Officials from Trenton-based Isles, Inc., in partnership with other community groups such as the SAGE Coalition and the Trenton Downtown Association (TDA), are working to develop the ‘Creek to Canal Creative District’ (C2C) in Downtown Trenton and the adjacent Old Trenton neighborhood, named for the proposed district’s location between the Assunpink Creek and the Delaware and Raritan Canal.
This section of the city is already home to a large arts community, with organizations, venues, and events such as the SAGE Coalition, the Trenton Community A-Team (TCAT), Artworks, the Orchid House, and Art All Day. Last year, for example, TCAT opened a new gallery called Stockton 51 in a building owned by Isles at 51 North Stockton Street, which is located in the heart of the upcoming district. The two-story gallery is housed in a former carriage house that was previously abandoned.
According to local resident Walter Roberts, Jr., an artist with TCAT, “there are a lot of enthusiastic people that are coming out” to the gallery to not only see and purchase artwork, but to create their own as well.
Planners are hoping that existing artists and venues like Stockton 51 will help bring others into the area as the district is developed.
“I’m a big believer in arts as an economic driver,” said Tom Gilmour, the Executive Director of the TDA, explaining that “good established arts communities attract other artists and people who love art.”
According to Julia Taylor, the Deputy Operations Officer for Isles, the idea to create C2C dates back close to five years, though her organization has been working on projects in the neighborhood for over three decades. In 2014, Isles was awarded an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which allowed the group to begin the process of developing the district.
In the time since, there was a planning process that “involved input from over 750 stakeholders, including Trenton residents, visitors, [and] arts organizations,” and in September 2016, the official plans, designed by Philadelphia-based Interface Studio, LLC, were released.
The plans include proposals for conducting a creative census to catalog the arts community in Trenton, creating a website and calendar with the results, branding and marketing the district, and joining “the statewide arts advocacy conversation.”
Plus, it calls for conducting advocacy at the local level by working with organizations such as Greater Trenton and Any Given Child to engage in a variety of efforts, such as to “develop incentives for resident artists,” “explore ways to lift the ban on food trucks in Downtown,” and “partner with efforts to bring a new venue or venues to town” like a brewpub with movies and live music or a pottery museum.
Other parts of the plan include allowing the vacant Commonwealth Building at 150 East State Street “to host the next generation of city dwellers and revolutionary designers,” having video projections on vacant storefronts, a pop-up performance stage, creating an Artist-in-Residence program, replacing crumbling sidewalks, increasing safety in the area, and refurbishing some of the neighborhood’s notable ghost signs.
There are also plans “to nurture partnerships with area service providers and continue to invest in arts programs and initiatives that involve and empower community residents,” to “increase lighting along the State Street corridor,” to revitalize the ‘Studios @ 219’ at 219 East Hanover Street, and to construct a mixed-use development at the corner of East Front and South Montgomery Streets.
Lastly, the plan proposes to open an “all-ages arts and education Downtown campus” in partnership with local educational institutions within the nearby YWCA building, which could be a hub of the community engagement programs at local universities to “be able to connect their students with the important work that’s going on in the city,” according to Taylor. Many of the attractions could be connected by an ‘Artwalk’ wayfinding system that would link the Assunpink Creek with the Delaware and Raritan Canal.
Taylor told Jersey Digs that a decade from now, she expects that Old Trenton and Downtown Trenton will be neighborhoods of choice, explaining that “to me, that means that there are a range of resources and amenities for residents that meet their priorities and their needs, that we have clean well-maintained streetscapes, that we don’t have abandoned buildings, that we have an appropriate level of recreational opportunities available, and that there’s connectivity between Old Trenton, Downtown, the train station, and some of the surrounding neighborhoods.”
The news of the proposed creative district comes as other development projects are underway in Downtown Trenton, including the upcoming Trenton Falls Park and the plans described by Gilmour as “a great example of a rehabilitation of a very cool building” to convert the former Bell Telephone building on East State Street into 85 residential units, retail space, and a gym.
Proponents of the district say that as C2C grows, they will be striving to avoid the displacement of existing artists that other areas, such as Jersey City’s Powerhouse Arts District, have seen. According to Taylor, this part of the city currently has just 1,100 residents, and “many of the artists that are involved in the district don’t necessarily live there but have done work there, so we want to make more housing options, or live/work options, so that it becomes more viable for artists of all levels,” adding that “we have plenty of infrastructure to support people that are there and to support new people coming in.”
“A lot of them are here because they can afford to live here and we certainly want to try to create an environment where that continues,” said Gilmour, adding that programs such as rent subsidies in the future are possible, and that the upcoming art projects in the district will create job opportunities for existing artists.
The Trenton City Council passed a resolution on August 3rd acknowledging the creation of the plan, according to Taylor, and recommended that the Trenton Planning Board officially designate this part of the city as the new creative district as part of the Trenton250 master plan. Isles expects to bring the proposal before the Board during the fall.
”It will make the neighborhood better as a whole where people can actually have something to do creatively,” said Roberts, adding that “there’s a lot of arts here and a lot of people with talent here, and I’m hoping one day that this will be a tourist spot where people come from all over the world to visit the arts district and take a tour of everything that we have available.”