When the now-abandoned and infested behemoth across from Camden's City Hall opened 55 years ago, it was supposed to save the city's downtown.

Now, after years of bureaucratic delays, officials say the notorious structure known as the Parkade is finally being torn down for the same reason.

The three-acre plot will return to its previous incarnation as a park, and it is envisioned as the jewel of a redeveloping downtown. But some city residents and workers say they think the area will turn into something else: An encampment for the homeless who now sleep on the building's edges.

The five-story brick Parkade became one of Camden's first redevelopment projects when city leaders turned public land into a parking garage, retail space, and offices as an incentive to bring a Lit Bros. store to Camden. The parking would attract shoppers, and their cars, to downtown.

But Cherry Hill Mall's opening in the 1960s spread retail dollars elsewhere in South Jersey. The Parkade became best known for its crumbling walls, flying bats, incessant leaks, asbestos infestation, Legionnaires' disease outbreak, dimly lit parking garage, cramped government office space, and coffinlike elevators. The parking garage was designed so poorly that pillars blindsided drivers and the walls of the ramps were colored with bumper paint.

"It wasn't that good of an idea at the time, but it was the best solution that the city fathers had with the tools they had," said Phil Cohen, who has a local history website, DVRBS.com. "And it didn't work."

A bus terminal, government offices, and businesses rented space on the bottom floors, and the parking garage was used by city and county employees, but the building fell into disrepair, former tenants say. The heating and cooling system regularly broke down, and chunks of concrete fell on cars. When it rained, white powder flaked off the garage ceiling and stained car paint.

"It was awful," said Leah Hicks, a city union official who had offices there. She said the former landlord - a company named Nedmac, which is "Camden" spelled backward - would ask for rent months ahead of time to keep a flow of cash. The city owned the property but had a long-term lease with Nedmac, which collected the rent.

Given the condition of the building, seven years ago the Camden Redevelopment Agency voted to knock down the building. In the ensuing years, there were legal fights, a long, $1.6 million asbestos-removal process, difficulties relocating tenants, and technical problems related to the adjacent train station.

The city cobbled together grants from entities including the Delaware River Port Authority for the asbestos removal. It is using a $2.4 million state Green Acres grant for the demolition.

Finally, the CRA recently accepted bid proposals on the demolition. It could come down as soon as late November, according to James Harveson, CRA director of economic development.

The building is now shuttered, but on a recent day one of the doors was unlocked. Homeless people said thieves go inside to steal copper. In that sense, the Parkade has become a larger version of the hundreds of others abandoned buildings that blight Camden.

The city doesn't yet have money to do anything toward the park other than put down some topsoil and grass seed, Harveson said. So after the Parkade comes down, the city will seek money for an "interim park," to include trees, benches, and walkways.

Then it will look for money to pay for the design and construction of a final park envisioned in a CRA report as Camden's "welcome mat."

The planned Roosevelt Plaza would have gardens, performance space, a fountain, a wildlife habitat, and an "urban forest" for "game playing" and "social interaction." It would ultimately be surrounded by mixed-use buildings.

Skeptics see the city's welcome mat turning into a homeless hangout, and they wonder why Camden - so broke it is planning to lay off police officers - would not turn the grounds into a tax ratable.

Already, homeless people sleep on benches on another side of City Hall. And as many as 28 people sleep under the Parkade's awning at night, according to one couple.

"What they're spending to tear this down and make it a magnificent park, they could fix up some of the abandominiums and give people a second chance," said Kim Lionelli, who spent her 39th birthday earlier this month with her husband, Angelo, on a flattened box outside the Parkade. Abandominium is the term in Camden for abandoned houses in which people squat.

"Will it become a magnet for homeless and panhandlers? Without a doubt," said Cohen, who worked at the Parkade. "And that would not be a positive for the city in any sense."

Cohen said "anything that will generate tax dollars" should be built there instead. "It's quite sad that it's come to this, but it should come as no surprise."

But David Foster, head of the nonprofit Greater Camden Partnership, said the park was "a key piece to our overall development plan for downtown." He said the park would be a hub among government offices, Rutgers University, and Cooper University Hospital, which is opening a medical school.

"It becomes the link that connects your main sources of strengths for downtown, and it opens up a beautiful view of City Hall," Foster said.

The Greater Camden Partnership funds the Special Services District, which deploys workers to clean public areas. Those workers will maintain the park, he said, and coupled with good lighting and design, the issue of the homeless can be eliminated.

"As we expect to come out of the economic condition that we're in now and move into a period of growth in the coming years, that's a project that we want to say we got done," he said.

The Parkade sits on top of what was once a city-run garden, Roosevelt Plaza Park, that had hundreds of tulips and daffodils tended to by a legendary city gardener.

The city continued to employ the gardener, Daniel G. Deacon, even after the Parkade was built. But left with only three flower beds next to City Hall, according to his obituary in the Camden Courier-Post, four years after the Parkade opened, he collapsed and died. He was found across the street from his former garden.

Contact staff writer Matt Katz
at 856-779-3919 or mkatz@phillynews.com.