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New Cramer Hill vision

Residents took a look at a more gradual approach.

Call it the anti-Cherokee Cramer Hill plan.

A community organization presented a vision for the Cramer Hill neighborhood of Camden last night that is dramatically different from the massive and controversial $1.2 billion project approved by the city five years ago.

That now infamous plan from Cherokee Investment Partners would have forced the relocation of 1,100 families. This plan? Zero residential displacements.

Where Cherokee went bold, the "Cramer Hill Now!" plan is going gradual: In-fill housing on vacant lands instead of major affordable-housing developments and a golf course; improvements to existing businesses instead of 500,000 square feet of new retail space.

A judge ultimately threw out the Cherokee plan because of technical mistakes in the approval process, but the plan stoked so much opposition that repercussions remain. Since Cherokee, redevelopers have sought more community input and steered away from forcibly taking property through eminent domain.

That's why the Cramer Hill Community Development Corp., which wrote Cramer Hill Now!, has held meetings with residents since last summer to get a sense of what the mostly Latino East Camden neighborhood wants.

Organizers found that the community's top three priorities are improving Von Neida Park, funding home improvements, and demolishing abandoned buildings.

Those priorities formed a preliminary version of the final plan, which was presented last night to about a dozen residents at Sharp School. In terms of funding and time frame, it is short on specifics. But it is long on quality-of-life issues.

It speaks of a side-yard improvement program, decorative lighting along the river, bike lanes, trash receptacles, parks, murals, and a sound barrier at the train tracks.

More ambitious proposals include grants for home improvement, building a new library, demolishing abandoned buildings, and putting in-fill housing near open spaces, like Von Neida Park.

With housing comes "more eyes on the park," and perhaps fewer four-wheelers, which teenagers now use to cruise around the park and nearby streets, popping wheelies and blowing speed limits.

"We're hoping to change the perceptions of not just those who live in the neighborhood, but those who pass through the neighborhood," said Scott Page, the planning consultant.

Most of those at last night's meeting had questions rather than criticism, but the plan is not controversy-free.

It calls for new streets, a mixed-used development, and a boardwalk right where River Front Recycling currently converts concrete, dirt and wood into other materials.

"Regardless of where you live in Cramer Hill, you would have street access and views right to the waterfront," Page said. "What that would result in is a mixed-income, mixed-use development."

But River Front Recycling's owner, Aaron Cave, said he wasn't given formal notice about the community meetings or the plan. River Front is a valuable ratable for the city, he said, and 80 percent of the employees at the Camden facility are city residents.

"The city is always crying broke to the state, and yet you have existing taxpayers and you're trying to throw them out," Cave said. He added that he would be open to selling the property, but no one has made an offer.

The executive director of the Cramer Hill Community Development Corp., Manny Delgado, said the plan did not advocate eminent domain, and it simply suggests the best use for a site that neighbors are concerned about because of truck noise and dust from its operations.

Cave argues that most of the dust is from a torn-up streets that the city doesn't repair, rather than from his business.

The plan could be altered before a final community presentation May 11, and then Cramer Hill Community Development Corp. officials hope it complements a more zoning-oriented plan now being written by the city.