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Trendy 'hood on grave of Camden clink?

IN THE EMPTY, quiet B Unit of one of New Jersey's newest prisons, a page from a pornographic magazine rests near a pile of dingy pillows and torn-out plumbing.

Aerial view of the waterfront in North Camden.
Aerial view of the waterfront in North Camden.Read more

IN THE EMPTY, quiet B Unit of one of New Jersey's newest prisons, a page from a pornographic magazine rests near a pile of dingy pillows and torn-out plumbing.

Dozens of stainless-steel toilets sit in rows on outdoor basketball courts, where rubber handballs lie in puddles. The only sounds besides the sparrows are the tractor-trailers belching overhead along the Ben Franklin Bridge, a landmark that looms over North Camden's Riverfront State Prison from almost every angle.

It was the bridge, the river it spans and the million-dollar views of Philadelphia, not some massive jailbreak or apocalypse, that helped turn Riverfront into a ghost town with only 31 residents - as of this week - and, one day soon, into rubble.

City and county officials and community activists plan to revel in the destruction of the prison, a building they say blighted a community and took up valuable and potentially taxable property since it was built there, despite protest, in 1985.

"I'd like to drive the bulldozer myself," says Wilbert Mitchell, executive director of Respond Inc., a Camden nonprofit agency, and a member of the community group Save Our Waterfront.

Save Our Waterfront's 300-page redevelopment plan calls for mixed-use development on and around the prison's 16.7 acres and adjacent properties on the northern waterfront. The redevelopment plan includes retail and corporate space; parks, boardwalks and fishing piers for the community; the expansion of Rutgers University and residential space with million-dollar views.

Rutgers spokesman Michael Sepanic says the university seeks to build a parking garage, a lacrosse field, an outdoor track and a police substation north of the bridge.

The hope is to transform beleaguered North Camden and create an unbroken chain of waterfront attractions.

"There's a mix of emotions and some can't believe it's happening. They are so used to being dumped on," says Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash. "For the first time in generations, the wheels are turning in the right direction."

John Sandone, a commercial real-estate broker in Camden County, says the prison parcel could be worth at least $5 million.

"It's certainly one of the most valuable things in Camden," he says.

'No man's land' no longer

Fred Winter, who owns the first property north of the bridge, F.W. Winter Inc. & Co., said he hasn't received an offer for it in years.

But if officials are calling the prison one of the most valuable properties in South Jersey, Winter said, his thin, 7.5-acre waterfront parcel should count, too.

"I sure hope it does," said Winter, a native of Germany.

Winter said the Delaware River Port Authority had offered him land on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, but that it had flooding issues and the authority wanted an even swap. He said he has invested more than $8 million in the property since buying it in 1983.

"Back then, the waterfront was a no man's land," he said.

Winter said he's willing to move the business for the right offer and hopes the state doesn't resort to bolder measures, such as eminent domain, to get his slice of the waterfront. Eminent domain is the law by which the government can seize private property for public purposes.

"I'm mentally preparing for a fight," he said.

Unions fight closure

The unions representing the Riverfront guards - the New Jersey Law Enforcement Supervisors Association and the N.J. State Policemen's Benevolent Association - have fought the closure since they caught wind of it last fall.

NJLESA, which enraged city and elected officials by distributing fliers depicting murderers and rapists running free, sued the Department of Corrections to stop the closure. But the case went to appellate court, and the prison could be gone by the time it's heard.

"There's no way we're going to stop it at this point," said NJLESA's attorney Frank Crivelli. "We're definitely going to go ahead and pursue it, though. We want a message to be sent."

Closing a relatively new prison when many are in disrepair defies common sense, Crivelli said, but the union's lawsuit centers on how the state initiated the the closure process.

According to the complaint, the Department of Corrections violated state law by not having a meeting to discuss the possible closure and what the potential financial impact could be .

In January, NJLESA told the Daily News that the corrections department began the closure process months earlier - with no public announcement or warning - by reducing the prison population through transfers.

In a response to the lawsuit, the state attorney general's office said the department is only required to have such a meeting if more than 100 jobs would be lost. All of the 400-plus employees at Riverfront have been offered jobs at other state prisons, none in Camden County.

"They have been transferred all over the state. Their lives have all been disrupted," said Sgt. Jim Messier, NJLESA president.

Camden County Freeholder Nash said he sympathizes with corrections officers and other prison employees, but said the overriding issue is the need to make Camden self-sufficient.

"You have to look beyond whether it's going to cost the state more money initially," he said.

Union officials had said that a June 30 deadline for closure had been set, but Riverfront Administrator Greg Bartkowski said he had been told an ambiguous "summer of 2009." Riverfront, which had a capacity of more than 1,000, had only 31 inmates left earlier this week.

"If need be, I could have this prison empty in a week," Bartkowski said.

A contract for the prison's demolition could be awarded by the end of this month according to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

So Bartkowski, the remaining prisoners and office staff are on short time - dismantling desks, fixtures, tables and everything else of value that could be used in New Jersey's older prisons.

"I have a wish list from all the other prisons of the things they need," said Bartkowski, who has worked at Riverfront off and on for more than a decade.

With the July 4 holiday approaching, Bartkowski said, inmates normally would have been trying to curry favor to be moved into cells with good views of Penn's Landing's annual fireworks display.

"The snitch notes would probably start coming in now," he said, with a laugh. "This was a good place to do time."