By 1984, the new skyline emerging from the urban decay below made clear that the business of formerly industrial Trenton was going to be government for generations to come.

New Jersey leaders had just added a shiny new justice complex to the city's profile, were putting the finishing touches on two other new office buildings and were planning seven more such projects.

It was the result of the decision of a previous generation of politicians, including governors William Cahill and Brendan Byrne, to revitalize dying Trenton by making it a center of government like most other capital cities in the nation.

Between the 1960s and the construction boom of the 1980s, growing agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection expanded by leasing space in the suburbs, which made finding the right bureaucrat difficult for taxpayers.

"There were state government offices spread out all over the suburbs, and Byrne and Cahill before him wanted to change that," recalled Salvatore "Len" DiDonato, a retired state treasury deputy who supervised construction of some key projects in the 1970s and 1980s.

A complex of state offices situated in downtown Trenton actually had been ordained a generation earlier, in 1958, when a committee dropped talk of building some department headquarters outside the city.

The decision came after a 1957 report from a team of urban planning students said older industrial cities like Trenton were bound to collapse financially and socially unless government moved quickly to stop the decline.

The response was nearly 20 years of clearing away boarded-up old stores and run-down neighborhoods to make way for what then was only a vague vision of the future Trenton skyline. The problem was, as always, where the needed billion dollars would come from.

One of the little known facts of Trenton's 1980s renewal is the key role played in it by the Mercer, County Improvement Authority, DiDonato said last week. No state agency had the authority to borrow big bucks for building projects in those days, but the MCIA did.

So state government cut a deal with the MCIA to borrow the $104 million needed to build the angular aluminum edifice we know today as the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex, on Market Street near the Mercer courthouse.

"Frankly," said DiDonato, "the idea was to get around the voters having to approve the bonding on it. People don't know the building was originally owned by the Mercer County Improvement Authority."

To cut the deal, the state had to pay Trenton half the taxes the city lost when the neighborhood was cleared for the project, which DiDonato said was the first-ever  "in lieu"  payment to a town crying about not being allowed to tax a government building.

Under construction for four years, it was dedicated in January 1982, just days before Byrne, its prime mover, left office. The complex would win several architectural awards even if from some angles it looks like the hull of big ship still under construction.

The success of the building and its creative financing system led to creation in 1981 of the State Building Authority, which was giventhe same power as the MCIA to borrow money for big building projects without approval from voters.

Thomas Kean, who took over from Byrne as governor, soon gave the OK to keep the Trenton building boom going. By 1984, downtown Trenton was marked by several building and demolition sites.

On the site of the old Trenton Moose Hall on the 400 block of East State Street– opposite the freeway from City Hall and across the street from the federal courthouse – workers were readying
   the new $35 million DEP build
ing. A short walk from there, along South Clinton Avenue at the site of the old YMCA, the first office and the parking garage of another project, this one worth $130 million, was being finished up for employees of DEP as well as the state Department of Labor.

Across town, on West State Street at Barracks Street, workers were tearing down an old bank to make way for a new Treasury building. Nearby, a wrecking ball was smashing away at the vacant old Hotel Hildebrecht to clear ground for another state office.

With huge tax breaks and economic development deals that reduced the financial risk, the state started convincing some bright developers that Trenton was a good place to build.
Foremost among them was Sydney Sussman, whose complex on South Clinton would be named Station Plaza and eventually would expand to three office, buildings leased to state agencies and private businesses, including the satellite operation of a Philadelphia television station.

In 1987, the state opened the William Ashby Department of Community Affairs Building on North Broad Street between Front and Lafayette streets, as well as the new Treasury Building on West State at Chauncey.

A year later, on West State across from the Trenton Commons, the state opened the Roebling Building for workers in the commerce, banking and insurance departments.

Nearby, on East Front, the statein 1988 opened another high-rise office building and moved in employees of Jersey's Department of Law and Public Safety.

In 1989, another high-rise built by a developer helped by government tax breaks and other incentives opened across West State from the new Treasury building, state pension and treasury agencies, as well as private businesses, leased offices there.

In 1992, Trenton's new skyline was joined by the stylish but functional antenna of a building erected on Front at Stockton Street for the state-owned television station -- part of a complex that included a new city post office and needed additional offices for the Division of Motor Vehicles.

These days in Trenton, with the new city arena just opened, civic and political leaders are again debating the pros and cons of government waiving taxes and taking on part of the financial risk of a major building project.

The cons contend all the tax money might have been put to better use helping people fix up their homes or funding needed social services. Few of the private sector jobs that have been created are full-time with good benefits, the naysayers argue.

But the pros respond that none of the projects, including Mercer's wildly successful Waterfront Park, were ever intended to replace the well-paying jobs of the long-gone American Bridge works or Roebling Steel.

The business of Trenton is government now. And for whatever it's worth, Trenton also has a distinctive skyline.
1984: A whole new skyline
By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian
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