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Falling Between the Cracks

A few weeks ago this story appeared in the Trentonian:

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This article interested me for a number of reasons. The Mercer Campus, previously owned and operated by Capital Health,. is just a couple of blocks away from where I live. When it was open it was a big part of the life of Trenton’s West Ward. I and my family were treated there on occasion, as were Trentonians from all over the City. When it closed nearly half a dozen years ago, it created a big, old empty hole in the life of the Ward. Jobs were lost, patients had to travel further for health care, and nearly a dozen acres of prime real estate went fallow and dark smack in the middle of the Bellevue-Rutherford neighborhood that the Mercer Campus used to anchor. That it is still closed down, empty, presumably rotting away from neglect, is to me the single biggest problem that the citizens of the West Ward face that is specific to the Ward.

I’ve felt that since at least 2010, when the future of this property was being discussed in the context of the city’s elections that year. When I ran for City Council that Spring, I wrote often about the future of the Mercer Campus and the neighborhood. In fact, this was the topic of the very first piece in this space, waaaayyy back on February 2, 2010.

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Since a burst of activity around that time, there hasn’t been a lot to happen with the property since that time. As David Foster related in the Trentonian several days ago, Capital Health sold the site (which it continued to own after it shut down the hospital and other medical offices) in 2013. As this news piece in the Trenton Times at the time of the sale relates, there were high hopes for the future of the site as “a health and wellness complex.” However, nothing happened over the last four years, as Mr. Foster told us in the March 7 Trentonian story. The current owner, Global Life Enterprises, hasn’t proceeded with any development, and since sources at the City told the Trentonian “There are multiple liens on the properties that Global Life owns at the former hospital campus,” there’s not likely to be any.

So now the City is back to the beginning of the redevelopment process, looking for developers to take interest in the project. Mayor Eric Jackson is quoted in the Foster piece as recognizing the importance of the project to the City and the West Ward. “It’s a critical site that we want to see something good for that community to happen there,” he said. Mr. Foster reports that the City had a meeting scheduled this month with one entity called Panasia. Further information about the company wasn’t provided in the article, and a Google search hasn’t yielded any results either. On behalf of his Administration, the Mayor sounded committed. “We want to make sure we’re pushing all we can to have folks take a real good look at that piece [of] land. It’s critical.”

But, how much is the City really doing?

For one measure, in most of the documents found on the publicly-accessible pages of the City’s website, there are almost no references to the Mercer Campus site nor the surrounding Bellevue-Rutherford neighborhood.

The area doesn’t appear on this list of the city’s 41 current formally-designated redevelopment areas. It doesn’t appear on the City’s Redevelopment map of those 41 areas, either. The area is circled in red and pointed out with a red arrow on this excerpt of that City map.

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This homepage for the “Trenton250″ Master Plan links to many support documents and reports used to put together what is intended to be the City’s master planning documents for the next two decades leading up to Trenton’s 250th anniversary in 2042. It’s hard to find many references to the area and the opportunities the City wants to promote there. In the final draft Trenton250 “West District Plan” there are 3 paragraphs (beginning on page 3 of the report) which speaks of the area’s “unique assets, including location, existing buildings, existing amenities, and/or the existence of successful revitalization efforts.” The draft goes on to say the areas near the former hospital “have the market conditions to change relatively quickly and are likely to have a significant impact on the housing market if they become successful. This means that the City should be working aggressively in these areas to improve the public realm, enhance open space, address environmental issues, and ensure that they are safe.”

And in the section titled “Economic Development Report” there are four paragraphs on the subject of the former hospital campus, beginning on Page 43. In these paragraphs, the Trenton250 Plan suggests “The City should work with the property owner to create a Mercer Hospital Complex Feasibility Study and Redevelopment Plan. This plan should take into consideration public/private partnerships and the housing options available in the vicinity and how such a redevelopment plan could support the City’s goals of creating strong residential neighborhoods that have a deep sense of community and history.” Since the current property owner, Global Life Enterprises, seems to be MIA as the City looks for new developers, this kind of “Feasibility Study and Redevelopment Plan” isn’t likely to come anytime soon.

But, wait!

I seemed to recall just such a report having been done back in 2010, when Capital Health’s departure from the site was well under way. It was the basis of several public community engagement meetings around the area early that year, such as the one I attended and reported on in my very first post in this space. This report, even though it would need to be updated to reflect changes in the neighborhood and property in the intervening half-dozen years, should have been consulted and used in both the Trenton250 process, as well as the City’s current efforts to market the property after the Global Life Enterprises failure. Right? If the City is “pushing all we can” to develop the site, in the Mayor’s words, shouldn’t we be pushing with all of the tools available to us?

I tried to find this old report on the City’s website, but couldn’t. I didn’t find it anywhere on the Division of Planning’s page, nor on the overall Department of Housing and Economic Development page. The list of “Previous Plans and Studies” used to prepare the Trenton250 Plan, which was comprised of reports and studies dating back to 1989, didn’t contain any reference to this report.

So I dug a little further and Googled for it. And found it.

On the City of Trenton’s website.

At this location.

It still reads as a pretty full and comprehensive plan including all the data the City would need to market this neighborhood to prospective developers. This report was prepared by Capital Health working  with the City’s Planners, and funded by Capital Health, if I recall correctly. The data will need some updating, but the fundamentals – about the neighborhood and the Mercer Campus – haven’t changed all that much in the last seven years. That’s a big part of the problem, after all. Nothing’s changed.

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I don’t know why this report isn’t on the City’s website, when older and presumably less relevant documents are. I don’t know why the Trenton250 Plan calls for a new “Feasibility Study and Redevelopment Plan” to be done with the current owner who’s done nothing with the property, when this is already in the City’s possession. How can the City say they are “pushing all we can to have folks take a real good look at that piece [of] land” if this report, this marketing tool, isn’t prominently positioned on the City’s website?

Do they not know this report not only still exists, but that it is still in the City’s possession?

Has this report, and what it represents, fallen between the cracks at City Hall – just like the old Mercer Campus site, and the Bellevue-Rutherford Neighborhood it sits in, has for the last seven years?

Look, this is only a government report, a study done over 7 years ago with a lot of dry statistics and – even for 2010 – plenty of overly-optimistic scenarios for rebuilding a neighborhood after losing a major health institution that had been there for decades. By itself, it wasn’t about to then and certainly won’t now by itself bring in developers to look the place over. It took three years for the City to land Global Life as a developer, and the report probably didn’t have anything to do with that, to be totally frank.

But it did represent a major effort of time, and effort, and more than that ATTENTION PAID to an area in the City that doesn’t get much from its “leadership.” It represented a collaboration between the City and Capital Health, which despite its departure from the West Ward remains the largest private employer in Trenton, in trying to envision a future for the City, not only for those who are already living and working here, but for those who might be able – even in this poor, post-industrial era for Trenton – to see this town as the place to make their future. This report, and others like them, like the Trenton250 effort, help to promote and sell (these are good things!) this city to the world. When they end up getting buried, falling between the cracks, they are just more lost opportunities, more squandered assets.?

What else might be bumping around City Hall, either physically sitting in a closet or file drawer somewhere, or in a virtual back corner of the Trentonnj.org website that could be used in the City’s toolkit? To “push as hard as you can” you need all the tools you can get.

I wish the City luck in its current effort to revive the Mercer Campus and the neighborhood. But I can’t help feeling that the last seven years have been wasted here, in the West Ward, as in so many other areas in this City.

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