Camden begins clearing an eyesore near Cooper Medical School

Posted: September 08, 2012

Just over a month after Cooper Medical School of Rowan University opened, the Camden Redevelopment Agency has begun the process of removing one of the biggest eyesores in the school's Lanning Square West neighborhood.

The agency's board of commissioners agreed Wednesday to pay $73,920 to demolish eight townhouses on Berkley Street between Fourth and West Streets. The properties have sat vacant and vandalized for more than a decade.

The houses were among 28 developed in the late 1990s by the now-defunct Lanning Square West Neighborhood Corp. They were to be the first phase of a three-part project that would have produced 72 affordable-housing units.

Only six were sold before it was discovered that the 28 properties were improperly built and lacked fire walls. The Lanning Square West developers, who included Camden activists Mangaliso Davis and Roy Jones, had used federal grants and a $1.5 million loan to purchase the property in 1998. The corporation soon went bankrupt.

Davis says he was a victim of city politics and remains bitter about the project's failure.

Officials did not fully disclose problems with the property, specifically that demolition debris had been buried and would have to be removed, Davis contends. His group paid an unexpected $200,000 to clean the site, he said.

The city never wanted him to succeed, Davis said Friday.

"Those are prime lots. The city didn't want us to have them," he said. "City officials discouraged contractors from doing business with us."

Twenty-one unsold houses went into foreclosure and sat until 2007, when the city purchased them with the idea of rehabbing them. They later were found to be unsound, and officials decided to raze them.

The Redevelopment Agency, which now is independent of the city, used $193,000 in federal grant money to purchase the unoccupied properties. It also plans to buy the occupied townhouses, agency officials said Wednesday.

At least one owner can't wait to unload his house. Perry Jenkins purchased his three-bedroom townhouse on Washington Street for $130,000 in 2006 from a previous owner. He did not learn about the lack of fire walls and other structural deficiencies until months later. Then the thefts started.

His house has been broken into several times, presumably, he says, by addicts he says use the vacant properties to use drugs. Last year, according to Jenkins, thieves stole his 55-inch television, wood cabinets, and other furnishings. The value of the items plus repairs was $9,800, he said.

"I'm looking to leave" the city, Jenkins said Thursday. His brother Curtis is a city councilman, but Perry Jenkins, who retired in 2010 from Laborers Local 222, wants a quieter life, he said.

The 28 houses will likely be razed. What will go in their place is unknown, according to city officials, who say they want community input.

"We are going to have 400 students," Redevelopment Agency executive director Saundra Ross Johnson said of the medical school's enrollment. "They are going to need a place to live and play. . . . We want to retain some of them" in Camden.

The city wants a second condominium complex, like the one that opened last year on New Street, near Cooper University Hospital, built as soon as possible, Davis said.

The parcel, which takes up an entire city block, also is less than a quarter-mile from where the Cooper Foundation, KIPP charter school and George E. Norcross III have proposed to build a Renaissance school campus comprising five schools. (Norcross is a managing partner in the company that owns The Inquirer.) The team has said it would seek more nearby land if the school board chooses its plan from a field that includes three competing proposals.

Johnson said no one had approached the agency about purchasing the property.

At meetings of the Lanning Square West Residents in Action, the community has expressed support for building owner-occupied housing for medium-income buyers on the site, the group's president, Sheila Davis, said Friday. Sheila Davis is not related to Mangaliso Davis.

"We need to start fresh," Sheila Davis said. Market-rate housing is "the only way we are going to stabilize the neighborhood."


Contact Claudia Vargas at 267-815-1953, cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," on philly.com.

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