Monica Yant Kinney | No public good has come from 'cleansing' the Mart

Posted: July 08, 2007

I almost let this one slide, thinking I had run out of ways to slam the raw deal down at the Pennsauken Mart.

But then I drove by the demolition site and started imagining the apartment complex that will rise from the rubble.

Yes, an apartment complex.

In the end, Camden County officials ruined the lives and livelihoods of 100 mom-and-pop merchants to build a freaking apartment complex.

They have the nerve to call it Renaissance Walk.

And they prefer you think of it in more luxurious terms, as "an upscale rental community with outstanding amenities designed to attract young professionals" who will be thrilled to pay $2,000 a month to live next to not one but two highways in Pennsauken.

So much for government's seizing private property only when necessary to serve "the public good," like building a school or a road.

Renaissance Walk will boast an indoor-outdoor pool. Sounds inviting, but if the masses can't splash, how is it for the public good?

Defending the debacle

Six years after the Mart battle began, Camden County officials are still defending the debacle, which has cost nearly $30 million already.

The original grand plan called for replacing the blighted Mart building with a convention center and minor-league hockey arena for a team owned by Democratic Party boss George Norcross.

The greedy suits even tried to steamroll a church across the street, an act that landed them in court and on a celestial watch list.

A subsequent proposal for 700 homes, a lake, a boathouse, an arts theater, shops and eateries promised to turn the gritty intersection of Routes 73 and 130 into a South Jersey Xanadu.

Amid mounting pressure to sign a deal, any deal, county officials finally sold out to rentals.

"Sometimes, things don't necessarily go as planned," explained the Camden County Improvement Authority's executive director, Jeffrey Schwartz.

"We feel this brand-new upscale community represents the highest and best use for the site."

He might, but do the ends justify the means when the Mart merchants were guilty of nothing more than selling bargains to people who count their change?

An eminent-domain opponent I know calls the practice "economic ethnic cleansing." I thought that was harsh, until Camden County officials used their power to rid Pennsauken of so-called undesirables.

Dana Berliner, a lawyer at the libertarian Institute for Justice, said eminent-domain projects were often rooted in snobbery.

"Every town wants upscale professionals, upscale retail, upscale lifestyle centers," she said.

"Of course they took a flea market. They don't want poor people, and they don't want businesses that serve poor people."

The poor paid their taxes, but "upscale professionals" will pay more.

Feel the burn

Through it all, Mart merchants wanted to believe the hype to justify their pain and suffering.

Apartments don't cut it.

At 57, Russian immigrant Vladimir Katz now struggles to make the rent for his smoke shop at the Grand Marketplace in Willingboro. When I dropped by last week, I found him surrounded by cigars and cigarettes, but no customers except for a lady cashing in a stack of lottery tickets.

"I'm working," he said. "You cannot call this a business."

Mike Tankle lost $40,000 when his thriving personalized-stationery store went under after being booted from the Mart.

"I don't know if it would hurt less if they had succeeded with a hockey arena," he said, "but to lose everything for an apartment complex? That burns."

Scott Talis sells toys for a living at the Grand Marketplace, which might explain why he's a little giddy at the thought of Renaissance Walk's failing to live up to its name.

"Who's going to pay that much to live at that intersection in Pennsauken?" the former Mart merchant asked. "It's an island . . . an island of concrete."


Monica Yant Kinney |

Will the new plan for the Pennsauken Mart site be a disappointment, too? Currents, D6.
Contact Monica Yant Kinney at myant@phillynews.com or 215-854-4670. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney.

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