It’s hard to look at the stubby, black-and-white tower that has recently defaced the Camden waterfront and not consider its origins. The new home for a trio of companies associated with longtime South Jersey political boss George Norcross, it was built with $245 million in tax breaks that were obtained in a manner that a state task force has deemed highly improper. A grand jury is looking into the process.
Whether or not those investigations conclude that laws were broken, this work of architecture (if I may stretch the meaning of the word) is still a crime against the city.
Five years ago, Norcross and his brothers — Philip, a lawyer-lobbyist, and Donald, then a state senator — rewrote New Jersey’s rules on tax incentives to favor Norcross-affiliated companies, according to the task force report. Those changes, which would never have been possible without former Gov. Chris Christie’s enthusiastic cooperation, have enabled George Norcross and his corporate pals to divert more than $1.1 billion in taxes from state and city coffers.
With those public funds as leverage, Norcross has fashioned himself into a Camden version of Robert Moses, the New York power broker who used his influence to occasionally rebuild, but mainly destroy, the city. During his development spree, Norcross (who was once part-owner of The Inquirer) has leveled whole blocks of downtown Camden and remade it according to his own aesthetic, which might be charitably described as ‘80s-era office park. Downtown Camden has been brutally sanitized with stand-alone institutional buildings and parking garages, in the style of a Metro Park or a Stamford, Conn., to carve out a safe zone for suburban commuters.
As bad as all that is for Camden’s predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, none of those earlier projects can match the antiurban sensibility of the ominously named Triad 1828, the 18-story waterfront tower where Norcross has just installed his insurance firm, Conner Strong & Buckelew. Two other companies with ties to Norcross — the Michaels Organization, a developer, and NFI, a freight logistics company — are also tenants in the boss’ zebra-striped lair, which hovers above a seven-story, 780-car, battleship-gray parking podium.
Norcross’ Triad tower sits on Cooper Street, right behind another project that owes its existence to New Jersey’s wildly generous tax subsidies — the American Water headquarters. Viewed from the Philadelphia side of the Delaware River, Triad seems to grow directly out of the five-story American Water building. The two are part of a cluster that includes an apartment building developed by the Michaels Organization, and yet another parking garage, this one for American Water’s 900 employees.
Apart from the fact that American Water received $164 million in tax subsidies, its headquarters is actually a credible work of architecture. Designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, and developed by Liberty Property Trust, it features a stepped facade that evokes a mountain waterfall. Its deeply set windows are a relief from the slick glass walls we’re seeing everywhere.
That doesn’t mean American Water is good urban planning. Because it spans two very long blocks at the foot of Cooper Street, one of the few intact commercial streets left in Camden, it forms a barrier to the river. Residents now must walk around the building to access the waterfront’s growing collection of amenities, including the new RCA Pier, a cozy green space designed by New York’s Michael van Valkenburgh Associates, the same firm that produced the spectacular Brooklyn Bridge Park and Philadelphia’s Penn Park.
In the original Liberty Property master plan, American Water’s soaring glass lobby, which lines up with Cooper Street, was supposed to be open to the public so people could cut through to the waterfront. Like so many promises made to Camden residents, that one has not been kept. As a result, RCA Pier feels like American Water’s front lawn, a private preserve for visitors, rather than a place where city residents are embraced.
Norcross’ tower succeeds in compounding these off-putting conditions. Except for a bit of frontage on Cooper Street that has been reserved for a pair of pricey Michael Schulson restaurants, Triad is a fortress on the ground. During the upheavals of the ’60s and ‘70s, elevating towers on top of giant podiums was seen as a way to keep the rabble at bay. What kind of developer does that today, this deep into America’s urban comeback?
No doubt, Norcross wanted the extra height so Triad would peer above American Water and gain views of the Philadelphia skyline. From parts of Center City, Triad appears to be in Philadelphia, punctuating the foot of Market Street. Triad may be a monument to New Jersey’s corruption — complete with prison stripes — but Philadelphians have to look at it.
Who was the architect of this dud? I believe the answer is USA Architects, but I can’t say much more because Norcross’ public relations people declined my request for access and Camden’s city planner refused to speak to me. I can almost understand the architect’s choice of zebra-striped ribbon windows, which reflect an office park aesthetic. But what’s up with those arbitrary panels of black glass? No doubt they are someone’s idea of “breaking up the mass.”
If Norcross’ people had granted me an interview, I’m sure they would have argued that they are following America’s urban redevelopment playbook. Bring a critical mass of people to the waterfront. Give them restaurants and activities so they stick around past 5 p.m.
Kris Kolluri, head of Camden’s waterfront agency, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership (and one of the few officials who did talk to me), argued out that this approach is turning the city’s waterfront into a 24/7 place. He pointed to the new 11 Cooper apartment building, which opened this week with 155 units, 31 of them affordable. His group is programming RCA Pier with events that draw Camden residents. Several new restaurants are also in the works, he said.
Sorry, lunch will not save Camden, New Jersey’s poorest city. There is growing evidence that subsidizing the rich to colonize struggling cities does little to improve the lot of their existing residents, who need safe neighborhoods, better schools, training, and decent jobs.
Given how ravaged Camden’s economy is, some amount of corporate tax incentives are probably necessary to kindle its recovery. But those subsidies have to have a proportionate relationship to economic reality. Camden’s corporate arrivistes essentially had their shiny new buildings underwritten by the taxpayers of New Jersey. Cooper University Health Care, where Norcross is board chairman, received so many subsidies, it sold its excess tax breaks for cash.
Even in this age when states are throwing money at companies like Amazon, no state has handed out as many subsidies as New Jersey, says Greg LeRoy, who runs Good Jobs First, an independent group that studies government incentives. “It’s a measure of the corruption,” he adds. “I can’t recall a time when a [law firm] wrote a bill which generated so many tax breaks for their client.”
New Jersey’s tax incentives require almost nothing from their recipients other than moving to Camden. They are not tethered to a larger urban development strategy. There are no urban planning or design guidelines. Even more shocking, there is no requirement to hire or train local residents. According to Kolluri, 850 Camden residents have nevertheless been put to work thanks to Norcross’ subsidies.
Stephen Danley, a professor in public policy at Rutgers-Camden University, says Norcross’ guiding urban planning principle has been that “it needs to be friendly to folks from the suburbs.” Danley’s most recent academic paper on Camden, which appeared in the journal Societies, is titled, “They’re not building it for us.”
No, they’re not. The zebra-striped Triad tower was built for Norcross’ ego. With a heliport on top for a quick getaway.