Mark Willis felt sick as he left Thursday night's five-hour Camden Planning Board meeting and contemplated what he had just said in the public-comment period.
"To stand up and say, 'Tear down the Sears building' - it was like having cancer," Willis said yesterday.
Willis owned the former Sears, Roebuck & Co. building on Adm. Wilson Boulevard from 1996 to 2004. When the Greek revival building, which he worked to have put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, was his, he frequently flew a pirate flag atop it to symbolize his determination to fight its demolition.
When former Gov. Christie Whitman advocated knocking it down to tidy the then-squalid boulevard in time for the 2000 Republican National Convention, Willis warded off the state even as the city pestered him for back taxes.
And when the Camden Planning Board voted in May 2007 to allow the building to be razed to accommodate an office park adjacent to a new Campbell Soup Co. world headquarters, Willis and local activist Frank Fulbrook vowed to block the action.
Fulbrook successfully sued the board and nullified the vote, alleging that chairman Rod Sadler had a conflict of interest in approving demolition.
But on Thursday, Willis told the board it was time to tear down the 82-year-old landmark he used to rent for use as city and county offices.
He said that he couldn't stand to see the vacant structure in its dilapidated state, and that with its current ownership he didn't think it would look any better in a year.
"I'd rather see it knocked down," he told the board.
The board was considering a vote on whether to recommend to City Council that the building be acquired by the Camden Redevelopment Agency through eminent domain and sold to Campbell.
Willis said he had a change of heart because he believed the current owner, Philadelphia clothing manufacturer Ilan Zaken, simply wanted to sell the building to Campbell for top dollar and didn't intend to use it, as Zaken had maintained since he squelched a deal with Campbell in March.
At Thursday's meeting, Campbell attorney Ed Sheehan said Zaken had told company officials, "If you want the building, I'll sell it to you for $5 million," a figure well in excess of Campbell's roughly $3 million offer, which Sheehan said was more than three times the building's appraised value.
Richard Pressman, a Philadelphia lawyer who represents Zaken's business interests, objected to Sheehan's characterization of Zaken's counteroffer. It wasn't meant to be taken literally, he said.
Another Zaken attorney, Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, argued that Zaken had bought the building - from a party to whom Willis had sold it in 2004 - with the intention of rehabbing it for his own use.
But by the time Zaken finalized the deal in October 2007, Pressman said, vandals had wreaked havoc, tearing down interior walls and flooding the building by turning on the sprinkler system.
Anthony Sanzio, spokesman for Campbell, said he suspected the water damage was due to a hole in the roof, which Pressman said Zaken eventually spent about $500,000 to fix.
When the economy began to collapse in 2008, Pressman said, Zaken could not afford to move his business into the building.
"He wasn't going to move forward at the pace he was planning to," Pressman said.
Bob Zane, Campbell vice president of real estate operations, said Zaken had at various times indicated he would use the building as a recording studio, a drive-though retail store, and as a warehouse and distribution center.
Iraida Afanador, Camden code-enforcement director, said Zaken did not have a certificate of occupancy for the building, which she deemed unsafe. On Aug. 28, a city inspector found a group of models in hot pants apparently doing a photo shoot inside. Afanador said the city would fine Zaken $2,000 for the violation.
Zaken has said that an unauthorized person entered the building.
The building is surrounded by a 100-acre redevelopment zone on which Campbell is spending $90 million to build its 40-acre headquarters - to be completed in the spring - and a 60-acre office park for other businesses. To invoke eminent domain, the Planning Board would have to agree to include the Sears site in the redevelopment zone.
Maley said it would be "horrendously unfair" to take a property from someone who had fallen behind in his development plans due to a financial crisis.
Campbell had been in talks with 10 developers, and two potential tenants of the office park had expressed concern about the proximity of the Sears building, Zane said.
Pressman said that since the Campbell deal evaporated in March, Zaken had been in talks with energy companies about using the building as a data center. A financial analyst who prepared a report on the site on behalf of Campbell said he did not think that idea would be financially viable.
The data center is "still being actively pursued," Pressman said.
Planning Board members have decided to postpone until Oct. 8 their decision on whether to recommend the city take over the property.
Fulbrook, Willis' onetime cohort, has continued to support Zaken and said he felt blocking the destruction of the Sears building was important to deter Campbell's "suburban vision" for the area.
"You don't put a whole new roof on the building if you're going to flip it," Fulbrook said of Zaken.
But Willis said he couldn't shake his belief that the building would come down either way, and he wants to get it over with.
"That building was the love of my life, but what's happening now is disgusting," he said. "If [Zaken] seriously wanted to use the building, I would seriously be working to get that done."