A tale of 2 jails, and both unwanted

Officials are laying plans to relieve Camden of two pariah properties: The state and county prisons.

Posted: May 22, 2007

Hoping to boost Camden's struggling revival, officials are moving to jettison the state prison and the county jail, two facilities that contribute to the city's reputation as a dumping ground.

Four years ago, Camden leaders began a movement to relocate the massive Riverfront State Prison, built on valuable waterfront territory north of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

Now, the push to move the jail is getting help from Gov. Corzine, whose office said yesterday that he is studying ways to better use the site.

And at a news conference May 30, county officials plan to announce an effort to relocate the severely crowded Camden County Jail in downtown Camden.

"We owe it to our community to eliminate jails from downtown Camden City and to place them in areas where they are not anywhere close to residential communities," Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli said yesterday. "I think by eliminating jails, we are opening up Camden for business and for more economic development."

The plans in the nation's poorest city are in their infancy and will likely take years. It is still unclear where either facility might be relocated, how long it would take, how much it would cost and who would pay for it.

Corzine spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said the administration's study of the state prison should be completed "in the next couple of months."

"The governor has said and still believes that Riverfront State Prison is on prime real estate and he believes that that real estate could be better used to revitalize the city," Gilfillan said.

The 1,000-inmate Riverfront State Prison sits on 13 acres just north of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. It was built after Camden officials agreed to a 1981 deal that let the state build the prison in exchange for millions of dollars in aid to close a municipal budget gap.

City leaders have regretted that deal ever since, and in 2003 the Delaware River Port Authority's vice chairman, Jeffrey Nash, launched an effort to move the prison off the waterfront.

A DRPA-funded study released last year found that if the prison were razed, a developer could turn the area north of the bridge into a residential and retail complex. The prison site could accommodate between 500 and 800 condos, according to the study.

Officials familiar with the talks mentioned Cumberland County, home to other state prisons, as one possibility to relocate Riverfront. And they said county officials were looking into the possibility of a regional facility to house their own prisoners.

The Camden County Jail sits across the street from the Walt Whitman House and behind the county courthouse.

It is severely overcrowded, and was the site of a January 2004 beating death of a mentally ill inmate, whose family recently won a $4 million settlement from the county.

Camden is also home to a sewage-treatment plant and an incinerator. City officials have long complained that it is the region's dumping ground.

Camden Mayor Gwendolyn Faison said moving the state prison is vital to the city's future. "To me, it's very important," she said. "I believe it's awful that the prison is on prime property."

The area to the south of the Ben Franklin Bridge is now home to an aquarium, a minor-league ballpark, offices and an apartment building. Plans are in the works for more condos and homes, though their construction has suffered delays.

Farther north of the prison is the waterfront community of Cramer Hill, where a development project was proposed but is being reworked after community outcry over the potential use of eminent domain.

Campbell Soup Co. recently announced plans to expand its headquarters and create an office park on the site of the landmark Sears building on Admiral Wilson Boulevard. The soup giant plans to invest $72 million into an 80,000-square-foot building and to attract other businesses to the area to help the city's economy.

Contact staff writer Elisa Ung at 609-989-9016 or eung@phillynews.com.

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