A Camden plan that favors suburban commuters could kill downtown’s last retail street | Inga Saffron
The proposal is a startling throwback to an older, discredited way of thinking about cities.
Rosemari Hicks was sure she had found the perfect spot for her independent cafe in early 2020 when she leased a vacant storefront on Camden’s Market Street. An art center and an outdoor beer garden had already opened nearby, joining a pharmacy and beloved fried-chicken joint. She named her business Nuanced Cafe because it sits at the midpoint between the leafy Cooper-Grant neighborhood, Rutgers campus, Camden’s milk-bottle-shaped City Hall tower, and the Delaware riverfront. She loved the location’s friendly, small-town vibe.
How long Market Street will be able to retain that neighborhood feeling is now in doubt. To the surprise of merchants and Cooper-Grant residents, the Camden Community Partnership, a development agency formerly known as the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, has put forward a traffic plan that could make Market Street look and feel more like a highway than a walkable urban place.
This isn’t just another story about auto-focused traffic engineers coming up with a misguided street design. The Partnership has strong ties to George E. Norcross, the South Jersey power broker and hospital executive who has been a guiding force in transforming Camden’s waterfront into a corporate office park and entertainment district. If implemented, the traffic plan, known as Alternative 7, could squeeze the life out of Market Street, the last viable downtown retail corridor in a place that frequently tops the list of poorest cities in America.
The new traffic configuration would instead privilege suburban drivers, making it easier for them to cruise across town to the white-collar jobs in the offices that now dominate the waterfront — buildings constructed with the help of large tax subsidies. It’s the kind of plan that makes you wonder, Who is Camden really for?
Anyone who has followed the Norcross saga won’t be surprised to hear that Alternative 7 was pulled out of a hat at the last moment, with little public input.
According to Jonathan Latko, president of the Cooper-Grant Neighborhood Association, merchants, residents, and business leaders had been working for months with the Partnership to craft a $10 million traffic plan for Market and Federal Streets, the two corridors that bisect the downtown, connecting Camden’s waterfront to the highways that lead to the South Jersey suburbs. In January, it looked as if the stakeholders had reached a consensus. That plan, called Alternative 5, included measures to slow traffic on Market Street and make it a more comfortable place to walk and shop.
Latko heard nothing more after that January meeting. Then, in mid-October, he learned the Partnership was circulating a new traffic plan called Alternative 7. It eliminated the most important traffic-calming measure in Alternative 5: two-way traffic on Market Street.
“It’s really undercutting the community process,” Latko said.
Latko discovered the switch after Kathy Cullen, a project manager for the Partnership, began going door-to-door on Market Street, asking merchants to sign a letter of support for Alternative 7. Cynthia Primas, who runs the IDEA Center for the Arts on Market Street, was stunned by the request. “She handed me the letter and said, ‘Why don’t you sign this?’ But why would I? The whole idea is to have foot traffic,” she told me.
“All it’s going to do is make Market Street a speedway,” agreed Hicks, when I stopped by her cafe, which is next door to the arts center. The cozy space was buzzing with Rutgers students, local residents, and Camden County police officers, drinking coffees roasted in Lancaster County and nibbling at handmade chocolates from Mecha in Haddonfield.
In between mixing smoothies, Hicks told me she was spending her free time collecting signatures for a petition that urges county officials to reject Alternative 7. “It ignores the small fry, all the Black- and brown-owned businesses that got their start here,” she explained.
The proposal is also a startling throwback to an older, discredited way of thinking about cities. These days, most downtown traffic plans are aimed at repairing the damage done in the ’60s and ’70s, when 19th-century streets were widened to accommodate the automobile. Streets like Market and Federal, which are currently four lanes, were made one-way, with 11- and 12-foot-wide travel lanes. The wide-open roadway made them look like highways and subtly encouraged motorists to drive faster. With little or no on-street parking on some blocks, motorists got out of the habit of stopping to patronize businesses.
During the initial discussions for the new traffic plan, stakeholders agreed that Federal Street was a lost cause. Once an eclectic street with a mix of banks, offices, and shops, it doesn’t have a single functioning storefront business today. But because Market Street still has a critical mass of retail, they felt it could benefit from pedestrian-focused street improvements. Every downtown master plan since 2003 has called for two-way traffic on Market Street. This was the chance to make it a reality.
“I look at us as an early-stage Collingswood,” said Hicks, referring to the Camden County town that used its PATCO stop and walkable main street to transform itself from frumpy to fabulous. Market Street is similarly positioned between a transit hub and a residential neighborhood. It also boasts an eclectic mix of commercial architecture, like the stunning 19th-century Security Trust Co. building at Third Street, not to mention an established customer base of government workers and students.
But judging from the way the project’s engineers spoke about the street at the January stakeholders meeting, you would hardly know Market Street was a corridor worth nurturing. Traffic consultant Steve Alpert of HNTB bemoaned the “vehicular congestion” on Market and Federal Streets and noted that it was frustrating for commuters to wait while someone backed into a parking spot.
When you define the problem as traffic congestion, it’s natural that you want to solve for congestion. But too much automobile traffic is not Market Street’s problem. Several years ago, I was stopped by a Camden police officer while I was standing in the center of Market Street, attempting to take a panoramic photo of the Philadelphia skyline. It was late afternoon — what many cities would call rush hour — and I was walking from the PATCO station to see the Camden Riversharks play at the now-demolished Campbell’s Field. Except on days when there are large events on the waterfront, you could fire a cannonball down the street and not hit a soul.
Residents and merchants have good reason to be suspicious of county traffic engineers. Not long ago, Cooper Street, which runs parallel to Market, was given an upgrade. As part of those “improvements,” the traffic lights were equipped with flashing signals that can be turned on during rush hours and big events. The flashers enable motorists to drive from the waterfront to the highway without having to stop. But the unrelenting stream of traffic makes it difficult for pedestrians to cross the street to the PATCO station, Latko complained. “They’re just trying to move traffic as fast as they can. It’s really dangerous.”
As Primas noted, what ails Market Street is the lack of foot traffic. Despite all the new offices built on the waterfront, despite the handsome new Rutgers nursing school and all the new hospital buildings, the Market Street merchants have not benefited as much as they should have from those generously subsidized projects.
The Partnership’s CEO, Kris Kolluri, who previously ran New Jersey’s Department of Transportation, insisted in an interview that Alternative 7 is just an option and that nothing has been decided. “Our job is to present it [the alternatives] in an agnostic way,” he said. “We’re still in the information-gathering phase, and we want to give the full vetting of everyone’s viewpoint.”
There is no doubt that the Partnership has done some important community-focused work in recent years and encouraged the creation of new parks. Along with Cooper University Hospital and Rutgers University, it has been a major player in the transformation of Camden’s downtown.
But while the redevelopment has brought new jobs and the construction of slick new mid-rises to the downtown, it has also wiped out blocks of older buildings where small businesses could establish a retail foothold. An entire block of shops on Broadway was demolished in 2016 for a medical building. What’s left of Camden’s old business district is now ringed by institutional monocultures: the hospital campus on the south, the university on the east, and the waterfront office and entertainment district on the west. The only space not controlled and programmed by a large institution is Market Street.
For now, anyway.