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Once a prison, soon to be waterfront park in South Jersey

For years, locals said the decision to build a prison on the waterfront was a mistake. Now the state seeks developers to build housing and more there.

The view from the grounds of the former Riverfront State Prison in Camden.
The view from the grounds of the former Riverfront State Prison in Camden.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

On the day in 2009 when crews began tearing down the Riverfront State Prison in Camden, Dana L. Redd, then the mayor-elect, told a cheering crowd that community activists had stood on the right side of history in opposing the project.

"Obviously, it should have never been here in the first place," she said.

Change is coming to the long-vacant parcel at the foot of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge where the prison stood for more than two decades. In December, construction began on a four-acre park that, when completed, will link to Pyne Poynt Park to the north, as well as to green spaces south of the bridge that are part of a major project to remake Camden's waterfront.

Last month, Mayor Kenney announced a $90 million commitment toward building a waterfront park on the other side of the river, between Walnut and Chestnut Streets. If all plans move forward, that stretch of the Delaware could be flanked by parks within a few years — offering green spots in the midst of the miles of postindustrial scenery that have long defined the waterfronts.

The state Economic Development Authority, which is tasked with developing Camden's state-owned Riverfront site, is also seeking buyers to transform nine additional acres on the site into housing, retail, and commercial development. The agency, which began seeking bids last fall, recently extended its deadline for such proposals to next month.

EDA president Timothy Lizura said the agency wants to take advantage of recent developments on the waterfront: a groundbreaking for the new American Water headquarters, under construction; the Liberty development, which includes proposed housing, restaurants, and a hotel; and a proposal last week by three major South Jersey firms, including the insurance brokerage Conner Strong Buckelew, to build a $245 million office complex there.

"The hope is that we can garner the interest of a top-shelf developer," Lizura said this week.

The flurry of development on the Camden waterfront is largely due to state tax incentives that have been awarded by the EDA through Grow New Jersey, a program that uses credits to entice companies to invest in struggling cities. Though some have criticized the program as too generous, it has led several major businesses, including Holtec, Subaru of America, and Lockheed Martin, to announce plans to relocate to Camden.

Locals see redeveloping the prison site as key to the waterfront's success; it is between downtown and North Camden, and for years created a boundary that many felt marked North Camden as a dead zone.

Camden County and city officials have said the decision to build the prison on the waterfront had devastating consequences for the struggling city.

It opened in 1985 as the latest in a series of developments that officials in Trenton said would bring jobs to Camden. But as New Jersey's prison population began to decline, the prison came to be seen as a costly mistake that had done nothing but stand in the way of waterfront investment and development.

After its closure, the Department of Corrections transferred most of Riverfront's employees and inmates to other facilities throughout the state.

Over the years, ideas such as a fishing pier, water park, and ice rink have been floated as possibilities for the site. Until construction began on the park, which is being developed by the EDA, Cooper's Ferry Partnership, city, and county, some residents doubted any of it would ever happen.

Lizura, of the EDA, said he hoped area developers will appreciate the site, with its panoramic views of the Philadelphia skyline and dramatic perspective of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

"Industrial waterfronts take time to change," he said. "It's not easy. But we see great interest in this area, and that is very encouraging."