Camden agency holds off on deciding how to use land

Posted: June 18, 2013

Part of the nearly $10 million in revitalization efforts that were pumped into two adjacent Camden neighborhoods during a recent federal neighborhood stabilization program went to set aside land for future redevelopment.

Some of those 200 properties are likely to appeal to nearby medical and educational institutions — Cooper University Hospital, KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, and Rowan University — that are planning expansions. But so far, the Camden Redevelopment Agency, which acquired the land, has not decided who will get it or what it will be used for.

“Over the course of the next 24 to 36 months, CRA will be working with the City of Camden and other stakeholders on the assembly of properties for redevelopment projects,” CRA’s director of finance, Johanna S. Conyer, said in an e-mail last week.

The CRA was one of two Camden agencies to split $26 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for its Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 (NSP2), which consisted of a three-year plan — ending in February — to construct or rehabilitate homes, demolish eyesores, environmentally improve lots, and strategically bank properties.

About 200 properties — valued from $3,500 to $36,000 for vacant parcels and more for vacant structures — were land-banked between the Lanning Square and Cooper Plaza neighborhoods.

NSP2 funds, including those used for land banking, are designated to create affordable housing and jobs for low-, moderate-, or middle-income people. The land may be sold or donated as long as it benefits the targeted population, according to HUD officials.

Land banking gives organizations the ability “to use underutilized land” positively, said Drexel University urban planning professor Bob Stokes, adding that it is government “just looking for some innovation.”

More than 52 percent of the properties in Camden are tax-exempt, resulting in just $24 million in municipal property tax revenue for a $151 million budget.

Some urban areas, such as Philadelphia and Flint, Mich., have used land banks to beef up their depleted tax rolls, whether for market-rate or affordable housing, Stokes said. But in the end, each city needs to decide what is best for it, he said.

“There’s a variation of goals” to address “the huge national problem of abandoned properties,” Stokes said.

While the Camden Redevelopment Agency’s NSP2 executive summary states that the land bank would support “future residential development” and some green lots, the land bank properties might be commercially or institutionally appealing.

The agency has acquired almost three blocks entirely in the Fourth and Washington Streets area of Lanning Square, near the new Cooper Medical School of Rowan University and the future site for the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy Renaissance school.

Rowan, which opened the medical school on Broadway last year and is acquiring another parcel for a parking garage, is keeping an eye on surrounding properties for its future College of Health and Sciences.

The New Jersey Medical and Health Science Education Restructuring Act, signed by Gov. Christie last year, calls for Rowan to integrate the School of Osteopathic Medicine from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and partner with Rutgers-Camden on a new College of Health Sciences in Camden.

Though Rowan did not receive funding for a new facility to house the new college this year, the need remains, Rowan spokesman Joe Cardona said.

“Unless we get more funding for the construction of a home for programs, we will partner with Rutgers-Camden on developing,” Cardona said, later adding that the new building could be located anywhere from Rutgers’ downtown campus to the Lanning Square and Cooper Plaza area, near the medical school and Cooper University Hospital.

“The Rutgers-Camden and Cooper campuses are separated by a quarter-mile,” he said. “Eventually all of that will be connected.”

Parallel to Rowan’s plans, Cooper has been quietly acquiring nearby properties. To begin expanding beyond the school, Cooper spent $1.67 million in 2010 to acquire four boarded-up properties on Broadway.

The hospital is expected to present its development plans at the redevelopment agency’s board of commissioners’ July meeting. Officials would not comment on acquisition and development plans until that meeting, hospital spokeswoman Lori Shaffer said.

Also working on redevelopment in the area is Cooper’s charitable arm, the Cooper Foundation, which has partnered with KIPP, one of the largest charter school networks in the country, and the Norcross Foundation — established by the family of Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and his brother, George E. Norcross III, chairman of Cooper University Hospital, a Democratic leader, and a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer — to open a Renaissance school where the replacement Lanning Square School was to go on Broadway.

KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a charter-like public school, plans to open in fall 2014 with prekindergarten and kindergarten, and add a grade each year, with about 100 students in each grade. The plan’s second phase is to build a second elementary and middle school and high school to educate a total of 2,800 Camden students.

Once the acquisition of the main plot for the first school is complete, the group has said it would look to acquire surrounding vacant land to expand athletic fields.

However, Cooper, Rowan or KIPP are not required to pay property taxes.

An argument can be made that giving land to the “meds and eds” would attract further redevelopment, Stokes said.

“There’s got to be a critical mass” for that plan to work, Stokes said. “But it’s so far down the hole” in Camden.


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

 

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