Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Trick or Treat?

This morning's Times ran an article about Full Spectrum's presentation to City Council on the long planned "Town Center Project." In the spirit of the season, From the Front Stoop has put a holiday spin on the saga:


City Hall: "Who's there?"

Some guys from NYC and elsewhere: "Full Spectrum from NYC and our friend 'Magic' Johnson."

City Hall: "Whaddaya want?"

Guys from NYC: "We want to invest in your city. We want to take over a complete block of downtown Trenton and remake it into a shining example of green development; we want to erect a humongous mixed use property that will revitalize your moribund city."

City Hall: "Really? Great! Where do we sign? When can you start?"

Guys from NYC: "We gotta talk."

City Hall: "Why?"

Guys from NYC: "Because we want to do this project, but we need some stuff from you."

City Hall: "What kind of 'stuff'?"

Guys from NYC: "We'll also need to work out parking off-site since our plan doesn't include enough for the projects tenants, let alone visitors, service people, customers, etc. Oh, and we'll probably need your assistance in acquiring some of the properties."

City Hall: "Get your planning board approvals and we'll get back to you."

Guys from NYC: "OK."



City Hall: "Who's there?"

Guys from NYC: "Full Spectrum."

City Hall: "Election's over. We're busy."



City Hall: "Who's there?"

Guys from NYC: "Full Spectrum. We gotta talk."

City Hall: "Why?"

Guys from NYC: "Because we want to do this project, but we need some stuff from you."

City Hall: "We're busy. Tell it to the newspapers."



City Hall: "What?!?!?!"

Guys from NYC: "Look, really. We want to do this project. But you have to sign off on the developer agreement..."

City Hall: "Let's see that."

Guys from NYC: "...and we need you to agree to some convoluted financing."

City Hall: "What?!?!?! You want us to grant you a PILOT* and we're not even sure if the market can/will support your project. Oh no.. unh-uh."

Door slams.

To be continued...

*Payment in Lieu of Taxes: a frequently granted incentive to given to developers to help the funding of projects.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

State of dissent

In his State of the City address given before Council on Thursday evening, Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer continued to rant against those who can’t or won’t view the city through his rose-colored glasses. After taking a dramatic pause to scan around Council Chambers at those gathered to hear his warmed-over rhetoric, the Mayor launched into a mini-sermon about how dissenters hurt the city.

But tonight, I do question whether we remember what has brought us this far. Some of us appear to have either lost our way, or, are having difficulty finding the way … the way to work together to get things done.

Certainly, criticism can be good … constructive, fact-based criticism. But not one person is hurt when we talk about our city with minor league truths and major league lies…Trenton is hurt.

This is not an all together incorrect statement. But who is lying and who is telling the truth?

Not one person is hurt when the media report on gang members like they’re celebrities, but treat honor students like they don’t exist. Not one person is hurt. Because the honor student likely goes on to college, and if the honor student happens to be our newest Assistant City Attorney – and graduate of Trenton Central High School – Nakia White – that honor student makes her way to Harvard Law School and then comes BACK to her hometown in Trenton to work for the City where she was a summer intern. So, again, the honor student isn’t hurt when that story is never told … Trenton is hurt … because families that might otherwise consider calling Trenton home, pass us up and go elsewhere, because they think their child can’t make it to “a Harvard” by way of Trenton Central High…But these families don’t hear enough from us about the many students who do.

Certainly there are good things in Trenton that don’t make the “news” and it is a shame, but it is a fact. Young people are supposed to avoid gang involvement, do well in school and succeed in life. It is what we all want and hope for Trenton’s children. Meeting that expectation is only newsworthy if it is abnormal or extraordinary. To say otherwise indicates that failure is the norm, thus making success newsworthy.

Factual and timely reporting of gang activity and crime doesn’t hurt any one person or the city as whole.

Trenton is only “hurt” when we don’t face up to the real facts and work together to change things. The first step in correcting a problem is admitting there is a problem.

Similarly, factual reporting of failing school systems, questionable police management, or public officials who threaten lawsuits when questioned by the public doesn’t hurt the city as much as it highlights how much work needs to be done.

If there has been one consistency in Mayor Palmer’s tenure it has been his reluctance, if not outright refusal, to admit that his critics might be right and he might be wrong. His tendency to treat criticism as high treason instead of an opportunity to make a positive change is what is hurting the city.

A continuous hum of negative vibes in the most personal way hurts the value of your property….Why would anyone want to buy a home in your neighborhood if all they ever hear is how bad you say it is?

What hurts the value of our property is the lack of enforcement of codes and laws; the litter in the streets; and the dysfunctional school system.

So what do we actually get at the end of a day of Trenton-bashing? Well, I’ll tell you what I think we get: We get a community that’s polarized because lines have been drawn and people feel compelled to pick a side … and worst of all … We get a city that’s marginalized … because Trenton will never reach its true potential if Her citizens don’t find common ground, commit to a common agenda and work together to achieve it.

Funny, but it seems to me it is the Mayor and his minions who like to polarize and marginalize those who dissent or disagree with the party line.

So if you love Trenton, lift Her up, don’t tear Her down…if you love Trenton, don’t look to find blame, work to find solutions…if you love Trenton, focus on Her beauty, not Her faults. I intend to work with citizens who will help us lift Trenton up.

We – ALL of us – from the Battle Monument to Centre Street, from Chambersburg and Villa Park to Hiltonia – we are all Trenton.

While there are those who paint the city with a broad brush of negativity, most people of our acquaintance love this city and appreciate all it has to offer. These are the people who volunteer their time and energy to work for the improvement of their neighborhoods; those who lead civic associations and other community groups; people who are committed to supporting local businesses and cultural organizations.

There are a lot of people who are doing what they can to improve the city. In the course of their activism and advocacy they are bound to disagree with the Mayor.

Does that make them any less loyal to Trenton than Douglas H. Palmer?

As we move forward with our comprehensive agenda steadied on the future, I remind us all: In one way, we are very much the same city that we have been for decades. We still can’t afford to get complacent … We still can’t afford to become distracted … and we still can’t afford to believe that the strategy of divide-and conquer will deliver us our victory. I will spend all of my efforts working on the problems – and working with citizens on a positive, constructive course of action.

We are all Trenton. And as part of Trenton we have the right to criticize and question how and why things are done. A true leader would recognize that and use it to his or her advantage to move the city forward.

Instead it seems that our Mayor is the one who is set on divide and conquer. He should heed his own words.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Stand by me

An article in this morning's Trentonian bearing the headline "Palmer's last speech?" contains the following quote attributed to the Mayor:
I will stand with anyone who wants to move this city forward, but I have no time for people who are going to stand on the sideline and root against Trenton.

Seems like an interesting choice of words coming from a man known for his vindictive approach to anyone who dares criticize or disagree with his decisions.

Need proof?

Let's look at residency. Although city teachers, fire and police personnel are excluded by state law, it is a requirement that city employees reside in the city. Over the years there have been a number of incidents where employees have circumvented the law by setting up "in town" addresses when they really resided elsewhere. This was tacitly approved by the Palmer administration...unless or until you somehow stepped on the Mayor's toes. Then all of sudden you could find yourself suspended if not fired for non-residency.

Former Director's of the City Library, City Museum at Ellarslie and managers within the City's vast Public Works Departments are just some of the people who took a hit for not living in town.

On the other hand, various and sundry Palmer appointees have been allowed to maintain false residences here or given dispensation to live elsewhere over the years.

Allan Mallach took an apartment here, but never really left his home in Roosevelt when he was Housing and Economic Development Director.

Business Administrator Jane Feigenbaum, has a home on Mercer Street in Mill Hill that she visits so rarely the neighbors frequently turn her front porch into their own personal social club. Her backyard gets cut about once a season...only after the weeds get at least knee high. And the building itself is showing signs of neglect and disrepair.

Assistant Business Administrator Dennis Gonzalez lived in the city, then moved out when he left his job at City Hall to work for the Trenton Economic Development Corporation (TEDC--remember them? That was the agency that bungled the construction of the office building at Front and Broad Streets preventing the move of the Hill Wallack Law Firm into Trenton from West Windsor). Once the TEDC unravelled and Dennis sought shelter back at Palmer HQ at 319 E. State Street, he resided outside of the city long enough for the leadership of the Trenton Council of Civic Associations and others to start asking questions residency. To his credit, Mr. Gonzalez did purchase another house in the city shortly thereafter.

Police Director Joe Santiago is a real interesting case. When he first took the position in 2003, Mr. Santiago said he was anxious to move his family to Trenton and various neighborhoods were cited as possible locations. In the interim, Mr. Santiago took up weekday residence at the Trenton Marriott (did we ever find out who paid for that?). After awhile, the Director allegedly took an apartment in South Trenton at the Grand Court Villas (Cigar Factory). Still later, he listed his address as the residence of his assistant, Abe Hemsey in North Trenton. Then came the revelation that Mayor Palmer was granting Director Santiago special permission to commute to and from his home in Sterling, NJ (at the City Taxpayer's expense) due to medical and family reasons.

Yup. The Mayor "stands with anyone" who will go along with him and do his bidding. But he sure doesn't stand too close to those who have a differing opinion.

And it doesn't just extend to city employees.

But what about the local architect, preservationist and developer who had to sit out a round after not being reappointed to the City Landmark's Commission for Historic Preservation. This just happened to occur after the individual actively campaigned for one of Doug's opponents? You don't find many bigger Trenton boosters than this fellow, but he was given a "time out" by the Mayor.

How about local business owners who have struggled and hung in there, waiting for the tide to turn and things to get better in town only to have the Mayor's wife suddenly stop using their services. Could it be because the shop owners openly criticize what they see as wrong about the city? Or support candidates other than the Mayor's chosen few?

The examples go on. Anyone who is the slightest bit engaged, even the "johnnie-come-latelies" as Council President Pintella calls them, in the local scene can provide a story or two of their own. And they all point to the same sad fact.

Mayor Palmer's words, "I will stand with anyone who wants to move this city forward" are as devoid of veracity as his suits are empty.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A matter of dollars and sense

Two interesting items from this past week's news:

The City Administration has agreed to spend yet another $78,000+ to upgrade the seldom working neon sign that sprawls across the facade of the Fire Headquarters building on Perry Street.

If you're not up to speed on this subject, here's a brief synopsis.

The sign was conceived to be a companion to the famous "Trenton Makes" sign on the lower free bridge across the Delaware River that would serve as a landmark and help attract people to the Fire Museum (which itself didn't reopen until a couple of years ago). Originally estimated to cost $75,000 to build and install on the Fire Headquarters building in 2002, the balky sign has seldom worked right for any measurable length of time.

The latest contract granted to update and upgrade the sign brings the total spent on this boondoggle has reportedly cost the city $500,000 over the last five years.

The second item was an article in Saturday's Times about the serious deterioration of physical plant at Trenton Central High School's main (Chambers Street) campus.

In the article TCHS Principal James Earle and other district employees decried the crumbling plaster, leaky roof, and overall decrepit condition of the once grand and glorious 75 year old edifice.

The story is bound to rekindle the passionate debate over saving the building or trashing it (and along with it, a significant icon on the city's once proud image. And it will highlight, yet again, the sorry state of Trenton's educational system.

We can all name socio-economic reasons why not every student is thriving in our schools. What has never been made clear as how and why we have let the school buildings deteriorate to the point that they can't hope to function for their intended purpose.

We can't find or won't allocate the funds to quite literally keep a roof over the heads of our school children, but we can fritter away a half-million dollars on a stupid neon sign that has never worked properly and can hardly be seen from anywhere except in front of the building it is on.

It just doesn't make sense.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A different take

South Trenton resident and Community Activist Juan Martinez sounded off in a recent Trentonian article about the tightening of the laws requiring New Jersey residents to legally register their vehicles within 60 days of moving here.

According to Mr. Martinez, enforcement of the auto registration laws is some sort of veiled, anti-Latino movement supported by certain racist/elitist factions within the community.

Thursday night's City Council meeting was well attended by a group speaking out against this law, (a state law by the way, not a city law) that they claim is unfairly aimed at Latino immigrants.

Before we choose sides and start pointing fingers, let's look at this situation realistically.

The effect of this "new" law is to close some technical loopholes in the prior law. It was already mandated that individuals who establish their principle residence in New Jersey must register their vehicles in this state within a given time frame. There was also somewhat vague language that granted what amounted to an unlimited grace period for people not residing here full-time.

Apparently, the old law was for all intents and purposes unenforceable. And since New Jersey has if not the single highest, one of the highest, automobile insurance rates in the country, many people took advantage of the legal loophole to register their car elsewhere to skirt the rules and save money.

So we got a new law.

The purpose of the old law was to guarantee that automobiles based and principally operated in New Jersey...the most densely populated state of the union, were properly registered, insured and inspected in an effort to increase the safety for all the residents of New Jersey.

Now we have a new law. I don't see that its purpose is any different plus it cleans up some messy language of the prior law.

Another fact: Trenton is a city that grew and was laid out well before the post-world war two advent of the automobile. Houses sit close together on narrow streets that don't provide anywhere near enough parking for the increasing number of cars in each household. It's a problem.

So when a resident comes home late and can't find a parking place convenient to his or her front stoop, he or she gets upset. And when the cars parked nearest his or her front door is registered out of state, he or she gets more upset.

(Convenient in this case would be a generalization referencing those one or two parking spots that are closest to one's own front door. The definition varies...especially for those who live on streets where there is no on-street parking allowed!)

Folks...we live in a city. Parking is at a premium. If you want convenient, plentiful, semi-private parking just footsteps from your front door, maybe an urban neighborhood is not for you.

(We, the people, created this mess. We moved our homes, schools, jobs, stores and amusements ever further into what used to be the state's farmland only to increase our dependency on automobiles to go to work or play. But that's a topic for another time.)

Compounding this issue is the decades of Regional Contribution Agreements (RCA's) that have allowed the suburbs to buy their way out of providing affordable housing within their borders. Jobs move out of the cities but the housing affordable to our lowest wage earners is concentrated more and more in these same cities. So how do these folks get to work?

Cars. Lots of cars.

So, aside from election year "stunting" by incumbents looking to prove they deserve yet another term in the State Legislature, some of the impetus for this tightening of the automobile registration law may have come from those who feel that there are too many vehicles belonging to transients and recent arrivals clogging up our streets.

But this "remedy" is not to be applied exclusively to immigrants. We can probably all count among our acquaintances people who drive out-of-state registered vehicles while their principal domicile is here in the Garden State.

Now let's not make any mistakes here. Anyone who thinks cracking down on the "illegally" registered cars with Pennsy tags is going to free up unlimited amounts of parking for fully compliant residents is delusional.

The majority of those vehicles will ultimately be registered "legally" in New Jersey and the parking shortage will remain.

What we may gain is an increase in compliance with all auto registration laws...including proper insurance and inspection of the vehicles that ply our roads.

Mr. Martinez and his friends fear that the new laws will ultimately rob working people of their mode of transportation to get to and from work.

He may be right in some cases. But instead of railing against the enforcement of the original intent of the auto registration laws, he might do better arguing for an end to the economic segregation caused by the RCA's that concentrate affordable housing in the old urban centers while the jobs flee to the suburbs. Then some of these cars might not be needed in the first place.

It is a tough issue. There are many who feel that these hard-working immigrants should be given what amounts to special treatment when it comes to following the laws of the land they have come to live and work in. What so many seem to fail to grasp is that by ignoring or waiving the “rules” we cheapen our quality of life and standard of living.

If this is truly a land of opportunity where hard working people, whether their immigration status is legal or not, can provide a better life for themselves, why would we want to diminish it by selecting what laws are acceptable to follow and which aren’t? Aren’t the laws of the land the rules we follow to keep the machinery of our society in working order?

Unfortunately there no doubt are some who do see this “new” law (which, again, is no different than the intent of the old law) as an opportunity to force people of a different ethnic or cultural background out of the area.

For many more, it is just a way to bring parity and fairness back to the table.

“Why do I have to register my car here, get it inspected, and pay high insurance premiums when my neighbor doesn’t?”

Critics of the “new” law speak of fairness but they are asking for favoritism and to be exempted from the law. Is that fair?

Generations of people from all over the world have come to this country and the vast majority of them have taken the time and made the effort to play by the established rules. Why is it now “unfair” to ask others to do the same?

With freedom and opportunity comes a responsibility to follow the rules. And as long as the rules are applied equally to all then there really is no reason to complain.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


The Jersey Journal, newspaper of record for Jersey City, is running a series of articles about crime in the city. (available on line at

The series is based upon the compilation and charting, via computers, of violent crime statistics for the 19 months from January 2006 through July of this year as obtained by the Newark Star Ledger and Jersey Journal staff through Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests.

So far, there have been no great revelations in the information presented...especially to those who have been paying attention to crime discussions and statistics for awhile now.

There are very strong similarities between the description of problems (youth congregating on street corners; limited police resources; broken families; poor education systems; etc.)in Jersey City and what we hear, read and say about Trenton.

One thing that has struck this reader, so far there has been little evidence of the hyperbole so present in Trenton's "crime fighting" strategies.

For instance, in this morning's article, there is a very matter-of-fact statement by Jersey City Police Chief Tom Comey regarding how his department maintains a list of the most serious repeat and violent juvenile offenders in order to help the Prosecutor's office deal with their cases.

There was no hype about this being a ground-breaking approach. We don't know from the article, but one gets the sense there was no highly-paid consultant credited with this common sense approach to law enforcement data analysis. It was held up as the next great wave in crime-fighting.

Let's hope more Trentonians read this series and can take away some good information that can be applied here.

And let's hope our Public Officials read the series and realize that reducing crime is a serious issue and not just a public relations opportunity.

Reporters, Councilpersons, or the Public shouldn't have to resort to OPRA requests for information on crime in the city.

It's time to stop playing to the cameras and the press and talk about our crime problem, real or perceived, in a very real and open way.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

And we're all the poorer for it.

Rutgers Economists James Hughes and Joseph Seneca have reported that people are leaving New Jersey faster than ever before. Studying the Census and IRS data from 2002 through 2006, Hughes and Seneca determined that the gap between the number of people leaving the state and the number of people moving in has more than tripled.

New Jersey could actually see an overall decrease in population as early as 2008.

William Dressel, Executive Director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, is concerned of the overall impact this can have on our cash-strapped state. Not only does fewer people translate into less taxes collected, a significant population drop could cost us a Congressional seat and reduce the population-based Federal Aid received.

But there are other losses to be considered as the population flees the high property-taxes, poor infrastructure, over-developed suburbs and decaying urban centers.

The people who are leaving are those who can. Those who have the ways and means to pack up and move...whether it is across the river or across the country. Certainly, our economy will miss their spending.

But these are also most likely to be people who are involved in making their communities better. They are the activists, board members, volunteers, patrons, etc. that breath life and vitality into our arts, education, and civic non-profits. These are the people who, to the best of their ability, give back to keep our towns and cities livable.

As they flee, our efforts to move forward, especially in places like Trenton, are impaired...if not hamstrung.

This last week marked a significant loss for the Greater Trenton Community as two very committed and involved people completed the transition of divesting from Trenton and setting up shop in the middle of the country.

For the last decade or so, if you looked at any one's list of "movers and shakers" in Trenton, you would have seen the names of Beth and Garry Feltus. Business people, civic leaders, former school board member, patrons of the arts, they were in many ways ideal citizens.

In time honored fashion, they have packed up and headed west in search of a better life. No doubt they will miss Trenton and the people they've shared so much with.

And to be sure, Trenton will miss them.

How many more Beth and Garry's will pull up stakes and leave this week? This month? This year?

How will the State of New Jersey fare when all that's left are those who aren't able to go anywhere else?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Well what do you know?

So at least five of Trenton's City Council members showed good sense last night and voted to not renew the liquor license for the troubled Club XL.

If you don't remember, Club XL operated at the site of the old City Gardens up by where Calhoun Street runs into MLK Blvd. The operation was fraught with problems: fights, robberies, underage drinking and alleged live sex acts, nudity and prostitution. It has been closed since 2004 while the various charges have been debated and argued and heard.

Although the body had voted previously to not renew the license, the owners are appealing the decision. In the meantime, they came back to Council with the proposal to renew the license so it could be sold and transferred to another location.
Even though Special Counsel Joseph Alaqua suggested the proposal be accepted, Councilpersons Bethea, Lartigue, Melone, Segura and Staton voted against it. Councilman Coston was absent due to family business and Council President Pintella abstained.

Interestingly, a similar offer to renew the license upon condition of it's sale was put before the Club XL owners early on in the process and they turned it down; preferring to take their chances in winning a favorable decision after the charges against them were heard.

Now that the "evidence is in" and the City Council, sitting as the local ABC Board, has denied the license renewal the owners are singing a different tune.

Too bad.

And "Yeah" for those City Council members who stuck to their guns and denied the renewal of this license again.

Thank you.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

It starts here

Yesterday the residents of the Cadwalader Heights neighborhood held a very successful house tour. Although they have held house tours before, this one was extra special as it marked the 100 years since the fist home was built there.

Through hard work, cooperation and solid promotion they attracted nearly 1000 people to their homes and neighborhood. Similar events have been held in the Berkeley Square and Mill Hill neighborhoods. And the Contemporary Club's popular "Four Views of Trenton" tours have been drawing people to town for over twenty years.

The majority of attendees for these events come from outside of Trenton. Proof that people will indeed visit Trenton for well organized and promoted events and will pay to do so.

But that's not the only good thing about these events.

Writing in an op ed piece in the Times last Wednesday, long time Cadwalader Heights resident Carol Nicholson offered the following "simple recipe:"
...if you want to live in a neighborhood that lasts for 100 years -- take control of your community, don't leave it to politicians, bureaucrats or violent gangs. Know your neighbors, help each other and organize. Even the most informal grouping is a legitimate voice....

Civic pride starts at one's doorstep, continues through our respective neighborhoods and finds its way right up to the steps of City Hall. The neighborhoods that are the most stable are the neighborhoods that have developed into effective communities working together for the benefit of all. Similarly, municipalities around the country, of all sizes, only succeed when the residents work together for the common good.

It is indeed a "simple recipe" and yet so many of Trenton's neighborhoods seem to be lacking in this regard. While there are many civic organizations on the books some are poorly organized and/or suffer from low participation. Even the Trenton Council of Civic Associations (TCCA), which should serve as an umbrella organization for all the neighborhood groups, is not immune to the malaise.

At any given meeting, you can count on seeing the same few neighborhoods represented with a smattering of drop-ins from other groups around town. It has even been reported that some public officials advise against participating in TCCA activities because "it is only people from North and West Wards" who attend or that the organization has become "political."

Well, "duh!"

First of all, the meetings are open to and attended by representatives from civic groups city wide. If people from specific neighborhoods or wards don't attend, it is not by design or intent. It is because of self-exclusion.

Secondly, the TCCA is no more or less "political" than any other organization concerned with improving the quality of life in our city.

While some may point to various projects and proposals as indications of a Trenton revival, they are but window dressing. No more effective at depicting a halt in Trenton's decline than the infamous "kitties and curtains" plywood panels that were applied to the many vacant properties around town a few years back.

The City's successes have been and will continue to be measured neighborhood by neighborhood. It starts with a statement of boundaries: "I am concerned with my house; my block; my neighborhood."

It continues with a commitment to take the necessary steps that will result in incremental improvements each and every day.

This is how it was done in Mill Hill, Berkeley Square, Cadwalader Heights and other neighborhoods.

"Take control of your community," states Doctor Nicholson. "Don't leave it to politicians, bureaucrats or violent gangs."

Take control of your city.