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15 years later, park is still closed

On south side of the Admiral Wilson, it has more contamination than thought. Advocates are angry.

Martha Chavis (L) and Kevin Barfield Chavis with Friends of Cooper River Park West visit "Gateway Park" on June 8, 2015, the grassy, wooded stretch along the south side of Admiral Wilson Blvd. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )
Martha Chavis (L) and Kevin Barfield Chavis with Friends of Cooper River Park West visit "Gateway Park" on June 8, 2015, the grassy, wooded stretch along the south side of Admiral Wilson Blvd. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )Read more

Go-go bars and hot-sheet motels seemed to disappear overnight as Admiral Wilson Boulevard's $30 million transformation moved full speed ahead in 2000.

But 15 years after then-Gov. Christie Whitman sought to improve the boulevard's aesthetics in advance of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, the pretty park that replaced the ugly south-side strip is still not open to the public.

The 30-acre stretch along the Cooper River hugs the eastbound Admiral Wilson from just west of Baird Boulevard in Camden to the Pub restaurant in Pennsauken. It includes a parking lot that's gated shut; access for pedestrians isn't easy, either.

Tests performed before 2010 suggested that just three of the 19 parcels in what's known as Gateway Park would require significant remediation. Recent and continuing tests revealed that more of the ground than thought was contaminated by hydrocarbons associated with gas stations and other car-centric businesses. The work could cost as much as $1 million.

"Here we are after 15 years, and we're just learning [this]. ... It's unacceptable," said Camden County Freeholder Jeffrey L. Nash, a longtime Delaware River Port Authority board member. "The DRPA did not do what it was supposed to do years ago. Past DRPA employees did not do their jobs, and there's no excuse for it."

A group called Friends of Cooper River Park West has had to scrap plans for a grand opening ceremony Saturday. Instead, members intend to raise the issue at the regular DRPA board meeting June 17.

They're angry, and they deserve answers.

"Why wasn't his information forthcoming before? At first they said there were only a few [contaminated] parcels," said Martha Chavis, a group leader. "Now, none of them are OK? Were they reading the same reports?"

Said Kevin Barfield, who lives in the city's Parkside section: "It's really disappointing. I want to know why it took so long to test some soil. A lot of time and energy have been wasted."

Camden County's ongoing $23 million upgrade to the portion of Cooper River Park east of Route 130 helped galvanize attention on opening Gateway Park.

Seeking what they call "open-space justice for Camden," members of the Friends support having the DRPA transfer ownership of Gateway Park to the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority. The authority would manage the park in partnership with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

"Ownership of the land could be transferred today, but the park can't be opened" until state remediation standards are met, said Andy Kricun, executive director of the CCMUA.

"The good news is we haven't encountered anything that's insurmountable," said Chris Jage, the foundation's assistant director for South Jersey. "It could be going faster, to be sure. But we want to do this process right."

No one wants the park opened if it isn't safe to use. "But we want an expedited process," Friends member Nancy Axelrod said. "We want honesty and accountability."

From the beginning, Gateway Park was an unusual, even unorthodox, project. Getting it done - leveling that unsightly array of seedy businesses - was more important than figuring out what to do with it.

Camden County was ultimately uninterested in adding this particular piece of real estate to its park system. The DRPA, which accomplished the work in record time, had not sought to be the owner, much less the steward, of an urban park.

And for the better part of a decade, the public and the press paid little attention to the fact that the park was languishing behind a gate.

But things are different now.

"The DRPA is 100 percent committed to making this property open and accessible to the public," said Michael Conallen, the authority's deputy chief executive officer.

Glad to hear that. It's about time this $30 million investment began paying dividends not only for people who drive through Camden, but for people who live there as well.