Btn_red_77x28 Green website certified by Greenscroll Clip to Evernote

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Camden is Shifting, I hope

Power loves a vacuum and you can call Camden "Hooverville" right now. It's a game of musical chairs in our fair city and here are the changes.

1. We will have a new mayor in the fall, most likely - Dana Redd (giving up her state Senate seat and City Council seat. FYI she replaced a Senator who entered Federal prison today :P)

2. We will have a new President of the City Council - Angel Fuentes is running for State Rep.

3. We will have 2 new city council members - Fuentes and Redd are running for new offices

4. We will have a new state appointed COO - Judge Davis leaves this week

5. We will have a new Public Safety Director - Vega resigned last week

6. We will have a new State Rep - open seat

7. We will have a new State Senator - open seat

8. We will have a new CEO of Cooper's Ferry Development Corp., nonprofit developer of the Camden waterfront - Tom Corcoran left for a similar job in Philly and the V.P. will move up.

9. We have a new Chancellor at RU-C - Wendell Pritchett came over from U Penn

10. And we will have a Gubernatorial election in November, which may or may not give us a new Gov.

You have lame ducks running for a different office, you have vacancies, you have higher-ups running for re-election, and most politicos are paying attention to the election - not governing.

Two things happen when there is this much tumult.
One is that people hunker down and try to keep everything at status quo until new people arrive and the situation can be assessed.

Two is that people proceed into the void and hope to shape the landscape before new people are in place. This is the more likely scenario. People take advantage of the fact that eyes are elsewhere and there is opportunity to act. In Camden, this may be a good thing. If the regular cast of elected officials is looking at the election, there is room to maneuver and actually make some headway in this town where every pol puts their thumb on the City's neck!

The city is in the midst of trying to apply for as much Federal stimulus money as it can. This was not a good time for the COO to walk out.

The city is in the midst of reshaping the police force and getting officers on the street instead of behind the wheel or a desk. This has not been easy. Not a good time for the PS Dir. to quit.

The city needs jobs, jobs, jobs. Not a good time for 2 key City Council people to leave to campaign.

I don't know that it matters if the State Rep and State Senator change. The state legislature is still a bit of a mystery to me.

It is a great time for a new Chancellor at Rutgers, Camden - the academy does not move well with interim place-holders, no matter how good they are.

It is a great time for new leadership to take on the development issues of waterfront neighborhoods. Tom did his job well and was a great champion for Camden. But even he needs to move on to a new challenge and let his successor take a run. Young blood can be a game changer.

Stay tuned. It should be a very interesting Fall season!

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.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

murder, mayhem, guns, cops - another day in the urban core

I follow both Kansas City and Camden comings and goings. Right now, in the heat of August, most bloggers and newsies attentions turn to crime and violence. Atmospheric heat = street violence. Just another season in the crime cycle. But this year people are pointing to a decline in the rate of violent homicides on the streets, but others point out that the rate is slowing while actual numbers are still higher in KC and Camden, even though nationally the numbers and rates are declining. I have a couple of news articles in my list to the right, that discuss the current sea change in the Camden police department. If you want to know what's going on in KC - read Tony's Kansas City blog (see my blog roll). Here's my take on the situation:

Rule #1 - there will forever be violence, murder, and mayhem on the streets where poor people are stuck because drugs, unemployment, and despair lead to crime. So all these folks that keep commenting on news stories and blogs should stop judging and realize it is a sobering reality to live in the urban core because that is all you have.

Rule #2 - statistics are always interpreted and interpretation is subjective. Does it matter if crime rates are going up or down if we still have 150 homicides in KC and 30 in Camden in 8 months? KC is 475,000 people in 300 square miles. Camden is 76,000 people in 9 square miles. Size matters.

Rule #3 - police on the street is part of the solution. In Camden, the new chief has put cops on the street to practice spot enforcement and martial law. It's designed to be a wake up call for rampant lawlessness on the streets in some neighborhoods. Basically, however, it is saying that the police will force crime to go underground. That sounds good - because if you aren't dealing on the streets, it is less likely that a drive-by shooting will claim innocent people sitting on their porch or stoop, or a kid playing in the street. It's laughable that the police union in Camden is whining about lunches missed and grieving the loss of time off. Sorry, but millions of people work their lunch hour every day to get the job done (I do). Camden is in trouble and it is your job to help fix it. It's a big change when the new chief says go patrol in the tough neighborhoods - and now you don't have a choice. Why did the police every have a choice? And if there are too few cops in Camden, why were any of them assigned to sitting behind a desk?

Rule #4 - jobs, jobs, jobs - urban core neighborhoods are dysfunctional because there are no jobs. The rest of the country is starting to feel that now. Suburban neighborhoods with foreclosures are finding that the houses are unsightly and unkempt and making people annoyed. Petty crime is up in the suburbs. We glorify a suburban widow dealing drugs in Weeds. Why? because she can make money doing it - why else? Drugs in the urban core is a business - a violent, dangerous, cutthroat business. It is an illegal business, but when there is money to be made, people will make it. Don't have to commute, dress is casual, I know my co-workers, and I get paid in cash. This is the American dream. If farmers in Afghanistan can grow poppies as a cash crop, inner city residents will deal drugs. Give people something else to grow or sell or get paid to do that is commensurate with their time and effort - and people will stop selling drugs. But please, don't offer the drug dealers and users a minimum wage job working 40 hours a week at the grocery store as a substitute unless there is health insurance, walk to work, easy wardrobe, and a willingness to accept people not judge them. Will people want to get off the dangerous streets? Yes, they will. But not to be insulted, to earn a fraction of what they had earned, and to not be compensated to replace the incredible danger of their former job.

I think the police are incredible people - they take on a job that most people don't want. But just because you wear a badge, doesn't mean you have license to be a prick or a bitch. Doesn't mean you don't have to maintain control of a situation - I get it that police can easily be in danger and not everyone likes them. It is a dangerous job and no one has forced you to take it. You do the job and we are grateful, but it doesn't make you immune from criticism. You carry a gun and are licensed to use it on your judgment. That's an incredible responsibility. But bear in mind that people are to be protected too, not just brutalized and ordered about. It is a difficult line, but we need you to do your job and do it well - not just be a thug. We have plenty of those on the streets already.