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Judge denies request to stop demolition of Camden High School

Judge Kugler, incredulous that alumni would reject a $133 million new school, said the case did not belong in federal court.

A group of Camden High School alumni emerge from federal court in Camden on Nov. 16, 2017, after a judge denied their request to halt demolition of their alma mater.
A group of Camden High School alumni emerge from federal court in Camden on Nov. 16, 2017, after a judge denied their request to halt demolition of their alma mater.Read moreAvalon Zoppo / Staff

A dozen Camden High School alumni and city residents filed out of federal court in disappointment after a judge on Thursday denied their request for an injunction to stop the planned demolition of the landmark "Castle on the Hill."

Work to tear down the 101-year-old edifice could begin in about a month, according to the state Schools Development Authority (SDA).

Attorney Matthew Litt filed for the injunction in mid-October on behalf of the school's parent-teacher organization in a last-ditch effort to save the school. The SDA plans to replace the deteriorating building with a $133 million school that could accommodate more students.

"If I understand this, then parents of current students and former alumni are opposed to the construction of a $133 million new building for their children which would cost them nothing?" asked Judge Robert B. Kugler, sounding incredulous.

Litt maintained that the injunction request in federal court was rooted in the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Marc E. Wolin, representing the SDA, disputed that argument.

"I thought the 14th Amendment was our strongest federal course of action. The judge determined otherwise," said Litt, who inherited the case in October from the Philadelphia law firm Ali Law, which introduced the complaint in federal court earlier this year.

The old school building was previously placed on New Jersey's register of historic places through a "certificate of eligibility," which the state said did not protect it from demolition. In October, the State Review Board nixed a new proposal to name the building a historic site because the demolition contract had already been awarded. The designation could have protected the school from encroachment.

After about 15 minutes of discussion, Kugler said the case likely belonged in Superior Court since there "may have been violations of state regulations."

"The state court can grant what they think is appropriate," he said, adding that Litt had failed to prove the PTO would face injury from the demolition.

Litt vowed to bring the issue to state court in coming days. The building's fate, he said, is "up against a clock."

"The court today did not reach the issue of whether or not there has been a violation of the New Jersey Register of Historic Places Act," Litt said, "only that the determination should take place in state court."

The ruling means the SDA now faces no obstacles in tearing down the building, said Kristen Maclean, the agency's spokeswoman. Crews are now removing asbestos from the school, but will likely begin demolishing the main building in a month.

"We are happy for the children of Camden that we'll now be able to provide a state-of-the-art facility for them and we are moving forward to that end," Maclean said.

The school district has created numerous committees composed of community members that meet quarterly to suggest to the SDA which historical and cultural aspects of the old school should be preserved. A telephone booth and the gymnasium floor are among the architectural pieces that will be salvaged.

"We look forward to continuing to work alongside the community, the city, and the SDA to advance this very important project," said Maita Soukup, district spokesperson.

Some of those who had hoped for a different outcome remained optimistic the school could be saved.

Doris Carpenter, a 1981 Camden High graduate, said she looks forward to continuing the fight in state court to save her alma mater. She spent months researching the school's cultural significance to apply for historic site status before the proposal was tossed in October.

"If we start hanging our heads down now," she said, "then it's over."