Camden: Revival On and Off the Waterfront

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Rendered view from Philadelphia looking northeast onto Liberty Property Trust’s mixed-use urban development on the Camden waterfront. This masterplan scheme will include high-performance office buildings, a prominent flag hotel, residential units with an affordable housing component, pedestrian friendly streets, and newly envisioned open spaces. 

By Anne Levin 

Camden was still lively by the time my mother gave up her job in the early 1950’s. But the good times were not to last. By 1970, the city had begun its slow decline. The relocation to the suburbs of some industries and closing of others resulted in decades of crime, urban blight, and corruption. It all culminated in Camden earning the distinction, in 2012, of having the highest crime rate in the United States.

There have been attempts to heal this broken city, with mixed results. But the latest plan, approved last March at a meeting of New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority, is the most promising yet. It is backed by some $2 billion in development projects and generous tax incentives. Turning Camden into a place where people want to live, work, visit, and spend money is a plan focused on revitalization projects not only for the waterfront, which has expansive views of the Philadelphia skyline, but also other parts of town. Subaru of America, American Water, Holtec International, Lockheed Martin, and the Philadelphia 76ers NBA basketball team are among the big-name companies that have signed on.

Projected for the riverfront are some 1.44 million square feet of commercial office space, along with residences, parks, and retail, and prominent flag hotel. The masterplan designer of the 20-acre tract, which is being developed by Liberty Property Trust, is Robert A.M. Stern Architects, whose masterplan includes two high-rise buildings overlooking the river, open spaces, and walkable streets. Construction is planned to begin late this year.

Subaru of America is moving from cramped headquarters in nearby Cherry Hill to the Camden site, in Campbell Soup Company’s 77-acre mixed use community known as Knights Crossing. The facility is scheduled to open next year. The plan includes several parks and bike trails along with 1.5 million square feet of office space.

“We are very pleased to be moving to the City of Camden for the next stage in our development,” president and CEO Thomas J. Doll said in an official statement. “We want to be part of it, as a catalyst and a contributor. We know that our presence in Camden will only encourage other businesses to come and to invest in the area…We look forward to the coming day when we call Camden home.”

Philadelphia developer AthenianRazak has two Camden projects. The Ruby Match Factory is a conversion of a historic warehouse into 74,000 square feet of collaborative loft office space tailored to technology-driven companies. The developer is also building a new 125,000-square-foot facility housing a training center and corporate offices for the Philadelphia 76ers.

What makes all of this possible is the Grow New Jersey act, which provides sizable tax incentives through the EDA to businesses relocating to the state’s poorest cities. Business that are creating or retaining jobs in New Jersey can be eligible for tax credits ranging from $500 to $5,000 per job, per year, with bonus credits ranging from $250 to $3,000 per job, per year.

More than $1 billion in tax credits have been promised to projects in Camden.

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Located along the Delaware River in downtown Camden, The Camden Waterfront will be an active community anchored by large and small corporations. 

“Camden was one of the most distressed municipalities in the state. We wanted to get more private investment in the city,” says Timothy J. Lizura, the president and chief operating officer of the EDA. “Companies qualify in various industries, and we have everything from small manufacturers to a major recycler. It’s really broad-based to include all of the commercial enterprises, other than retail, that you can imagine.”

The focal points for investment are one of Camden’s two ports and two commercial districts that bookend its downtown. Some $175 million was invested in recent decades around a ballpark, an aquarium, educational and medical institutions. The old RCA Victor building, with its famous stained glass tower window depicting the dog “Nipper” cocking his head as he hears “His Master’s Voice,” was successfully converted to apartments 12 years ago.

But these projects lacked cohesion. What makes planners think the latest proposal will succeed?

“It’s a confluence of several things,” says Lizura. “One is local leadership, which Camden lacked. Several mayors had gone to jail. That changed with Mayor [Dana] Redd, who has been awesome.”

Lizura also cites improvements in public safety. Three years ago, Camden eliminated its police force and replaced it with one that is now run by Camden County. Officers are more visible on the streets and crime figures are reported to be declining. “There has been 50 years of disinvestment in the city,” Lizura  says. “You really have to do something very significant in order to turn that philosophy around.”

There are those who feel all of this investment and redevelopment won’t heal Camden’s most pressing problems of poverty and joblessness. Lizura maintains that each of the companies coming into the city promise they will provide jobs for local residents, even after construction is complete.

“All of the companies we speak to have expressed a strong desire to work with the local workforce board, the colleges and high schools to do job training programs and local hiring as best as they can,” he says. In order to qualify for the tax incentives, companies must make an investment, hire, relocate, and keep employees at the site for 15 years. “Holtec broke ground a year ago, but they’ve already started a training program for local construction workers,” Lizura continues. “The impact is already happening.”

Whether this massive reinvestment in Camden acts as a catalyst for the city’s rebirth remains to be seen. According to Lizura, the Economic Opportunity Act will make the current effort succeed. But it is built on years of revitalization attempts that came before.

“It took 50 years for Camden to get into the shape it was, and it’s not going to take five years to turn it around,” he says. “It is a process to be able to bring property back. You’re standing on the shoulders of giants who came before you in order to have success today.”

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Night rendering of Subaru Camden headquarters