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Test tonight for Camden's Lanning Square

If she's offered about $100,000 for the house she has lived in for 36 years, Hilda Bera-Luciano will take her collectible circus masks and the pictures of her two great-grandchildren off the living room wall and go looking for another place in Camden.

Shopkeeper Sang Lee, in the grocery store she has run for 15 years. She is resistant. "I don't want to leave," she said.
Shopkeeper Sang Lee, in the grocery store she has run for 15 years. She is resistant. "I don't want to leave," she said.Read moreNEAL SANTOS / Inquirer Staff Photographer

If she's offered about $100,000 for the house she has lived in for 36 years, Hilda Bera-Luciano will take her collectible circus masks and the pictures of her two great-grandchildren off the living room wall and go looking for another place in Camden.

But until someone shows her the money, Bera-Luciano, 57, won't pack a single box.

"We've been going through this for 11 years," she said, pointing out cartons that she still hasn't unpacked from the last time she was told her home would be razed for redevelopment.

"I'm just getting tired of going up and down like a yo-yo. So I'm not getting packed."

The latest attempt to transform Lanning Square, a 51-acre neighborhood next to downtown Camden and Cooper University Hospital, faces a crucial test tonight when the Camden planning board votes on whether to send City Council a $215 million redevelopment plan.

The proposal calls for 480 new and rehabilitated homes, a new medical college, a new elementary school, and an overhaul of the Broadway commercial corridor over 25 years.

The acquisition of occupied property is the most controversial element. Most of the 350 properties that are slated to be acquired are vacant. Fourteen businesses also are on the list.

At a recent planning board meeting, most residents from the largely black and Hispanic low-income neighborhood, which has about the same number of vacant lots as occupied homes, applauded the attempt to acquire land for full-scale change.

But others are so distrustful of government that any proposal - especially one with the power of eminent domain to buy property over the objection of the owners - is dead on arrival.

Over the life of the plan they believe that details could be changed, making more homes vulnerable.

Bera-Luciano said that, five years ago, when the city said that her property would become the site of a school, she packed her house. Then the city sent her a letter saying the plan had fallen through.

Politicians "do the bait-and-switch on you," said Carlton Soudan, a third-generation Lanning Square resident. "This plan the way it is, to me, is the same old song."

But officials say that they don't expect to alter the plan after it is accepted. They don't even expect that properties currently slated for purchase will require use of eminent domain.

"There's full protection to the people," said Theodore Davis, the city's chief operating officer.

He said displaced residents and business owners would be compensated and allowed to move to newly constructed places in the neighborhood.

Sandra Moore, a consultant working with the Camden Redevelopment Agency, called the eminent-domain concern a "red herring" and the "work of fearmongers."

"You cannot get to the rehabilitation of a neighborhood as disinvested as Lanning Square without a community banding together and taking risks for the future," she said.

Proponents say that after the failure two years ago of a proposal to redevelop Cramer Hill in East Camden, officials changed their approach.

First, they created a "human capital plan," which brought residents into the process. Sixty-eight community meetings were held and 11 focus groups made up of "stakeholders," such as the elderly and business owners, were convened.

While opponents say only a select few were told about the meetings, organizers said that each house received multiple notices.

Also different is that there isn't a developer waiting in the wings, officials say, and the number of property acquisitions are far fewer than in previous proposals in Lanning Square and Cramer Hill.

Located between Broadway and the waterfront, the Lanning Square neighborhood is marred by trash-strewn lots where teenagers gather. There are graffiti-covered abandoned buildings, which residents say are used by addicts as shooting galleries and by prostitutes as bedrooms.

But the neighborhood includes well-kept homes of residents who have lived there for generations.

Some people sweep their stoops, shoo loiterers from the parks and plant community gardens. Others adopt vacant lots, where they plant grass and install fences. On a tree one man has hung a community bulletin board with messages like, "Congrats, grads!"

"There are decent families trying to make a living, and for them we should do something," said Yolanda Aguilar-DeNeely, a longtime Lanning Square resident and an assistant to Mayor Gwendolyn A. Faison. Aguilar-DeNeely is a supporter of redevelopment.

"I agree with the distrust and the doubt, but I say if we come together and we watch, what we want will get done. Because if not, we'll scream and yell," she said.

Another proponent, Freddie Alvarado, 64, owns eight properties in the neighborhood, including a store.

"It's a beautiful idea, it's a wonderful idea. It's something that many of the homeowners are looking for, even though they get scared when you say 'eminent domain,' " he said.

Residents' top priority, according to the focus groups, is replacing the elementary school demolished in 2002. That will be contingent on state money, however.

Miriam Nelson has lived on Berkley Street for 61 years. Today, she lives in one of just two homes on her block. Across the street is an abandoned housing project.

"We need help desperately," she said. "I just go to work and come home and just get disgusted."

Old-timers remember when Lanning Square thrived. Because they live close to the waterfront and the Walter Rand Transportation Center - and because the plan calls for the removal of the methadone clinic on Broadway - many believe redevelopment could trigger a renaissance.

But on the western side of Broadway, where most of the first two blocks in the shopping district would be replaced by stores more compatible with expanding Cooper University Hospital, businessowners don't understand what's wrong with the status quo.

At noon one day last week, a steady stream of young men picked through sneakers at Shapiro's, a 70-year-old shoe store. A few doors away, For Your Nails Only had a half-dozen manicure clients.

And at Hilltop, a deli and market, Sang Lee, who has rented the store since arriving from South Korea 15 years ago, said resoundingly: "I don't want to leave."

"This is my life," she said. "Will the city government take care of me? . . . I don't understand. I'm not moving."

Keith Stewart, 42, a redevelopment opponent, thinks he understands what's going on.

"They're trying to change this from Camden, N.J., into Cooper, N.J.," he said.

Hospital officials declined to address that comment, but they are supportive of the redevelopment plan, which describes the hospital - currently undergoing its own expansion - as an anchor in a future neighborhood of mixed-income residents.

The hospital is affiliated with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which would acquire property in Lanning Square for a campus.

Moore, the consultant, who is president of Urban Strategies in St. Louis, believes that after more than a year of meetings, the plan is what the people want.

"Never before in the history of Camden has the Redevelopment Agency agreed to enter into a memorandum of understanding with resident leaders to guide the redevelopment process," she said.

"These residents have stood up, and they're not going to sit back down."

For video of Camden residents talking about the latest redevelopment plans, visit http://go.