What will effect of Cooper Medical School be on neighborhood?

Boarded-up storefronts line Broadway in front of Cooper Medical School.
Boarded-up storefronts line Broadway in front of Cooper Medical School. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff)
Posted: August 04, 2012

Moments after griping with a neighbor about Camden's crime surge, Lawrence Taylor spots a woman in a bikini top and jeans shorts checking her makeup in the tinted window of a car parked across the street.

Prostitutes "are just front and center now," says Taylor, 47, who lives in the Cooper Plaza neighborhood.

It's the middle of the day, and a half-block away, hundreds of powerful New Jerseyans are celebrating the opening of Cooper Medical School of Rowan University - a beacon of hope, they say, in the impoverished city.

"Be certain that this city prospers," Cooper University Hospital chairman George E. Norcross III says at the ceremony, held July 24. "This is part of the beginning."

Some residents are hopeful an increased police presence around the $139 million institution on Broadway will help quell the area's drug dealing, prostitution and violence, and improve the neighborhood.

Others hope the school's arrival will be their ticket out.

After the medical school was approved in 2009, Cooper Hospital and Rowan started to acquire nearby properties with the aim of redeveloping the area.

But with so many failed promises of a Camden rebirth, urban planning experts question the effectiveness of a medical school as a long-term economic engine in a city where unemployment is more than double the national average, where 36 percent of residents live in poverty, and where only 59 percent of residents have even a high school diploma.

"I'm not sure a medical school addresses the poverty issue," said Drexel University professor of sociology and urban planning Robert Stokes. "The plan for revitalizing Camden is a bit off."

No doubt public safety in the immediate area will improve, Stokes said. But with a 20 percent unemployment rate, residents want stable jobs.

Played right, Camden could leverage the medical school to create jobs, said Eugenie L. Birch, codirector of the Penn Institute for Urban Research at the University of Pennsylvania.

"A hospital has an incredible job chain" outside the facility, from doctors' offices to flower shops, Birch said. "Public services and educational system have to be working to make it work."

But Camden's failing public school system and a minimal tax base could make it hard for the city to capitalize on its latest asset.

"Agglomeration of activity is how you rebuild a city," Birch said.

To begin expanding beyond the school, Cooper spent $1.67 million in 2010 to acquire four boarded-up properties on Broadway. Rowan has budgeted $1.5 million to purchase 22 parcels between Williams and Fifth Streets, including occupied homes.

Though both entities say they don't have definite plans for the acquisitions, possibilities include a parking garage, apartments, and shops.

Rowan is working with the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency to negotiate with the homeowners on Block 189, on Benson and Fifth Streets directly behind the medical school. That block has been occupied mostly by the same families for decades.

Like Taylor on the other side of Broadway, most residents are ready to sell and move to smaller quarters. But some dispute Rowan's offer.

"I might live in the city, but it's quality," Andrea Rodriguez said as she tapped a triple-pane window she called bulletproof in her Benson Street home. "Everything in the house is top-notch."

Rodriguez hired a lawyer to negotiate with Rowan. Her house is assessed at $89,400, according to tax records. Rowan has offered her more than that, but, she said, the university isn't taking into account improvements, such as custom walls.

"If you are going to move me out, you need to compensate me," the soon-to-be retired state employee said. "I don't want to lose my lifestyle."

The relocation of more than a dozen families from Block 189 could be the start of another wave of residential migration, planning experts and area historians say.

Lanning Square in the 1900s was populated mostly by Italian immigrants, and the properties were mostly residential, along with some light industry, said Phil Cohen, who maintains a Camden history website.

After Camden's riots in the 1960s, businesses shut down and families moved to the suburbs, he said. What's left are small pockets of older homeowners surrounded by vacant lots or boarded-up homes.

"Let's get real. There's no neighborhood there" now, Cohen said.

The abundance of vacant lots in Lanning Square makes it a prime spot for Cooper and Rowan to expand their holdings, which now stretch from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Haddon Avenue to Washington Street and Williams.

Redevelopment is "where the money is" for hospitals and universities, Stokes said. They see the medical school as part of a larger project.

Even if the expansion continues, some neighbors are skeptical of the effect.

"The picture is prettier," Taylor said, since the school replaced a decrepit block that housed a methadone clinic and Chinese take-out. But the questionable activities that were being done there are more prevalent now.

A block over from Taylor, Deborah James, a 41-year resident of Berkley Street, said she hoped more redevelopment would push out drug dealers and bring in higher-income residents.

There are some signs a transition has begun.

M&M Development Corp., based in Newark, N.J., is developing 30 townhouses, which will range in price from $161,000 to $214,000, in Cooper Plaza, three blocks from Cooper Hospital. One medical student, who is moving to Camden from Colorado, has already purchased one, said M&M coprincipal Maria Yglesias.

Cooper officials say about half of the inaugural class of 50 medical students had committed to living in the city.

Future area homeowners, along with the traffic generated by the medical school, could lead to businesses opening, Birch said.

Getting established in Camden isn't easy, say some who have tried.

A Massachusetts businessman who grew up in Camden wanted to open a bistro two blocks from the school, in anticipation of the students' and doctors' arrival. But more than a year later, John Yingling and his South Jersey real estate agent, Starr Livingston, have almost given up.

"We worked on it for several months, but there was a lot of red tape," Livingston said.

Experts say a good municipal governing system needs to be in place for a medical school to be an anchor institution that benefits the city.

Those who were behind the medical school plans, including Norcross and his brother, State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), have pushed for government restructuring to help the city: a regionalized police force and public-private "Renaissance" schools, which they say will help stabilize the neighborhood.

Three days after the opening of the medical school, George Norcross, in a partnership with the Cooper Foundation and KIPP charter schools, applied to the Camden school board to open five "Renaissance" schools in the Lanning Square neighborhood, adjacent to the medical school. If the Camden school board approves the plan, Cooper plans to purchase even more neighborhood land to build the elementary, middle and high schools. George Norcross is a part-owner of the company that owns The Inquirer.

Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd has endorsed the regionalized police force and the charter and Renaissance school movement. She did not return multiple requests for comment.

Stokes, from Drexel, pointed to Chester City as an example of a struggling urban area that has tried to creatively attract more revenue with multimillion-dollar institutions.

"Chester built a soccer stadium and casino. But how is that really helping?" Stokes asked.

Camden similarly built a minor-league baseball stadium, an aquarium, and other attractions on the waterfront, which Stokes calls the "tourism bubble."

The medical school adds to what Stokes sees as Camden's developing center-city bubble. Most of central Camden consists of "meds and eds," which are exempt from property taxes, he said.

"How do you leverage human capital and employment opportunities that will still be around 20 years from now?" he asked.

When the University of Pennsylvania's medical school opened, the school's laundry was being sent out of the city, Birch recalled. But the school's dean changed to contract with a Philadelphia laundry service and support city jobs.

With that type of leadership and relationships among city leaders, Birch said, anchor institutions can fuel jobs throughout a city.

"Any city should be clamoring to have such institutions," Birch said. "It takes good civic leadership to look at assets that can and will strengthen the city."


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

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