Hope for Camden, or Just Another Pipe Dream?

Last updated: Friday, September 25, 2015, 11:59 PM
Posted: Thursday, September 24, 2015, 7:45 PM

City Within a City.

Project Arizona.

Cherokee.

Those are just a few of the Camden redevelopment schemes that have failed over the last 50 years in this tough old town, where empty promises are almost as common as empty lots.

I’m reminded of this Thursday as a blockbuster announcement – a $1 billion mixed-use downtown waterfront complex anchored by two sleek high-rises – lures me to the Adventure Aquarium.

I sigh as I remember how often I have sat in this very room, or others like it, scribbling madly as parades of politicos and assorted developers urge an audience to look beyond the Camden all around them and focus on the Camden of the future.

It’s always there, just over the horizon. Here it comes!

But years later, so many questions. Such as, what happened to the proposed World Trade Center in North Camden? What became of the Hilton Garden Inn announced for the waterfront in . . . was it 2007?

And where, oh, where, is the new supermarket that was supposed to be open by now on Admiral Wilson Boulevard?

As I wait for the latest announcement – a story that my colleague Allison Steele already had broken in Thursday’s Inquirer – I’m distracted from my cynical reveries by the exciting buzz in the room.

The sharks in a nearby tank appear to be swimming languidly, but the humans around me are energized – glad-handing, hugging, snapping selfies. The celebratory vibe is contagious, sort of like a contact high at a ’70s rock show, without the hallucinations.

Or could I be dreaming at this very moment?

“Let’s give Camden, N.J., a round of applause,” I hear an ebullient Mayor Dana L. Redd declare, before introducing “my friend Chris Christie.”

The Republican governor and presidential candidate appears – in person, not Skyped in from New Hampshire – and gets his own round of applause. And then another.

Evidently thrilled by the unaccustomed home-state adulation, Christie offers a paean to bipartisanship. Then he gives a shoutout to top Democrat George Norcross (whom Redd calls “a friend to everyone here”), without whom, it is understood, none of this would be happening.

And not only because he’s investing $50 million of his own money in the deal.

Christie is gracious, if perfunctory; he shakes some hands, disappears. Norcross does not speak, but he’s there, beaming, in the front row, as the celebrated architect and project master planner Robert A.M. Stern narrates the on-screen series of gorgeous renderings.

Stern describes “a new urban neighborhood” with 1.7 million square feet of office space, 325 units of housing, 27,000 square feet for retail, and a hotel. He talks about reconnecting the city’s street grid with the riverfront.

It suddenly occurs to me that this announcement is serious. For a national developer like Liberty Property Trust to announce a project like this in Camden is a big deal.

If the Malvern company can replicate some of the celebrated success of its Navy Yard redevelopment project, the Camden waterfront will be on its way to becoming not merely a destination for visitors, but a real neighborhood, as Stern says.

It will no longer be a somewhat forlorn collection of isolated, island-like structures – aquarium here, concert venue there, ballpark over yonder – marooned on a bleak tundra of parking.

Liberty expects to invest between $700 million and $800 million in the project by the end of the decade, says Liberty CEO William P. Hankowsky, who publicly thanks Norcross for making his firm aware of the development opportunity.

As the event breaks up, the mayor and governor are gone, but Norcross is available to the media.

He reassures us that past development schemes failed because they left out the neighborhoods, which are now included – beneficiaries of the county police department he pushed for and the charter schools he’s building.

People in Camden also will get a shot at “thousands of jobs” that will be created by companies attracted to the city by the Christie administration’s “Grow New Jersey” tax incentives.

Could it be that decades of subsidies and tax breaks – particularly on the waterfront and in downtown – might at last bear fruit? And for whom?

Norcross, Hankowsky, Redd, Christie and others at the announcement festivities insist that everyone in the city will benefit. Says the mayor, “This is Camden’s time.”

I’d like to believe that. I really would.

kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.philly.com/blinq
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/news/new_jersey/20150925_Hope_for_Camden__Or_just_another_pipe_dream_.html#FGXKLSLOq4KAcfTb.99

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