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From eyesore to new town center

A community center may rise on the site of a contaminated landfill.

Maj. Paul Cain (left), of the Salvation Army, and Theodore Z. Davis, the city's state-appointed chief operating officer, examine plans for a community center on the landfill site.
Maj. Paul Cain (left), of the Salvation Army, and Theodore Z. Davis, the city's state-appointed chief operating officer, examine plans for a community center on the landfill site.Read moreERIC MENCHER / Inquirer Staff Photographer

For years, developers have coveted a seemingly unlikely tract in Camden's Cramer Hill neighborhood: an abandoned, contaminated landfill.

Their ambitious plans to transform the Harrison Avenue landfill - ranging from a stadium, hotel and shopping complex to an 18-hole golf course - never materialized.

Now the latest effort to develop the 85-acre landfill, which sits amid a stretch of prime real estate along the Delaware River, is taking shape.

State and city officials gathered at the site yesterday to showcase work under way to clean up the landfill and transform it into a community oasis that would include a town plaza, a 132,000-square-foot community center, a gym, a library and athletic fields.

"This will happen. I definitely think it's a go," Theodore Z. Davis, the city's state-appointed chief operating officer, said.

But first, the state must clean up a portion of the landfill contaminated with industrial waste, said Lisa P. Jackson, Department of Environmental Protection commissioner.

Jackson said the $14 million cleanup, which began last month, was "long overdue." That work should be completed by the fall.

Crews in protective suits yesterday morning used large yellow backhoes to scoop up mounds of contaminated soil, said Frank McLaughlin, the DEP's brownfields project manager.

Camden dumped its municipal waste at the landfill from 1952 to 1971, when it was ordered closed by the state. Illegal dumping continued.

McLaughlin said highly volatile chemicals such as chlorobenzene were dumped there in the 1960s. The chemicals were used in the dye and fragrance industries.

For years, the landfill smoldered, stoked by tires, timber, and methane from decaying trash. It eventually burned itself out.

In order to reach the contamination, McLaughlin said, crews will dig down about 30 feet - about the length of a three-story building.

Jackson said that section of the landfill is located about 1,000 feet from the development site. Once cleaned, it will be filled in, and nothing will be built on top of it, she said.

While similar redevelopment ventures in Camden have been snagged in legal battles or scrapped when funds fell through, this project already has money set aside for it.

In February 2006, the estate of Joan Kroc, philanthropist and the wife of McDonald's founder, awarded the Salvation Army a $57 million grant for the community center.

Half of the money will be used for construction and the other for operating costs, said Maj. Paul Cain, who is overseeing the project for the Salvation Army. An additional $10 million to $15 million must be raised, he said.

Cain said families would be offered memberships to use the facilities, but people would not be turned away if they cannot afford to pay, he said.

Kroc, who died in 2003, left $1.6 billion to build community centers in neglected neighborhoods across the country.

Philadelphia was awarded a $77 million grant to construct a center on Wissahickon Avenue near Hunting Park Avenue at the former Budd Co. complex.

In Camden, the plan calls for a gym, a pool, a family service center, an arts center and a health center as well as soccer and baseball fields and tennis and basketball courts.

It is a major coup for the impoverished city of 87,000, which has no malls or movie theaters and few recreational facilities.

"We believe this center will be a beacon of hope and agent for change in Camden for many years to come," said Cain.

Construction is expected to begin in November and be completed in the spring of 2010.

Located near the Pennsauken border, Cramer Hill is one of Camden's most stable neighborhoods. Its undeveloped waterfront makes it attractive to developers.

Last year, a judge tossed out a $1.1 billion plan by state and city officials to remake the Cramer Hill neighborhood into the largest single investment in Camden's history.

Known as the Cherokee project, it called for 5,000 new homes, 500,000 square feet of retail space, a marina, and an 18-hole public golf course built on the landfill. It also would have displaced hundreds of residents, which sparked stiff opposition.

In the 1980s, there were plans for an industrial park and college sports arena that never moved beyond conception.

Davis, a retired judge and longtime Camden resident who also recalled a failed plan in the 1960s to convert the landfill into a "city within a city," said he was relieved the site was being redeveloped.

"What this is going to do for the Cramer Hill area is absolutely astounding," Davis said. "I am proud that this is now under way."