An aerial rendering showing the proposed campuses that Trenton identified in its bid for Amazon’s second headquarters project. — Courtesy: Greater Trenton
By Joshua Burd
It was as much an eye-opener as it was a baptism by fire, as the nonprofit known as Greater Trenton raced to develop a pitch for Amazon’s coveted second headquarters project.
George Sowa recalls an early meeting with the organization’s planning team.
“We sat down in their office and said let’s look at the city with a clean slate,” said Sowa, CEO of Greater Trenton. “And I told them we need to get to 8 million square feet of office space and do it at a scale that’s complementary to the city — with no displacement of residents.
“Frankly, I wasn’t sure what the square footage would be. And then all of a sudden you start going around and adding it all up and we’ve got 14.3 million square feet.”
For Sowa and other stakeholders, the finding was part of an effort that achieved two very important goals. Not only did Trenton submit a competitive, coordinated bid to Amazon — a feat that may have seemed unlikely in past years — but it created a blueprint for showing the city’s vast potential as a vibrant, mixed-use destination for other large corporations.
The latter has been a priority for Greater Trenton since its founding in fall 2015. But the mission took on even greater urgency last September when Amazon issued a request for proposals for what would become known as HQ2. All told, Trenton was among 238 cities and regions across North America that submitted for the project, which carries an office requirement of 8 million square feet and the promise of some 50,000 new jobs to the winner.
While Trenton was not among 20 finalists announced by Amazon in mid-January, Sowa has long contended that Trenton can stack up against any other city. He touted its rich transportation network — a must for Amazon — anchored by a Trenton Transit Center that is served by NJ Transit, Amtrak, SEPTA and a light rail connecting to southern New Jersey.
The transit hub is central to the first of a five-phase campus submitted to Amazon. Sowa pointed to a site directly adjacent to the station, owned by Ajax Management LLC and the Rockefeller Group, which is fully approved and can accommodate between 500,000 and 1 million square feet of office space for the company’s initial requirement.
That would give way to a downtown campus to the west, followed by two additional complexes along the Delaware River and the former Roebling Steel complex that is now being redeveloped along Route 129. At full build-out, Sowa said the plan would effectively create a continuous loop starting at the transit center that is walkable, but also connected by three light rail lines, a shuttle and a planned network of pathways.
The plan — which also involves sites owned by Advance Realty, Nexus Properties and HHG Development Group — calls for dispersing Amazon’s 50,000 workers throughout the city. But it also envisions a series of buildings that are designed to be in character with each of those neighborhoods.
“We told the planners that if we need to go 30 and 40 stories, put the pencils down,” Sowa said. “It just doesn’t fit the scale of the city. If we need to displace any residents, put the pencils down — we just can’t afford to do that and don’t want to do that.
“So in this case, we’re just using underutilized properties to really show the potential of the city.”
In outlining the proposal, Sowa also said the plan comprises a mix of ground-up redevelopment of parking lots and the rehabilitation of former industrial buildings such in the HHG’s Roebling complex, which he said is a nod to Amazon’s existing portfolio in its home city of Seattle.
He added one other key detail: The sites that would break ground first are privately owned, while the parcels in the later phases are public land. Sowa believes that to be a distinguishing factor for Trenton, giving Amazon greater flexibility to build out the campus over time.
“In this case, the patient land can be the publicly owned property, because otherwise it’s so expensive to carry ground with the hope that Amazon may be there in the future,” he said. “In this case, it really encourages the private-sector ownership development to happen first.”
As Greater Trenton told Amazon, the campus and the transportation network would feed off of Trenton’s other assets, from access to every major city in the Northeast to the presence of three Ivy League universities within 70 miles. That’s not to mention the region’s dense, skilled population and the ever-growing network of Amazon fulfillment centers in New Jersey, along with Trenton’s affordability, diversity and vibrant arts community.
The proposal also calls for new green spaces and other plans for reactivating the Delaware River waterfront, all of which will benefit the excess capacity that is built into the proposal. Greater Trenton has mapped out an extra 6.3 million square feet beyond the requirements in Amazon’s RFP, which can serve as residential, retail, structured parking or other uses.
“Trenton really does meet or exceed all of Amazon’s requirements for this proposal,” said Bryan Evans, Greater Trenton’s vice president of marketing and communications. “And I don’t think that’s one thing we knew in the beginning.”
A bill signed into law last week by outgoing Gov. Chris Christie allows the state to offer Amazon up to $5 billion in tax credits for the project. The state has officially endorsed Newark’s bid for HQ2, but the law makes the incentive available to any city that might have a winning bid.
Regardless of the outcome, there’s no understating the value of a preparing the submission. Greater Trenton has been in discussions with other large corporate users over the past two years about the possibility of moving to the capital city. But the organization now has a clearer idea of the density and capacity under such a redevelopment plan as a result of compiling Trenton’s HQ2 bid.
“Even if Amazon doesn’t happen, it works well for any other series of companies downstream,” Sowa said. “So there’s no reason in the world why we couldn’t use this as a roadmap for the future. It’s a concept plan that works for a single company or multiple companies in order to show the vast potential that is here.”
It also reinforces Sowa’s long-held belief that Trenton has a demand issue rather than a supply issue. But Greater Trenton and its support network of business leaders and public officials are “working on the demand piece by addressing some of the real and perceived issues that exist here.”
The next step is getting the message to Amazon and other companies that the city remains affordable, even though it has great accessibility and other amenities. With the e-commerce giant, the organization attempted to stand out from the competition by highlighting those assets in a glossy, oversized book that laid out the redevelopment potential step by step.
“Knowing they’re going to get inundated with many, many submissions … how do you make yours inviting and fun to read when you have the drudgery of reading all of these things?” Sowa said. “Think about it: It’s a major task just to get through these, so we thought that this one presents real well, reads well and makes it easy to see some of the visuals and try to capture the essence of the vast potential of the city.”