Saturday, August 25, 2007

Golden Swan Lays Golden Egg for Developer

Once upon a time there was an early 19th Century building of historical significance located in downtown Trenton. After having served at various times as a tavern, newspaper office, appliance store, locksmith’s shop, etc. it sat vacant for over a decade.

Along came former NJ Senator Robert Torricelli and his real estate development company, Woodrose Properties, to step in to save the long vacant “Golden Swan” (aka “Caola Building”) at W. Front and S. Warren Streets.

Please hold your “huzzahs.”

Yes, it is a positive step forward in preserving a landmark downtown building. But at what cost?

Before Woodrose/Torricelli came along another developer had gotten the rights to the historic property. Enterprise Real Estate Services, Inc., an affiliate of the well-known and highly successful Rouse Company, was very interested in preserving, renovating and revitalizing that down-at-the-heels site in 2002.

Everyone was excited to have such a respected company come to town and do their magic. Best of all, Enterprise representatives said they were not intending to seek tax abatements on the project.

The banners were unfurled, the trumpets blared and the drums were beaten. Signs were hung from the building’s facade. It was the perfect follow-up to the then soon to open Marriott and just what was needed to turn the corner for that part of downtown and Trenton touted it as only Trenton can.

As the story goes, the developer went back to the city and asked for some help with the demolition of a 20th Century addition at the rear of the building, plus some other remediation/stabilization work. Specifically, the City declined to fund some/all of the needed work to the tune of about $500,000.00

Now remember, the developer was going to buy the building and wasn’t going to ask for tax abatements.

The City Father’s balked. The Developer walked.

In March of 2005 Woodrose comes in and gets the property for $1 (the city paid $164,000 for it a few years earlier) plus a five year tax abatement equaling 15% of annual gross revenues once a Certificate of Occupancy is issued. And the demo and remediation work were done at the City’s expense.

At about the same time, Woodrose/Torricelli purchased some property on West State Street, not too far from the Golden Swan. Plans were announced to redevelop those buildings for office space.

Work started and the Golden Swan started looking good. Progress was noted on the West State Street properties. The Mayor was happy. The Once and Future Acting Housing and Economic Development Director, Dennis Gonzalez, was happy. The Developer was happy. Signs went up, trumpets blared, yadda-yadda.

On August 17, 2006 Trenton’s City Council approved the granting of $89,000.00 in Urban Enterprise Zone funds to Woodrose Properties (a for-profit, private developer) for the installation of an elevator in the West State Street project. The vote was 6 to 1 in favor of the appropriation. The lone “No” vote belongs to West Ward Councilwoman Annette Lartigue.

The argument made by the Administration in favor of the funding: “The as yet uncompleted project is fully leased.” As of the last time we checked that building was still vacant.

What wasn’t said, but should have been made clear to the Council and the general public was the fact that this Private, For-Profit Developer has as one of the principals former Senator Robert Torricelli. The same Robert Torricelli who was caught up in a fund-raising scandal that cost him his Senate seat.

Interestingly, in the year immediately preceding the May 9 Municipal Elections, the Torricelli for US Senate, Inc. contributed $6,000.00 to the Mayor’s re-election campaign. Additionally, in April of 2006 the former Senator’s ex-wife contributed $2,500.00 to the Mayor’s campaign and another $2,5000.00 to the Joint Committee to re-elect the Palmer slate of At-Large candidates. In total, $11,000.00 was contributed to re-election campaigns.

Is it coincidental that $89,000.00 in Urban Enterprise Zone funds that could have been spread around to help many more businesses was contributed by the city to Woodrose? And is it equally coincidental that an estimated half a million dollars worth of demolition and remediation work was financed by the city plus a five year tax abatement granted to Woodrose’s “Golden Swan” project? A project, by the way that will probably also qualify for Historic Preservation Tax Credits.

All of this City financed largesse was given to a Private, For-Profit Developer and a principal in that developer is former Senator Robert Torricelli.

It’s no fairy tale.

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