Campbell Soup buys Sears building

An old Sears, Roebuck and Co. retail store sits in disrepair Thursday, June 28, 2007, in Camden, N.J. Sears moved its store out of Camden more than 30 years ago. On Thursday, July 19, 2007, New Jersey environmental regulators said the building put up 80 years ago can be demolished to make way for a new office park that the Campbell Soup Co. wants to build in the area. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
An old Sears, Roebuck and Co. retail store sits in disrepair Thursday, June 28, 2007, in Camden, N.J. Sears moved its store out of Camden more than 30 years ago. On Thursday, July 19, 2007, New Jersey environmental regulators said the building put up 80 years ago can be demolished to make way for a new office park that the Campbell Soup Co. wants to build in the area. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Posted: June 13, 2012

The Sears building that has been vacant for years on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Camden was sold Monday to Campbell Soup Co. for $3.5 million after years of litigation.

The former department store will be razed to make room for a 13-acre office park, which Campbell spokesman Anthony Sanzio said would ideally house professional firms and new businesses in the financially struggling city.

"It's a win for us, a win for the city, and hopefully a win" for former owner Ilan Zaken, Sanzio said. But in Zaken's eyes, the sale was more of a sign of resignation.

"It was time to sell," said Zaken, who had wanted to create a retail zone around the building. "I had nobody cooperate with me."

The city administration had sided with Campbell, and the city zoning board did not grant Zaken his proposed change to allow retail.

Campbell's drawn-out battle to acquire the property from Zaken started shortly after he signed the purchase agreement in 2006 with hope of having a culinary facility, with a cooking school and restaurant.

In April 2007, the Camden Redevelopment Authority Board voted to add the Sears building to the city's "to-be-acquired" list after the agency's determination that it was an impediment to the Gateway Redevelopment Plan. Local activist Frank Fulbrook and Zaken, who also owns other property in the area, took the case to court.

A 2008 trial court invalidated the city's inclusion of the property in the office park plan because of a conflict of interest by the redevelopment agency's board chairman.

Campbell started the process again, seeking to have the Gateway plan amended.

After City Council passed a 2009 resolution to add the Sears building to the redevelopment project as a "to-be-acquired" property, Fulbrook and Zaken filed another lawsuit against the city and Campbell, contending that the city had violated protocol.

Superior Court Judge Francis J. Orlando Jr. struck down the claim, and the appellate court upheld his decision in December. Fulbrook and Zaken decided to not pursue further appeals.

Zaken paid $2.7 million for the property but said he had made significant investments, including a new roof, environmental cleanup and interior demolition.

"It's time to move forward," Zaken said. "I'm looking forward to the office park."

As the new owner of the Sears site, Campbell will take over its tax bills, which state records showed to be $44,936 last year.

"Campbell's acquisition of this property will clear the way for future development in the Gateway neighborhood and create potential jobs in our city," Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said in a statement.

Campbell, which is the site's master redeveloper, is looking for interested developers for the site, Sanzio said. There is no schedule yet for the demolition of the building or groundbreaking on new construction.

Zaken said he was not considering investing in the future development of the site.

Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com or on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," on philly.com

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