Written by Jay Watson
In her 1970 song “Big Yellow Cab,” Joni Mitchell sang, “They paved heaven, put a parking lot,” a comment on the beauty of nature being lost to development.
Mitchell didn’t write a song about New Jersey, but it might seem that way when you consider how much of the Garden State’s greenery is covered in asphalt and concrete.
What if we could turn the Big Yellow Taxi message on its head without (metaphorically) paving over the parking lot and building a paradise?
More precisely: the creation of a city park in the center of Trenton, which will serve not only local residents, but also attract visitors from near and far to the capital.
There is an opportunity to do this in the neighborhood of the Capitol Complex, which includes the State House and Annex, the State Library, the State Archives, the State Museum and Planetarium, the Old Barracks Museum, the War Memorial Building and much more.
As the multi-year renovation of the historic State House nears completion, now is the time to anticipate the next steps in greening downtown Trenton and creating an urban oasis.
Built in 1792, the Statehouse is the second oldest continuously used state capitol building in the United States, after Maryland. Giving it the beautiful green setting it deserves has been a long-term but elusive goal.
More than a century ago, Stacey Park—a vast open space—was created by a joint city-state effort to restore access to the Delaware River waterfront.
However, over time, much of the park behind the State House gave way to parking lots and Route 29, separating the city, residents and visitors from the river.
In 2004, Governor James McGreevey announced plans to create two new urban state parks, in Trenton and Paterson, to provide public green spaces for underserved populations, preserve places of historical significance, and protect natural resources.
McGreevey left office before plans for Capital Park were finalized, but Governor John Corzine took up the cause a few years later.
The proposal called for the creation of a single green zone connecting the Capitol complex with a waterfront filled with museums, public institutions, historical sites, archaeological resources, regional transportation infrastructure and an ecological network.
The park project was successfully put out to bid in 2009, but was ultimately abandoned by the new administration of Gov. Chris Christie.
Although Governor Christie did not move forward with plans for Capital Park, $300 million was authorized to renovate and restore the State House building.
Restoration is nearly complete, making the Capitol once again a beautiful center worthy of a world-class setting. It gives New Jersey a second chance at a public green space envisioned two decades ago.
“Now is the time to be proactive in planning,” said Sally Lane, who was the project manager for the city’s park proposal.
Lane is currently chairman of the board of the Crossroads Association of the American Revolution, which is proposing a Revolutionary War Experience museum and interpretive center in Trenton.
Unfortunately, Lane said, too many changes have occurred in and around the Capitol complex to return to the original 2009 plan.
“We can’t just accept this plan that we’ve been listening to for years,” she said. “We have to ask, how much of this can we resurrect?”
In 2018, Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order recognizing Trenton’s unique role in New Jersey history and the state’s status as Trenton’s largest landowner and employer. The executive order mandates all government agencies to work together for the betterment of Trenton.
Governor Murphy can leave a lasting legacy by trying to change the concepts and plans of Capital Park to fit the modern landscape.
There is a wonderful opportunity to create a public green space to the west of the State House and connect the Capitol Complex to the Assunpink Greenway and Mill Hill Park to the south.
“The development of the first phase of the capital park as a completion of the reconstruction of the State House should be a simple matter. Currently, the territory of the future park is used as a site for restoration and is ready for work.
“With minimal investment, the state can capitalize on the restoration and add tremendous value to downtown Trenton. It would be a shame to miss this opportunity,” said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future and Trenton resident.
Busy Route 29 remains a major obstacle to public access to the Delaware River waterfront, but a federal infrastructure bill could potentially provide funds to convert a mile-long stretch of highway near the Capitol complex into a “boulevard” with more pedestrian-friendly crossings .
Creative ideas for restoring access to the city’s river have been discussed for years.
Before highways and parking lots were built, Stacey Park connected the State House to the river and canal system. If done properly, this park development can augment the restoration work of the Capitol building and serve as an example of contemporary sustainable open space design that incorporates stormwater protection strategies while creating public/civic spaces for visitors and residents.
As the famous sign on the Lower Trenton Bridge proclaims, “Trenton makes, the world takes.” If Trenton and the state make the most of this opportunity, the world will take notice.
Liberty State Park in Jersey City, Paterson-Great Falls National Historic Park in Paterson, and the recently restored and expanded Cramer Hill Waterfront Park in Camden are great success stories in the city. Our capital can and should be next.
To learn about conservation of New Jersey’s lands and natural resources, including city parks, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jay Watson is co-executive director of The Nature Conservancy of New Jersey, Far Hills.