Pennsauken Mart site slated for residential development

Posted: November 07, 2011

Seven years after the Pennsauken Mart was slated for demolition, to be replaced with a hockey arena and convention center that never materialized, Camden County officials say construction of a residential development on the site should begin by early summer.

Renaissance Walk, a 600-unit complex that hopes to attract "young, urban professionals," is expected to begin occupancy in 2013 on land where an eclectic group of vendors hawked pretzels, used clothes, pets, and low-cost wares in the dilapidated indoor market.

"We're in the best spot we've been in in years," said Jim Blanda, executive director of the Camden County Improvement Authority. "The developers are ready to go."

For years, politicians assured that development was just around the corner for 30-plus acres at the intersection of Routes 73, 90, and 130.

Vendors, who were moved to a shopping complex in Willingboro, and their faithful customers wondered why the county had torn down the bustling mart in 2007 without another development deal finalized.

As word of movement on the project circulated in recent weeks, many remained skeptical.

"I'll believe it when I see it," Pennsauken Councilman Rick Taylor said last week. "If you see a guy out there in a cheerleading outfit when the shovel goes in the ground, that will be me."

The ill-fated sports arena originally was envisioned as the home of a professional ice hockey team that Democratic leader George E. Norcross 3d, chairman of insurance brokerage Conner, Strong & Buckelew, planned to buy. But by early 2005, Norcross had dropped the idea.

After that, there were discussions with luxury home builders and big-box stores, but the talks always fell apart.

The county has spent $36.3 million on the project, according to the improvement authority. In addition to buying the land, that includes cleanup services, $7.3 million in interest owed on a bond issue, and fees paid as the county rolled the bond issue over year after year. The county also has paid $1.6 million to Pennsauken for lost tax revenue.

At the groundbreaking for a residential development in Clementon last week, onlookers wryly commented that the last time Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. was seen in a backhoe was at the mart's ceremonial demolition.

Cappelli, who is expected to be reelected Tuesday, laughed. But when asked about the new Pennsauken deal, he grew serious.

"It's happening," he said.

If the county managed to get construction going by June, it would be none too soon. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has warned the county that if it doesn't "have something substantially up" by mid-2012, it will have to return the $16.5 million development grant it received from the agency.

Blanda said the funding was safe, and that the state Department of Environmental Protection had given approval for the project to proceed.

Casino Reinvestment Development Authority officials did not return phone calls for comment.

The site once included a gas station and a dry cleaner, which contaminated the soil and groundwater. That discovery, along with the floundering real estate market, delayed the Renaissance Walk project for years.

The county has cleaned up the site and once the last groundwater tests are reviewed, the project could be approved as soon as Jan. 1, a DEP spokeswoman said.

That would just leave the county to finalize a deal with Renaissance Partners L.L.C., which will develop the apartment complex.

Sean Scarborough, a principal in Scarborough Properties of Gibbsboro, which is leading the $100 million project, referred questions about the development to the improvement authority.

The prospect of a new large apartment building in town has many in Pennsauken worried about its impact on the school district.

The county is billing Renaissance Walk as upscale, to be marketed to young professionals willing to pay an estimated $1,400 a month for a two-bedroom apartment about 20 minutes' drive from Center City, that is, single people without children.

Some wonder whether the complex will attract those tenants or whether it will end up half-empty or housing lower-income families.

At a public meeting last month, a resident peppered Cappelli with questions about the viability of the project.

"This brings to mind that fiasco over in Collingswood. They got all these high-end apartments and they can't get rid of them," the man said.

Taylor, who has criticized the county's handling of the Pennsauken Mart, said he had investigated how many students from other apartment buildings in town were enrolled in the school district.

"The other buildings have about 50 kids in the school, across all the grades," he said. "The high school used to have 2,000 students. Now it's 1,200 or 1,300."

Even if more children move in, he said, "we're in pretty good shape."

For county politicians, developing the Pennsauken Mart site will be the end of a saga that critics said demonstrated that South Jersey government had become an overbearing, malevolent force.

Kerry Yobb of Cherry Hill, a mart vendor who was forced to close his pretzel and jewelry businesses and move to Willingboro, is still angry. He has a thriving business buying gold jewelry, but he hasn't toned down the rhetoric he employed when he led the vendors in a protest against the county.

Asked whether he thought county officials would finally get the Renaissance Walk project off the ground, Yobb said he wasn't sure. Then he paused.

"They're going to have to do something, or the townspeople are going to lynch them," he said.


Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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