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Unlocking development potential in ailing city

A former prison site at top of list as Camden's backers plan for the future

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The Riverfront State Prison site occupies a huge swath of land right across the river from Philadelphia, making the property key to development possibilities in Camden. Here, Donald Norcross stands at the site of the former prison.
The Riverfront State Prison site occupies a huge swath of land right across the river from Philadelphia, making the property key to development possibilities in Camden. Here, Donald Norcross stands at the site of the former prison. - (AARON HOUSTON)

When Donald Norcross looks at the brushy, 16-acre swath of vacant land that once housed Riverfront State Prison, he sees a rare opportunity for Camden.

"When you think about the amount of land directly across from the nation's fifth-largest city — ready for development — it's not often, not only in New Jersey, but anywhere in America, that that takes place," said Norcross, a state senator whose district includes the South Jersey city. "And that's what we have there at the old prison site."

Demolition of the former penitentiary was completed in late 2010, but Camden stakeholders have had to temper their enthusiasm until recently. Last month, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill allowing the Economic Development Authority to prepare the property for sale and ultimately auction it to private developers.

That means the beleaguered city has taken a critical step toward revitalizing its northern waterfront opposite Philadelphia's Center City, a process that has been discussed for two decades. And it comes as Camden's planning board is within weeks of voting on a final redevelopment plan for the prison site, said Rodney Sadler, who chairs the panel and is a nonvoting EDA board member.

The property, which sits just north of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, is a potential cornerstone for efforts to connect North Camden's neighborhoods to the Delaware River and to create a contiguous link to the developed waterfront further south. Aside from the key recreational and open space uses directly along the river, Sadler said the land could host upscale housing, market space and other elements.

"We have been trying to use that waterfront to create some of these opportunities and create some of the linkages that are necessary to make it attractive," said Sadler, also executive director of Save Our Waterfront, an advocacy group that has led redevelopment planning and quality of life improvement efforts in North Camden since 1993.

Following the prison's closure in 2009, last month's bill authorizes the state to sell the land to the EDA for $1. Norcross, a co-sponsor, said having the authority oversee the site will allow for greater control by keeping it "from being a high-bid process," prequalifying bidders and taking into account local redevelopment wishes.

The EDA's next steps include entering into a memorandum of understanding with the state to give access to the agency's consultants, which could come in the next month or two, said Donna Sullivan, the agency's real estate director. The agency also plans to issue a request for qualifications ahead of seeking bids and proposals, and while it does not yet have a timeline for those stages, the EDA plans to move quickly.

"One of our goals is certainly to have some development done there as soon as possible," Sullivan said. "We certainly don't want the site to languish."

Timothy J. Lizura, the agency's president and chief operating officer, said the adoption of the city's redevelopment plan will allow the EDA to determine what goes into its requests to developers, "so the next big milestone will be a local one."

The EDA is well versed in spearheading major projects in Camden. Aside from its oversight of the Camden Economic Recovery Board — a subsidiary tasked with funding revitalization projects and business growth — the authority in 2006 opened the Waterfront Technology Center about a half-mile south of the prison site. The 100,000-square-foot facility has been popular and remains almost fully leased.

Through its role with the prison site, the authority will become a key partner in a long-running effort to reinvent North Camden and its waterfront. In 1993, stakeholders led by Save Our Waterfront issued a plan that served as a vision for reversing decades of decline there; that plan was updated in 2008.

The new plan was spurred in part by the state's decision to close Riverfront State Prison, which the new report called the "largest obstacle to redeveloping the community's waterfront." Sadler, founder of Pyne Poynt Marine Services, in North Camden, also noted the Benjamin Franklin Bridge has "sort of acted as a dividing line" between that section of the city and its redeveloped central and southern waterfront.

But new development is finally taking hold in the neighborhood, he said. Last fall, the Cherry Hill-based developer Ingerman and nonprofit partners opened the first 45 units of The Meadows at Pyne Poynt, a rental community at the city's northern tip with set-asides for disabled, underemployed and homeless veterans.

Also key to the future of North Camden's waterfront are the two businesses directly north and south of the prison site — Weeks Marine Inc., the marine and tunneling contractor, and F.W. Winter Inc. & Co., a metal and alloy manufacturer. Sadler said the businesses and his advocacy group are in discussions about relocating or redeveloping, potentially allowing the city to "complete" the new waterfront.

"There's definitely a spirit of cooperation, and they are equal members in the neighborhood organization," Sadler said referring to the companies. "And they equally would have a say in what we try to do."

Already, Norcross said, "developers and those interested in moving along projects are sniffing around the site"; he thinks it will "see great interest within the next six months." Early interest has come from the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia and other entities, though he said it was too early to discuss such opportunities.

Whatever the outcome, Norcross and other advocates say private-sector redevelopment still depends on improving public safety and Camden's embattled image. The city is in the midst of a closely watched transition to a county police force, which the senator said could be implemented within four to six months.

"We have our challenges, and that had to be done first … I think that is the first piece of the foundation for those investors who want to come in and help to redevelop that area," Norcross said. He later added, "And perception is so important. Before somebody goes and invests millions of dollars, they want to believe their investment will be safe."

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

Joshua Burd

Joshua Burd

Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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