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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Camden Waterfront Development 101

So two headlines in Camden caught my attention today.
Headline one is that the June unemployment rate in Camden is at 18%. Of course the actual rate is probably closer to 30% given the way the rate is figured.
Headline two is that a Union County Senator in NJ is trying a last minute block of the demolition of the state prison in Camden that is built on PRIME Delaware River waterfront land with fabu views of the Philly skyline.

Some of the more vitriolic commenters in Camden have used their flawless logic to suggest that if unemployment is high, the prison should stay open because it provides jobs. How many of those jobs are held by Camden residents has not been reported (our hometown newspaper is not exactly an investigative powerhouse). Let's say 20% of the prison staff are Camden residents and there are 500 employees (I'm taking a wild guess here). That would mean 100 jobs for Camden residents. That is a number worth talking about if it is valid. Did I mention that it has been reported that all the guards and staff were redistributed in the NJ Corrections system. So no jobs have been lost, just moved. The value of this land far surpasses its current use. The neighborhood is organized, but very poor and suffers from regular drug dealing, drug users, gun violence, etc. It also has a large share of social service agencies located there.

So the Senator's question is why is the state demolishing a relatively new facility whose lifespan is not yet up? Maybe the question should be, will Camden generate more tax money from a taxpaying development (as opposed to a state building that pays no taxes) and generate more stability in the neighborhood, thus costing the state less in the funding it pays to "take care of" Camden?

I doubt that any analysis has been done on this property, what its value is, what its future use value is, tax revenue expected, or how it will affect the neighborhood's revenue production. Compared to its current tax status (0) and the negative impact on the neighborhood - would you like to buy a home with a lovely view of the prison?-, any development would likely provide a net revenue gain. If something is to be built on the prison site, would there be jobs for residents in construction and in whatever the development becomes? Would it be a net gain to the city in jobs (remember the prison staff got transferred)?

It is amazing to me, no, outragous to me, no, more like incomprehensible to me that there is no jobs plan for Camden. None. Nada. And now a state Senator is going to say - you know - the state may need that prison, so let's not be so hasty to tear it down. Senator - you want a prison so badly - move it to your county.

What would you like to see on that site? I have heard that the neighborhood would like a park. Nice, but there is a waterfront park on the other side of that neighborhood. Do we need another? How about if this land makes some money? Luxury condos? - doubtful. Casino and hotel? - I've heard that idea - we could steal revenue from all the Pennsylvania people. But given how badly Atlantic City is doing, I doubt that will be allowed to happen. How about a grocery store? It would be tucked back into a corner of Camden, but it is easily accessible by residents. Being tucked back means it is much less likely to be robbed - no easy getaway. Make it a waterfront grocery with a full service deli (like they have at Wegmans) and people could eat there, enjoying the waterfront views. Don't taxpaying residents deserve a waterfront view like the prisoners had? Since it is state property or DRPA property or City property - it should be able to be sold for a $1. Then there would be no need for TIF or other incentives. Just build your business and open it. Pay taxes like everyone else. Or lease the land for 25 years. Anything you build there right now will have a shelf life of maybe 30 years. A 20 year run as a grocery would be nice. Give the neighborhood some stability and an anchor.

A grocery would provide some jobs. It would provide nutritious food which is in short supply in Camden, but it won't provide much tax revenue, especially if the land is leased (though a PILOT could be part of the lease). What if condos were built? They would pay residential property taxes, but there would be no jobs. And a bunch of rich people who buy condos in a rough neighborhood will demand lots of services from the city, costing more than they contribute. Not a good bargain.

The point of riverfront space is to make it revenue producing AND accessible to residents so they can enjoy some nice manicured space too. There is an expectation that once the prison is gone, the riverfront walkway on the south side of the BF bridge will extend north to this land. That would enable north Camden residents to easily use the riverwalk.

So can we find a use that fulfills all our needs? First, lets make sure the prison goes away.

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