SEPT. 29, 2015
By JON HURDLE
CAMDEN, N.J. — Plans for a major mixed-use waterfront development represent the latest step in efforts to rehabilitate this city that not long ago was rated as America’s most dangerous.
The development of offices, apartments and retail space, totaling 1.7 million square feet, would be built along the Delaware River starting in the fall of 2016, according to plans announced by Camden’s mayor, Dana L. Redd, and the developer Liberty Property Trust last week.
The project, estimated to cost about $1 billion, would be the biggest private sector investment in the city’s history, and the latest in a series of corporate developments and relocations that are beginning to create jobs and drive down the city’s notoriously high rates of crime and poverty.
John Gattuso, a senior vice president at Liberty, said the company is in “very serious conversations” with parties who are interested in investing in the development but that no financial commitments have been made so far. Potential participants would apply for tax credits with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and, if the credits were approved, would then agree with Liberty to invest in the project, Mr. Gattuso said.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey announced last week that Liberty Property Trust is planning a $1 billion transformation of a 16-acre swath of the waterfront in Camden. The mixed-use development is scheduled to be complete by 2019. Credit Mel Evans/Associated Press
The development, scheduled for completion in 2019, will occupy 16 acres directly south of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to Philadelphia, in an area that is now a parking lot and adjoined by a minor-league baseball stadium and a public aquarium.
The plans include replacing Camden’s current low-rise profile from the Philadelphia side of the river with four office towers, 325 residential units, a 120-room hotel, 27,000 square feet of retail space and parking garages for 5,000 cars, city and company officials said.
William P. Hankowsky, chief executive of Liberty Property Trust, predicted that investors would be attracted to the development because of recent declines in crime and poverty, the closure of failing public schools and several corporate relocations.
“We’re going to be able to create a sense of place that will allow companies to attract a future work force,” Mr. Hankowsky told about 300 guests at the project’s announcement.
Coming arrivals in Camden include Holtec International, a processor of spent nuclear fuel, and the Philadelphia 76ers basketball franchise’s practice facility, both scheduled to open in 2016.
City officials say such moves, under the second-term Mayor Redd, are beginning to turn around a city that has been a national symbol for economic decline and urban blight.
According to official statistics, violent crime is down 7 percent so far this year after double-digit declines in the last two years, while the poverty rate, though still high, dropped to 36.5 percent in 2014 from 42.6 percent in 2013. Robert Corrales, the city’s business administrator, attributed the lower crime rate to more police officers on the street and an emphasis on community policing under a new county-run force.
The city’s renewal program includes the continuing demolition of about 600 vacant or derelict buildings that have scarred neighborhoods and attracted drug dealers. The demolition has been paid for by $7 million in proceeds from a bond sale that was enabled by the city’s first investment-grade rating — BBB+ from Standard & Poor’s — for 15 years, Mr. Corrales said.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said the changes were allowing Camden to turn its back on a grim reputation. “Camden is no longer America’s most dangerous city,” he said at the announcement event. “It’s where families can come to live and work and do business.”
Renderings of Liberty Property Trust’s proposed Camden Waterfront project. Credit Robert A.M. Stern Architects
Mitchell Marcus, managing director in the Philadelphia office of Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate investment company, said the new development would help the local economy and would effectively expand Philadelphia’s central business district across the river into New Jersey.
Mr. Marcus said the project, named simply The Camden Waterfront, would be helped by its large scale, which will attract major corporations, and by its proximity to highways and public transit in the form of the Patco rail line that connects Camden with Philadelphia and suburban communities in southern New Jersey.
“It’s a boost for the region. It supports new quality inventory coming in. It brings scale,” he said.
With its offices and accompanying retail and restaurant space, the development will provide the “work” and “play” components of the “live-work-play” formula commonly sought by developers. But it is less certain that it will meet the “live” requirement because of continuing challenges in Camden’s public schools, Mr. Marcus said.
Still, the new development can succeed even if the schools don’t turn around, he said. “If you get the retail to follow the employment base, I think that would be sufficient to support it. I’m not sure the school system plays into that.”
The city’s turnaround has been spurred by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, a state agency that provides tax incentives for companies to relocate to, or remain in, economically challenged locations.
The tax incentives, equivalent to a project’s capital cost, are payable over 10 years, and they are dependent on capital investment and job creation. Since its inception in 2013, the program has stimulated investment of about $1 billion and created or retained 7,600 jobs in Camden, the economic development authority said.
The incentives are also expected to be available to tenants in the waterfront development, said Timothy J. Lizura, president of the agency.
Mr. Lizura said the project showed that the city was finally turning the corner after decades of economic pain.
“It’s definitely a new day in Camden,” he said. “For 20 years, we’ve tried to redevelop that city, and we finally have the traction between a very competent mayor’s office, the county police force, all the educational reforms going on, and now the corporate interest. It really is the right ingredient for changing a paradigm which has been a wreck.”
A version of this article appears in print on September 30, 2015, on page B10 of the New York editionwith the headline: A Bold Plan to Remake Camden’s Waterfront.