12A-6 b.(5)). I fail to see how such care and deliberation – and “substantial evidence” – could possibly be provided for every area in the City.

Since the LRHL was authorized in 1992, I will ask that the next phase of the Trenton250 process include case studies of the actual experience municipalities in New Jersey have had with this law, with special attention given to case studies of municipalities that have defined their entire towns as Rehabilitation Areas.

I also read in your Draft, in the same section quoted above, that the City would be allowed under the LRHL to “Exercise all the redevelopment powers EXCEPT acquiring private property by eminent domain.” In my reading of the law, in Title 40A:12A-6, the use of Eminent Domain is an explicitly authorized option to a municipality.  It is most definitely NOT prohibited:

“The resolution authorizing the planning board to undertake a preliminary investigation shall state whether the redevelopment area determination shall authorize the municipality to use all those powers provided by the Legislature for use in a redevelopment area other than the use of eminent domain (hereinafter referred to as a ‘Non-Condemnation Redevelopment Area’) or whether the redevelopment area determination shall authorize the municipality to use all those powers provided by the Legislature for use in a redevelopment area, including the power of eminent domain (hereinafter referred to as a ‘Condemnation Redevelopment Area’). – [Emphasis mine - KM]

There are many other references in the legislation to the power of Eminent Domain as something that can indeed by invoked by a municipality as part of its tool kit. I understand that would the intention of the City, at the present time, to avoid the use of this power, but the implication in your Draft that this is outright prohibited is, in my reading of these provisions, incorrect.

This poses, in my opinion, another problem to the proposal to designate the entire City to be a zone to fall under the terms of this law. Although we may be able to depend on the levels of professionalism and integrity of the current Administration and Council to forswear the use of eminent domain, I remain unconvinced of the likelihood this would remain the case in the future. As long as the law allows it, it must be considered a real, however distant, possibility that it would be used, on some basis, in Trenton.

This represents to me another serious defect in the draft proposal to designate the entire City of Trenton as an Area in Need of Rehabilitation under the New Jersey Local Redevelopment and Housing Law.

I will conclude these comments on this note. Once again, I thank you and your colleagues on the Trenton250 planning process to this point. I look forward to the next phase of the project, and to further clarification of the points I’ve made today.

Respectfully,

Kevin Moriarty

5 comments to Trenton as a “City-Wide Area in Need of Rehabilitation”

  • ed. w

    Kevin,

    I have been to several of these meeting as well as sending you a copy of “The Neighborhood report.” which I hope you received.

    there are many great area’s in Trenton to live in, unfortunately the key backbone of any city is its hard working middle class which includes or municipal civil servants, Police, Fire, teachers Etc. There is very little of that left, even key members of the current Admin do not reside here, which is a shame.

    Without this backbone, any city will slowly wither away with crime and decay.

    Keven, I grew up in Trenton, still live here today (>50yrs), and have great hope for the city.

    peace

  • Paul Mitsis

    Kevin,
    Thanks very much for the posting. We over in Glen Afton have similar concerns for such a blanket designation and are discussing within the civic association how to approach this. Is there a hard deadline for this decision to allow us some time to formulate a response?

  • Kevin

    Thanks, Ed – I should have acknowledged your reports. I am sorry. You have attended many of the meetings and made a conscientious effort to record them.

    I hope you have a chance to attend future sessions, and I hope to see you at some of those.

  • Kevin

    Paul – Thanks for the note. As I mention in the piece, the deadline for comment on the initial draft briefs is today, 8/15.

    As drafts, these will be revised and published for further public review.

    At this time, I think it would be sufficient to send a letter, either as an individual or on behalf of a neighborhood association, to Mr. Wilkerson, expressing concern at that particular proposal for its impact on property values city-wide, and expressing a strong desire for further detail and public input on this proposal as the Trenton250 efforts proceed.

    Thanks for reading!

  • shirley bridgewater

    Designating an entire city as one in need of rehabilitation, in spite of any purported benefits, sounds like you are describing an amazingly hopeless environment and is disrespectful to citizens who have devoted resources and pride to create a place to live and invite others to share. Words are more powerful than any tool in your toolbox. The city has many areas of such designation and I ask what has been done to complete the goals of the plans.

    I have to ask myself and you, who benefits from such a designation except developers, some of whom simply see inner cities as short cuts to the bank while tax paying citizens are left with the costs of abatements etc.. I’m kind of tired of the city being prostituted (no disrespect to prostitutes) and its been happening for a long time, way before Mayor Mack.

    I understand the political and economical realities that attend to the utilizing such designations but do we have to bow to them? I thought we were moving forward, recognizing our specific weaknesses and celebrating our strengths. Isn’t that the plan?