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Court allows action on Camden's Sears building

A plan by Camden and Campbell Soup Co. to acquire and likely demolish the Sears building on the Admiral Wilson Boulevard may proceed, according to a state appeals court decision Monday.

A plan by Camden and Campbell Soup Co. to acquire and likely demolish the Sears building on the Admiral Wilson Boulevard may proceed, according to a state appeals court decision Monday.

But the nearly five-year delay in resolving lawsuits by Ilan Zaken, who bought the once-regal structure in 2006, and Camden activist Frank Fulbrook has Campbell and the city wondering how to proceed with the redevelopment plan.

"We'll have to evaluate all our options," Campbell spokesman Anthony Sanzio said. "Economic conditions have changed. The real estate market has changed."

The legal drama started in April 2007, when the Camden Redevelopment Authority Board voted to add the Sears building to the city's "to-be-acquired list" after a determination that it was an impediment to the Gateway Redevelopment Plan to turn the area into an office park.

A multiparty development agreement named Campbell Soup as the office park's flagship tenant and master redeveloper.

The plan for the 80,000-square-foot project does not include keeping the Sears property, Sanzio said. The intent was to "acquire that property, and then to raze it and make it available to a developer."

In 2007, the New Jersey Historic Sites Council ruled against the city's application to demolish the building. That decision was overruled by the state.

A 2008 trial court invalidated the city's inclusion of the property in the office park plan because of a conflict of interest by the redevelopment agency's board chairman.

Campbell Soup started the whole process again, going to the planning board and taking the necessary steps to have the Gateway Redevelopment Plan amended, Sanzio said.

After City Council passed a 2009 resolution to add the Sears building to the redevelopment project as a "to-be-acquired" property, Fulbrook and Zaken filed another lawsuit against the city and Campbell Soup contending that the city had violated protocol.

The lawsuit argued that the two top city officials involved in the Gateway project also held positions with the redevelopment agency, a conflict that "tainted" the ordinance-adoption process, according to the appeal.

Superior Court Judge Francis J. Orlando Jr. struck down the claim, and the appellate court upheld his decision Monday.

Fulbrook and Zaken have not decided whether to pursue further appeals, Fulbrook said Monday. However, he warned that if the city invoked eminent domain to take possession of the Sears building, that could launch another legal battle.

The Sears building, a 1927 classical revival structure, has sat vacant since 2007. The city has campaigned for development of the corporate office park, which it contends would bring in desperately needed tax revenue.

Fulbrook had said that Zaken was anxious to lease the building, which also would bring in revenue. Zaken wants to turn it into a culinary facility, with a cooking school and restaurant, Fulbrook said.

Zaken, who owns other buildings in the area, including two clothing stores in Camden, recently applied to lease two other structures to an approved marijuana licensee.

The zoning board will hear Zaken's case regarding those buildings next month, said Fulbrook, who is involved in that venture.

Campbell last year finished a $93 million expansion of its Camden corporate headquarters. The Fortune 500 company tried to negotiate with Zaken for the Sears building several times and offered him just over $3 million, which he declined.

A Camden spokesman said Monday that the city looked forward to working with Campbell as it assesses its next move.

Zaken was not able to be reached for comment Monday.