After years of high-profile public and corporate development projects, Camden city officials say new housing is key to convincing the thousands of employees who now come to work in the city each day to also live there. Pictured here is 11 Cooper Station, a new 156-unit luxury apartment building by The Michaels Organization. — Courtesy: Camden Community Partnership
By Patricia Alex
High-profile public and corporate developments — spurred by generous tax breaks — have transformed Camden over the last generation. There are gleaming new headquarters for Subaru and American Water, among others, and huge investments by institutional behemoths like Rutgers University and Cooper University Hospital.
But now, city officials are concentrating on investing in quality-of-life improvements — in housing, police, education and parks — that they believe are the missing links in truly transforming this long-beleaguered city and reversing its decades-long population declines. Camden now has about 75,000 residents — about half the number from its peak in 1950.
Local leaders say new housing is key in repopulating the city and convincing the thousands of employees who now come to work in Camden each day to live there. They are buoyed by recent jumps in real estate values, but those prices are still among the lowest in the state. The median home price in Camden was just about $100,000 in March 2022, according to Realtor.com, as compared to $250,000 for Camden County overall.
“As a strategic matter, housing is the next big piece … The market is quite ripe,” said Kris Kolluri, the former CEO of the Camden Community Partnership, a nonprofit group that promotes economic development in the city. With its proximity to Philadelphia, Kolluri said Camden could be on the precipice of the kind of residential renaissance that transformed Hoboken or Jersey City, echoing a long-held aspiration of boosters in the region.
The mayor’s office said there has been an investment of $366 million in Camden’s housing stock during the past six to eight years, including 156 new market-rate units as a part of 11 Cooper Station, a luxury development by The Michaels Organization.
Also underway is a $145 million reconstruction of Ablett Village — a public housing development on the city’s east end — by Michaels and the Housing Authority of the City of Camden. The developer broke ground earlier this year on the first of the project’s four phases, which will yield 75 affordable townhome-style units across three separate sites in East Camden, launching what will be a total of 425 mixed-income homes.
“One of the core principals is to protect existing residents so gentrification doesn’t become the norm,” said Kolluri, who recently left his post to lead the Gateway Development Commission. “Camden doesn’t have an affordability problem, it’s an inventory and choice problem.”
The city is clearing the way for hundreds of smaller projects that could lead to thousands more housing units over the next few years, Mayor Vic Carstarphen said. A $15 million residential demolition program is underway to eliminate 300 unsafe housing units that will make room for privately developed infill units — namely, smaller multifamily projects — that are popping up all over the city. It’s development that seems more organic than the high-profile commercial investments, officials say.
“A lot of investment groups are putting up modular homes on vacant lots,” said Camden County Commissioner Al Dyer, who grew up in the city and owns investment property there. “I just saw one on 32nd Street — it’s no longer a cut-through, it’s now a two-family home. It’s almost like a smile — if you have a missing tooth and you replace it, it makes a nice smile.”
Those smaller developments are backfilling the residential streets east of the new-look waterfront district, creating what officials hope are more workforce housing. Dyer said rents have risen at the properties he owns, which he recently renovated. Recent tenants like nurses and support staff at Cooper University Hospital are looking to be closer to their jobs as the city’s fortunes improve.
“I don’t think we’re at critical mass yet but we’re working to get there,” Carstarphen said. “We’re putting hundreds of millions (of dollars) into infrastructure.”
Those expenditures include:
- More than $30 million in infrastructure projects including miles of road repaving and reconstruction, a waterfront walkway, electrical and substation upgrades and more.
- The allocation of $250 million by the state to renovate the Walter Rand Transportation Center, a hub for buses, trains, light rail and parking. Future retail and commercial space also is planned for the Broadway site.
- More than $100 million has been invested in parks, including $48 million for the 62-acre Cramer Hill Waterfront Park that opened last fall.
Beginning in 2013, more than $1 billion in state tax credits were used to lure a number of high-profile commercial projects to Camden through the Grow New Jersey incentive program and others administered by the state Economic Development Authority.
Projects included an 18-story office tower now known as Triad1828 — the headquarters of Conner Strong & Buckelew, NFI and Michaels — along with the 11 Cooper Station luxury apartments and the Philadelphia 76ers’ new practice facility on Front Street. In 2018, two of the city’s largest and most high-profile commercial facilities opened, including a new headquarters campus east of downtown for Subaru of America after the automaker secured $118 million in tax credits to relocate from Cherry Hill. American Water, meantime, was awarded a $164 million subsidy for its move from suburban Voorhees to the waterfront.
Experts say the office market looks to be largely built out in Camden. “It’s saturated,” said Jason M. Wolf, managing principal of Wolf Commercial Real Estate in Marlton. Most of the big firms that used the tax breaks to come to the city relocated from other Camden County communities, but most of those suburban office properties have been now been backfilled, Wolf said.
The city in 2020 welcomed its first new hotel in 50 years — a Hilton Garden Inn that opened at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, as the spigot was closing on the tax incentives.
“The pandemic stalled some of the momentum, but it gave us the opportunity to think about (development) more,” Kolluri said. “I think you’ll see a different kind of development in the next 10 years.”
The next decade
Kolluri said more attention will now be paid to revitalizing small businesses on commercial corridors, such as Broadway, Kaighn Avenue and Federal and Market streets. The city still doesn’t have a large chain supermarket — a recent plan failed, but hope remains. And, Kolluri said he’d like to see Camden capitalize on new state tax credits for film and digital production, perhaps luring IT firms to the city.
The expansion of the Rowan University and Rutgers-Camden Joint Health Science Center campus is underway with construction of a $70 million Collaborative Life Sciences Center in the city’s “eds-meds corridor.” And Rutgers is planning for a new business school building at 5th and Market streets downtown.
Other developments in the offing include a proposed 145,390-square-foot distribution center on a 40-acre tract on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in east Camden, by Matrix Development. And, further off, the state is still looking to sell for mixed-use development the former Riverfront State Prison site north of the Ben Franklin Bridge. That tract is adjacent to the new Cramer Hill Park, which features a fishing plaza, hiking and biking trails, a kayak launch, playgrounds and picnic areas along with sweeping views of the bridge and Philadelphia and Camden skylines.
Jeanette Alvarez was raised in Camden and, in turn, raised her three children there. Now, she says she can’t wait to bring her granddaughter to the new park. “I’m proud to say I’m a Camden resident with all the investments and improvements that have been made, including in the police department and schools,” said Alvarez.
“The one thing the city has never lost — and the residents have never lost — is hope,” Kolluri said. “You can hardly think of another city that was more down and out … The grit that made this country great, made this city invincible.”
Patricia Alex is a freelance writer based in Cherry Hill and the founder of Silk City Communications.