“Trenton Makes, the World Takes,” exhorts the neon sign covering the south face of the Lower Trenton Bridge to cars and trains leaving and entering New Jersey, but it has been decades since the state’s capital has made much of anything. A manufacturing powerhouse in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the city was gripped by massive deindustrialization and white flight in the 1960s and ’70s, and has been grappling with recovery ever since.
Its surplus of abandoned buildings and broken windows makes the sign all the more plaintive, almost desperate, but John Hatch, FAIA, a steadfast Trenton resident (20 years and counting), sees nothing but potential, thanks to the city’s low housing costs and location between two major economic hubs, New York and Philadelphia. “We think Trenton is poised to be the next big thing,” he says.
By “we,” Hatch is referring to local architectural design firm Clarke Caton Hintz (CCH), where he is a partner, and HHG Development Associates, where he is one of three principals. The two entities are spearheading the Roebling Center, a 6.8-acre, $130 million mixed-use project on Trenton’s south side that they, along with city leaders, hope will catalyze development first in the neighborhood and then throughout the 8-square-mile city. The project’s first phase, the conversion of a five-story, former manufacturing hall known as Building 101 into the Roebling Lofts, should be done by next April. The project “will provide beautiful loft apartments for people who want to stay here, and it will attract people from the region who want to live here,” he says.
The adaptive reuse of two other buildings on site—a boiler and engine house, and a production facility—into residential and commercial space will follow, along with the construction of three new structures, including a multistory parking garage.
In 1848, the John A. Roebling’s Sons Co., one of the country’s leading producers of wire rope, moved its factory from western Pennsylvania to Trenton, becoming the city’s largest employer for decades. At its head stood John A. Roebling, a German-American civil engineer who designed the Brooklyn Bridge (his son Washington took over the project after the elder Roebling’s death in 1869, at the age of 63). Thousands of Roebling workers, many of them Central European and Italian immigrants, lived in the Chambersburg neighborhood adjacent to the factory.
Roebling wasn’t the only major manufacturer in the city. Trenton was also once home to the country’s largest ceramics industry, and a few smaller producers—like Hutchison Industries, a specialty rubber manufacturer—remain in operation. The A. Exton & Co. Cracker Factory, built in 1848 and renovated by Hatch and his team into apartments a decade ago, was the birthplace of the oyster cracker.
What followed for Roebling and many of the large companies in Trenton was “a pretty standard story in the United States,” Hatch says. “Smaller companies got bought out by bigger companies, and then by multinational companies, and then they all got shut down.” The Roebling’s Sons Co. was bought out by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. in 1953. By 1973, its plants in Trenton were shuttered.
That decade saw the hollowing out of the city’s urban industrial core along with the surrounding communities that supplied its workforce. Rioting in the wake of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had already torn the downtown apart. In 1950, Trenton’s population was at its peak of 128,009; by 1980, the population had dropped 28 percent to 92,124. (The current population is around 84,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)
Much the same happened to cities up and down the East Coast during this period, but those in New Jersey were particularly hurt. Despite the recovery of cities such as Hoboken and Jersey City in the late 1990s, Trenton remained stubbornly decrepit, and the lack of a strong tax base did nothing to sustain its recovery efforts. Local critics blamed a lackluster city government, but it was just as much the fault of geography: Most of the state’s redevelopment happened in the northern suburbs, which benefited from their close proximity to the Big Apple.
Hatch thinks Trenton simply needs to catalyze interest in its inherent assets. That’s why he and his partners at CCH and HHG leapt at a 2009 request for proposal put out by the Mercer County Improvement Authority to develop the Roebling site (they won the contract that year, but the Great Recession delayed the project for several years).
“We were looking for a couple of things: cool historical buildings, for one, but also something that was large enough to have a big impact on the city,” Hatch says. In the short term, that means providing commuters with easy access to jobs in the surrounding metropolises while the job market in Trenton catches up. The Roebling site is immediately adjacent to a light rail line, as well as New Jersey Transit lines to Philadelphia and New York, and a hop away to Princeton, N.J. (15 miles north), and Philadelphia (30 miles south) via the New Jersey Turnpike. “It’s the perfect spot,” Hatch says.
Local political leaders agree. “The redevelopment of the former Roebling industrial complex represents one of the largest private investments in Trenton in many years,” says Mayor Eric Jackson. “[It] is a game changer and a catalyst and example of the shape of things to come.”
When complete, the three existing buildings in the Roebling Center will maintain their floor-to-ceiling windows and up to 20-foot-high ceilings, while offering modern features, such as insulating window frames, to help the project earn LEED Gold certification. “A lot of what we’re doing here is taking advantage of existing architecture,” Hatch says. “A lot of the buildings have high ceilings and big windows—things that would be cost-prohibitive to build from scratch.” The project is also utilizing a federal historic tax credit based on the site's listing on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.
Once the 138-unit Roebling Lofts building wraps up, the team will add 52 more loft units in another rehabilitated structure on the site's south side, along with a new infill building between the two. A third phase will add about 200,000 square feet of commercial space, which Hatch hopes will go to a single tenant, as well as 40,000 square feet for four new restaurants, and a parking structure.
As CCH moves through the existing buildings, it is taking care to preserve the site’s industrial past. On the fourth floor of the Roebling Lofts, for example, a massive wire-testing machine will sit in a common area, its two giant flanges spread open like a steampunk eagle.
All told, the six buildings will frame a plaza—or “the piazza,” as Hatch envisions it—where concerts, festivals, and other events can take place. The idea is to create an instant neighborhood, he says, with enough amenities inside the complex to attract wary first-time residents to Trenton while the surrounding neighborhoods develop. Clinching the deal will be the city’s affordability relative to the surrounding area and to Philadelphia and New York, he says, combined with a bustling arts scene and a diverse, eclectic local community. The rental units in the Roebling Lofts range in size from 759 square feet to 1,553 square feet, and start at $1,140 for a one-bedroom unit and $1,595 for a two-bedroom.
The Roebling Center will take at least five more years to be realized, but Hatch says it has sparked the city’s comeback. “Trenton’s already going through a renaissance,” he says. If he’s right, the sign emblazoned on the Lower Trenton Bridge will become an apt descriptor of the city’s outsize ambitions once more.
Note: This story has been updated since first publication to correct the floor on which the wire-tying machine will remain, to correct the square footage of future commercial and restaurant space, and to clarify the tax credit the project is receiving.