Prison's death offers new life in Camden

January 25, 2009 6:35:44 AM PST
The majestic Ben Franklin Bridge slices this city's waterfront into two worlds. On the south side of the bridge, there's a spiffy red brick minor-league baseball stadium where families go for a good time; on the north side, chain link fences topped by razor wire surround a cluster of grimly functional buildings - Riverfront State Prison, where convicts go to serve time.

After years of requests, the state is preparing to close the prison. Activists see that as not only an opportunity to redevelop a 17-acre tract of prime riverfront land with its view of the Philadelphia skyline, but as the catalyst for the rebirth of the original neighborhood in a city that consistently ranks as one of the nation's poorest and most crime-ridden.

"The prison needs to be out of there for anything to happen on this waterfront," said Rodney Sadler, a marina owner, community activist, president of the advocacy group Save Our Waterfront and chairman of Camden's planning board.

The state Corrections Department said earlier this month that it would shutter the prison by midyear and has already moved some inmates to other prisons around the state. The prison can hold about 1,000 inmates, but fewer than 800 remain. Corrections officials say employees will be transferred to other facilities.

There is no certain plan for what will happen to the prison property, although Rutgers University, whose Camden campus occupies nearby land on the south side of the bridge, is interested in using some of it.

The prison was never a popular addition to the waterfront. In the early 1980s, the city was in the midst of a long decline and hurting for revenue, and then-mayor Randy Primas took a deal from the state: $3.4 million for the land. The prison was opened in 1985.

Primas tried to persuade residents that it would provide jobs, too. From current Mayor Gwendolyn Faison to neighborhood activists, almost no one in the city believes it brought much lasting benefit.

Within a few years, the waterfront south of the bridge began to change. RCA and Campbell Soup Co. closed their last factories there and an aquarium opened. It was the first of several attractions, including the baseball park and an amphitheater, which have turned the area into an entertainment destination for suburbanites. Luxury apartments and an upscale tavern followed. All that has made the prison seem increasingly out of place.

Despite the activity on the south waterfront, the city has continued its long decline. Things got so bad that in 2002 that the state took over some functions of the city government and ponied up $175 million designed to jump-start redevelopment.

Save Our Waterfront was formed in the early 1990s to turn back a state proposal to build a second prison in the North Camden neighborhood. That time, the activists prevailed.

Since then, the group has focused on rebuilding the entire neighborhood, which has nearly 9,000 residents, including growing populations from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Central America. Like other areas of the city, it is made up mostly of row houses and there are areas known for drug dealing.

Save Our Waterfront worked with planners and consultants to come up with an overall plan for the area's future, which was approved by the city last year.

The concept calls for putting up 880 units of housing in the interior residential areas to replace dilapidated homes and vacant lots, a park along the riverfront and businesses and housing in the areas between the park and the residential areas.

So far, the only part of the redevelopment plan that has moved ahead is infill housing. And so far, it has been only subsidized homes put up by nonprofit agencies.

One idea for the prison property was high-rise condominiums; another would include a boardwalk and splash pool. The most tangible idea to emerge so far, though, is Rutgers' plan to put up a parking deck, police station and lacrosse field on some of the land.

Although the area is only a stone's throw from the campus, an expansion there would be significant. Historically, students have heard that they'll be safe as long as they don't venture into the neighborhood north of the bridge. Frank Fulbrook, an activist who lives just south of the bridge, said he tells students not to park in North Camden, because it's more likely their cars will be broken into there.

Rutgers-Camden spokesman Mike Sepanic said that if the university built north of the bridge, its police force would patrol not only its property, but parts of the surrounding neighborhood. Rutgers has not secured money to build the facilities, however.

In Camden, grand plans for neighborhoods are common. Seeing them realized is rare.

Some of boldest - including a developer's proposal in 2002 to remake the Cramer Hill section - have been unceremoniously withdrawn after litigation and neighborhood opposition.

The North Camden plan has had more community involvement than most. More than 200 residents participated in eight major meetings, and the nonprofit agencies in the neighborhood are on board. "We're talking about positives instead of, 'We're going to come up with a redevelopment plan and take what you have and give it to others,"' said Sadler of Save Our Waterfront.

Sadler hopes the heavy community involvement and a pledge not to displace any current residents will make it possible for this plan to come true.

The demise of the prison, he says, gives it the first nudge. Now, he said, he can start courting developers in earnest.

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