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Camden's 'Golden Crater'

Too much parking on the waterfront.

A plague of parking lots has turned much of central Camden into an asphalt sea.

"Tundra" also describes the paved-over nothingness that a half century of redevelopment schemes gone (mostly) wrong has wrought in the tough old town's heart.

Now there's a new term for the void: "Golden Crater."

This tongue-in-cheeky award, the latest title in Camden's national notoriety hit parade, was announced this week on streetsblog usa, a website that focuses on urban transportation-related issues.

In March, the site's annual "Parking Madness" competition invited readers to nominate their favorite worst example of the historically anti-urban land use policies that have decimated downtowns across America. Camden edged out stiff competition from cities such as Rochester, NY and Parkersburg, W. Va.

Leading the campaign for Camden was the devoted urbanite and blogger Joseph Russell, a champion of the city's nascent grassroots renewal.

He hopes the award will get the attention of the myriad state, county and city agencies/entities that in one form or another have controlled or dominated Camden's redevelopment for decades. "They need to know that people care about this issue," he says.

Good luck with that: The N.J. Economic Development Authority, the Camden Redevelopment Agency, the Cooper's Ferry Partnership, and the Camden County Improvement Authority seem as smitten as ever by grandiose mega-projects of the sort whose all-too-frequent failure has left the city peppered by parking lots, vacant lots and demolition sites.

"These parking lots could be a neighborhood," Russell tells me. "They're on the waterfront, in the heart of the metropolitan area, with access to mass transit. They could be producing tax ratables, restaurants, shops, jobs. Instead, they stand in the way of neighborhood development."

Although city officials are notoriously close-mouthed, preferring to communicate via spokespeople or press releases, Angel Alamo, a longtime Camden Parking Authority commissioner, is in the thick of the Golden Crater debate. "At least he's engaged, and responsive," notes Russell.

Indeed: Alamo has been posting vigorous back-and-forth comments on streetsblog's Golden Crater page, insisting that the authority -- which runs the waterfront garage and many lots -- is trying to do the right thing.

"We want to improve the Camden Waterfront in a way that would benefit both visitors and residents," he tells me.

I salute Mr. Alamo for his accessibility and willingness to have a dialogue -- rare traits among public officials in Camden.

But more than a single parking authority commissioner must come to see the value of harnessing grassroots energies if the city is to ever come back.

To Camden's powers-that-be, activists, advocates and residents have long been regarded not as potential partners, but as barriers to be overcome.

Rather like the hundreds of downtown buildings levelled since the 1950s to make way for a future that has yet to  arrive.