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Rutgers-Camden adds 2 buildings to its Cooper Street collection

Rutgers-Camden has added two more historic buildings to its portfolio of Cooper Street properties, which has been steadily increasing in the last decade.

Rutgers-Camden has added two more historic buildings to its portfolio of Cooper Street properties, which has been steadily increasing in the last decade.

The Rutgers board of trustees on Dec. 14 approved $7 million in renovation costs for two recently acquired historic properties: the Henry Genet Taylor House and the former headquarters of the American Red Cross of Camden County.

When finished, 305 Cooper St. will become a writers house to serve Rutgers' undergraduate and master's English students.

The Red Cross building at 312 Cooper will become the Rutgers alumni house, which will provide a gathering spot for graduates and space for the alumni relations and development offices.

Local historians hope Rutgers keeps its promise to preserve both buildings' historical character. The university already has taken down several buildings dating to the 19th and early 20th centuries, said Paul Schopp of the Camden Historic Preservation Commission.

Cooper Street for decades was one of the most prestigious addresses in the city, the historians say. The nine-block street was lined with mansions, some built by famous 19th-century architects such as Wilson Eyre Jr. and Arthur Truscott.

During the 1920s, Cooper started to move from mostly residential to mostly commercial, including the building of the Walt Whitman Hotel at Cooper and Broadway, Schopp said.

As with many areas of the city, Cooper Street started to decline after the 1971 race riots, when residents and businesses fled to the suburbs.

Fast forward to circa 2000; Rutgers-Camden was growing and in need of space.

The physical design of the campus was not "community-friendly," Rutgers-Camden spokesman Michael Sepanic said. "Our buildings show their backs to the community."

To better engage faculty and students - most of whom are commuters - with the community, the university began acquiring historic homes along Cooper Street as they became available and converting them into administrative and academic department offices.

"You have a more vibrant community when people are moving about," Sepanic said.

In the early 2000s, Rutgers moved its bookstore off campus to the 600 block of Cooper Street. Camden County College and Rowan University also have buildings at Cooper and Broadway.

Although residents of the Cooper Grant neighborhood adjacent to the Rutgers-Camden campus say the university's presence helps stabilize the area, Schopp is not happy with Rutgers' recent redevelopment projects along Cooper Street.

New dormitories and the John S. and James L. Knight Early Learning Research Academy, which opened in September 2011 in a partnership between Rutgers and the LEAP Academy University Charter School, are "an intrusion of modern architecture" to the historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Schopp said.

Since 2005, Rutgers-Camden has invested $70 million in acquiring, renovating, demolishing, and building properties along Cooper Street. That effort includes the new $54 million student residence hall on Fourth and Cooper, which opened in the fall.

The hall was the first time Rutgers crossed Cooper to establish a presence on the south side of the street. The student housing project faced some controversy when the historical commission discovered that Rutgers had not properly secured a three-story brick townhouse dating to the early 20th century, which was meant to remain as a facade for the new high-rise. The historic townhouse had to be demolished.

A Subway shop and 7-Eleven store have filled its former space.

LEAP Academy also has a large presence on the 500 block of Cooper Street, with its main building at Sixth and Cooper and the newly opened STEM High School across the street on the south end of Cooper.

With the exception of the Camden Center for Youth Development at Third and Cooper and a privately owned house turned into apartments at Fourth and Cooper, Rutgers-Camden owns every building on the north side of Cooper from Front to Fifth Street. There are still a couple of vacant houses on that row, including 413 and 415 Cooper, which are in design phase to provide a home for the doctoral program in public affairs, along with its affiliated research centers, Sepanic said.

"As buildings become available," owners usually reach out to Rutgers, Sepanic said. "The market knows Rutgers is acquiring, and Rutgers pays cash."

But not all of Cooper Street has been redeveloped.

The Hotel Plaza, which closed in 1985, rises about seven floors at Fifth and Cooper. A group of developers is seeking approval from the city planning board to demolish the hotel. The city historic preservation commission, which is simply an advisory group, voted against demolition, Schopp said.

"I'd like to see it rehabilitated," he said, adding that too many historic structures already have come down along Cooper Street, noting that the NJ Transit rail line completed in 2004 that runs along Cooper Street and cuts along Fourth required taking down four historic townhouses.

The other large site along Cooper waiting to be redeveloped is the future Radio Lofts condominium building at Front and Cooper. Developer Carl Dranoff entered into a purchase agreement with the Camden Redevelopment Agency in 2001 for the building. As part of the conditional agreement, the redevelopment agency must secure the funding needed to remediate the contaminated site, agency director Saundra Ross Johnson said.

The agency has spent more than $4 million on the cleanup but needs about $2 million more in grant funding to complete mercury cleanup, Johnson said.