A 55-foot hill rising off State Street in Camden commands a sweeping view of the Philadelphia skyline and Delaware River. Every so often, bald eagles soar above.
But it’s a view Camden residents have never enjoyed. That changes Saturday when the new Cramer Hill Waterfront Park, built on an old city landfill, opens at a noon-to-4 p.m. community open house, complete with a hot-air balloon. A ribbon cutting for the general public is set for Wednesday.
“This is awesome,” said Linda Cairnes, who walked to the summit this week as she was scoping logistics for the event. Cairnes doesn’t live in Camden but works with local youth through programs at the nonprofit Center for Aquatic Sciences.
“Camden residents haven’t had access to their waterfront for decades,” she said.
The $48 million park took about five years from planning to completion. It was paid for with money the state recovered from polluters in natural resources damage cases.
The former city landfill had to be excavated, cleaned where possible, and graded. Though trash remains buried underneath, the site is capped by several layers of soil and other barriers. It has a gas collection and venting system. The landfill was monitored for a year to ensure it was safe.
As a child, Mayor Vic Carstarphen used to ride his bike past the landfill, never imagining it could be a place of beauty.
“This park means a great deal to the city and me as a person who lived there as a child,” Carstarphen said. “It will be a place for youth and people of all ages.”
The mayor believes the park is another sign of change for the Cramer Hill neighborhood, noting the adjacent Kroc Center that opened in 2014, the current $35 million rehabilitation of the Ablett Village public housing community, and a new state-of-the-art elementary school. Together, he said, the projects will drive economic development.
The new park boasts a large playground, tidal fishing pond, pedestrian bridge, kayak launch, and miles of pathways. The landscape is punctuated by large stone chunks taken from the old Camden County Courthouse, which was demolished in the 1950s and dumped at the landfill. One of the slabs has been made into a selfie stone complete with a slot at the top to fit a phone for a picture of the Philly skyline.
The park also lies directly across from the 500-acre Petty’s Island, once owned by CITGO Petroleum Corp. It is now managed by New Jersey under a conservation easement and is being cleaned up. When the island opens to the public in a few years, it and Cramer Hill park will make up a large swath of protected waterfront visited by American bald eagles, songbirds, hawks, falcons, and osprey.
Cramer Hill Waterfront Park was once part of the 86-acre Harrison Avenue landfill that operated from about 1952 to 1971. The landfill was never properly closed or capped and became an illegal dump site with PCBs leaking into the Delaware River. Efforts to clean up the dump began in 2006.
About 24 acres of the landfill were sealed off and remediated in 2012 for construction of the 125,000-square-foot Salvation Army Kroc Center, which includes an aquatic center with eight-lane pool and water park, a fitness center, and gym. The center was funded through a mix of government money and $59 million from the estate of Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.
The state Department of Environmental Protection began creating an adjoining park on the remaining 62 acres of the landfill in 2016. Workers moved 375,000 cubic yards of landfill and soil. They stabilized 3,200 feet of shoreline and raised land 12 feet, about the average high-tide line for a summit vista adjacent to an amphitheater.
The DEP planted 379,000 trees, shrubs, and plants at the park with the goal of reforesting part of it. It also installed bald eagle perch poles and turtle basking islands.
DEP Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette said the park is a source of pride for the agency. He notes that the money came from polluters, not taxpayers.
“Our natural resources belong directly to the people,” LaTourette said. “… For the first time in generations, people will be in touch with their waterfront. It is their natural resource. That’s why this is so important and why I view it as so special. It’s our obligation to the people.”
LaTourette said the park is now “100% safe” for residents.
Jeff Nash, a Camden County commissioner, said the city still owns the park, but the county has agreed to maintain it. He said the Camden County Police Department will install its “Eye-in-the-Sky” video surveillance system at the park for security.
Don Baugh, president of the nonprofit Upstream Alliance, applauded the DEP’s work and called the park “an unprecedented opportunity in Camden to increase the quality of life for residents, while correcting the injustice of having lived next to a pollution-filled landfill” for decades.
Baugh is developing a 13-mile water trail along the Cooper River in Camden that will launch in 2023 and connect with the Delaware. His group recently received a federal grant and matching funds to pay for recreation such as fishing and kayaking, hiring local residents, and restoring habitat for American shad and river herring.
“Our most valuable open space is our waterways,” Baugh said. “This park reconnects residents to the Cooper River and Back Channel of the Delaware River for fishing, boating, and reflection — opening up over 1,000 acres of waters.”
He continued: “If you think about the Camden Water Trail as a string of jewels, with the jewels being the water access sites and parks, the Cramer Hill Waterfront Park is the crown jewel.”