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Billion Dollar Plan for Camden, NJ


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Plan for downtown Camden offers a billion-dollar vision

By Dwight Ott

Inquirer Staff Writer

Camden officials presented a $1 billion plan yesterday for the city's downtown, designed to attract businesses, employment and housing opportunities along the Cooper and Market Streets corridors and the City Hall area.

The announcement follows news over the weekend that city and state officials are planning a $1.2 billion redevelopment of the Cramer Hill neighborhood along the waterfront, to be undertaken primarily with private funds. Gov. McGreevey is expected to announce details of the Cramer Hill plan today in City Hall.

"We're on a roll in Camden," Steve Dragos, executive director of the Greater Camden Partnership, a public-private collaborative seeking to revitalize the city, said of both plans at yesterday's presentation of a final draft of the downtown vision. "It is an exciting time."

The nonprofit Greater Camden Partnership was created three years ago by then-Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and philanthropist Lewis Katz to lure businesses to Camden. All the group's projects require the approval of the Camden Redevelopment Agency, a seven-member board chaired by Melvin R. "Randy" Primas Jr., the city's chief operating officer and former mayor.

About half of the funding for yesterday's proposal for Camden's central business area is committed through projects under way, Dragos said. He said about $440 million in private and public investment had been established for projects along the waterfront, and for large institutions such as the Victor Building and projects by Rowan University, Rutgers-Camden, and Camden County College.

That funding, plus the strategic plan, is expected to help attract another $400 million or so in public and private investments, Dragos said.

The plan, involving at least 16 new buildings for the city's center, is called the Downtown Camden Strategic Development Plan. It was developed with $193,000 from a grant from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and funding from NJ Transit in consultation with the city's Redevelopment Agency.

The plan calls for City Hall to serve as the anchor, and over the next 10 to 15 years city leaders envision:

Demolition of the city's Parkade building at Fifth and Market Streets to make way for a plaza in front of City Hall.

Transformation of Martin Luther King Boulevard (commonly known as Mickle Boulevard) into a parkway connecting the Delaware River waterfront to the Cooper River.

Creation of about 6,000 parking spaces in the downtown area, which now has limited parking.

Creation of a town square in the vicinity of Broadway and Market Street focused on the junction of the New Jersey Light Rail, the PATCO High-Speed Line, and the Rand Transportation Center, catering to buses.

Establishment of a park-and-ride area near the police station at Haddon Avenue and Market Street to reduce traffic.

Stanton Eckstut of the Manhattan-based Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects - which drew up the plan - said it would be incremental and market-driven, and would be implemented in phases that would "almost pay for themselves."

He said the plan would build on the city's strengths: Enhancing Market Street as the main street, Cooper Street as a "college district," and Martin Luther King Boulevard as "the most beautiful avenue in South Jersey, if not America." He said Federal Street would be the civic area, composed of government buildings and Martin Luther King Boulevard as a tree-lined parkway. The boulevard is now a slab of concrete running from the entrance to the city at Interstate 676 to the waterfront.

The plan borrows concepts from Houston, Vienna, Stockholm, and Evanston, Ill., Eckstut said.

"There has never been a time in my life when I've seen more developers interested in coming to Camden," Mayor Gwendolyn Faison said. "Camden lacked a strategic plan. Now we have a plan."

Dragos said that among the first goals would be the establishment of a voluntary business improvement district to which government entities and businesses would contribute funds to maintain the downtown area; approval by the Redevelopment Agency of the plan; and development of the Martin Luther King Boulevard town square, which would be the gateway to the city.

Reaction to the plan was mixed among the close to 200 businesspeople, residents and government officials gathered in City Council Chambers.

Businessman Carl Dranoff, whose Victor Lofts opened recently about a block from the waterfront, praised the plan as "solid and practical. It's the same formula as the Victor: limited public investment to leverage private investment."

He said the Victor was 80 percent privately funded.

Barry Smith of the Camden County Office of Economic Development said: "I think it is a good plan. What you don't know is the specifics."

Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center vice president James Wallace described it as "very exciting."

The plan has already hit a snag with a group of businesspeople led by activist Frank Fulbrook. They have organized a petition drive against the part of the plan they say would force them to move their businesses, which are located in the path of the expansion of Rowan University.

Fulbrook said he has 3,000 signatures that he will present to Rowan officials.

Fulbrook and others at the meeting said they were also concerned about the future of the city library at 418 Federal St. He said the plans show a new county building on that site.

"If that's the case, there's going to be a battle," said Fulbrook, who has won numerous lawsuits against the city on municipal issues such as redistricting and curfews.

From The Philadelphia Inquirer

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