"There's a lot of nothing here," a friend of mine observed as I showed him around.
"It lacks … charm," another pal said recently.
She and I were crossing Federal Street at Broadway, home to a project — the now all-but-empty Commerce Building — hailed as downtown's savior when it rose in 1965. That was six years before Sears closed in 1971 after 44 years in business there, leaving behind a beige-brick pile that has itself inspired dreams and dreamers.
Looming above the boulevard, this 120,000-square-foot Greek Revival temple of commerce has since been home to a discount store, a custom car showroom, a nightclub, a campaign headquarters (Milton Milan for Mayor), a telemarketing company, the Camden Housing Authority, and several small firms over the last four decades. The most recent owner, entrepreneur Ilan Zaken, hoped to make the building a hub for food-related businesses; after fighting to stop the city from tearing it down, he opted to sell it to the Campbell Soup Co. for $3.5 million.
Campbell has long sought to demolish the defunct department store, the better to showcase the company's classy new world headquarters campus — boulevard views of which are now partly obscured by the Sears facade. (I should mention that the stylish facade of the new Campbell complex is also somewhat obscured ... by a giant gated parking lot.)
Campbell — the marquee survivor from the city's economic heyday, and a responsible corporate citizen — plans to develop an office park around the campus, with the Sears site as a gateway.
Oh, the irony: The store was erected in 1927 at what city leaders envisioned as the gateway to a new complex of public buildings on the Cooper River. Motorists would arrive via a landscaped parkway connecting what's now called the Benjamin Franklin Bridge with the South Jersey suburbs. A gigantic parking lot, an urban innovation, awaited them.
The parkway, alas, quickly morphed into the Admiral Wilson Boulevard (let's hear it for the unfettered free market!) and the Depression scuttled the civic center. An example of dreams colliding with realities, well before urban renewal.
"Let Campbell have their vista," says Mark Willis, who owned the building between 1996 and 2004 and credits himself with turning it into a taxpaying success. He and the city also sued each other during the administration of the aforementioned Milan.
(One of my most vivid memories of the old building was the bash there the night Milan was elected mayor, in 1997. He would end up doing federal time on corruption charges.)
Willis, 50, a city native who lives in Cherry Hill, is nothing if not colorful. As for quotable, not so much, at least in a family newspaper.
But the real estate developer certainly knows his business — he bought the Sears building in bankruptcy for a buck, and sold it for $2.78 million.
He also knows the history of his former property, and former hometown. He rightly points out that the Sears was located and designed to express the aspirations of a confident city on the rise.
Says Willis: "Victor King, the mayor at the time, wanted Sears to build a building that would convey economic strength and stability."
It's a message Camden mayors still yearn to send. When the sale was announced last week, Dana L. Redd issued a statement.
"This is great news," the mayor said. "Campbell's acquisition of this property will clear the way for future development in the Gateway Neighborhood and create potential jobs in our city. My administration will continue collaborating with the Campbell Soup Co. as we collectively strive to move Camden forward and spur economic growth."
Sounds like a plan. Or a dream.
Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.