The developers remaking the Camden waterfront envision an urban center with gleaming offices, brand-new sidewalks and expanses of green space where people can enjoy lunch breaks alongside dog-walkers and joggers by the river.
The plans include a new ferry stop, shuttle to the city's downtown and space for a hotel, homes, shops and restaurants - businesses that John Gattuso, senior vice president of the developer, Liberty Property Trust, said will create a new daytime workforce as well as jobs for city residents.
"These are building blocks," said Gattuso, whose company is spearheading the $800 million project. "One by one, they start to create the kind of life force every city needs."
The ambitious plan to transform the city's long-dormant waterfront into a thriving neighborhood, announced at a September news conference attended by Camden officials, business leaders and Gov. Christie, is underway. Liberty, the developer responsible for Philadelphia's Comcast Center, the Navy Yard rehabilitation and several other major projects, is still conducting due diligence on the property but hopes to break ground this fall.
Plans for the project, which were approved at a meeting of the state Economic Development Authority (EDA) at its regular meeting this month, include about 1.5 million square feet of commercial space, 200 residential units, and a 130-room hotel over a 26-acre tract of land. Architectural renderings depict two office buildings sitting between the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Adventure Aquarium amid a riverfront park, the Campbell's Field stadium, a series of walkways, and two new streets.
The plan includes 4,000 garage parking spots and proposes bike paths, as well as a shuttle connecting the waterfront to the Walter Rand Transportation Center and City Hall, which are about a 10-minute walk away. The plan also proposes expanding the existing RiverLink ferry service from the terminal near the aquarium to a stop that would be built on a pier in front of the new riverfront park near the bridge.
The Liberty project is the largest in a series of developments announced in Camden since passage of the Grow New Jersey act, which provides generous tax incentives through the EDA to businesses that relocate to the state's poorest cities.
The program, through which more than $1 billion in tax credits have been promised to Camden projects, has led prominent corporations to announce plans to move there, including Holtec, Lockheed Martin, and Subaru of America. Liberty representatives have cited the Grow New Jersey program as the main reason for coming to Camden, saying companies that move into the new buildings would likely apply for the credits.
Some longtime residents have expressed cautious optimism, while others, citing numerous failed waterfront plans over the years, are skeptical that the project will materialize at all or that the businesses, which would likely apply for tax abatements as well as incentives, will do much to help the city's low property tax base.
And some community activists worry the development will exist separately from many of Camden's residents: a neighborhood built for a gentrified population that is isolated from the rest of the city.
Gattuso said Liberty is working on finalizing a community benefits agreement with city leaders, and Liberty CEO William Hankowsky has said the company would work with the city on training and hiring Camden residents. The project is expected to bring thousands of construction jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs to the city of 77,000, where the unemployment rate has spiked to three times the national average in recent years.
"On day one, most of those new jobs here will be people driving in for the day," Gattuso said. "Five years out, we may find some people are living here, walking and biking to work. There will be restaurants and shops, and a demand for services. This isn't going to solve everything, but right now the place is nothing but parking lots. And there has to be local activity in a place to begin to build the kind of economic opportunity a community needs."