Groups hope to open Gateway Park along Cooper River

A view of the fenced-in park along the east side of Admiral Wilson Boulevard from the Baird Boulevard bridge in Camden. More than a dozen years after it was built, it still sits unused.
A view of the fenced-in park along the east side of Admiral Wilson Boulevard from the Baird Boulevard bridge in Camden. More than a dozen years after it was built, it still sits unused. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 31, 2014

A scenic ribbon of green was created along the Cooper River in 2000 to improve the view for travelers heading to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

The lush expanse of meadows and woods supplanted the strip of go-go bars, gas stations, and rooms-by-the-hour motels on the Admiral Wilson Boulevard's south side.

Built by the Delaware River Port Authority 13 years ago with breathtaking speed (then-Gov. Christie Whitman saw to that), this lovely place is still fenced in, blocked off, and locked up.

But thanks mainly to the good work of grassroots groups, nonprofit organizations, and the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, the barriers may come down soon.

"Our goal is to get the majority of it open by late spring or early summer," Martha Chavis, representing the Friends of Cooper River Park West organization, told a community meeting Tuesday.

The gathering was hosted by Parkside Business and Community in Partnership Inc. so the public could get a glimpse of promising preliminary plans for the new park. About 100 people attended.

Those plans call for incorporating Gateway Park, the common name for the fenced-off section along the boulevard, into a 4.3-mile loop around the river between Kaighns Avenue and the Campbell Soup Co. headquarters near downtown.

The new park would provide better access for city residents and visitors and would connect with the adjacent Farnham, New Camden, and Cooper River Parks. It also would link to an emerging regional network of hiking and biking trails.

The preliminary plan includes evocative sketches of boardwalks, "vista decks," picnic areas, playing fields, and canoe launches. Wetlands and wildlife habitats would be preserved.

As for the forlorn shell of a majestic brick picnic pavilion near Kaighns Avenue - partially submerged since the collapse of a park levee in a 1972 hurricane - it could be transformed from a symbol of decline into a illuminated piece of sculpture.

"This is a vision," said Joseph R. Cairone, whose firm, Cairone & Kaupp Inc., also is designing $23 million worth of improvements to the heart of Cooper River Park between Route 130 and Cuthbert Boulevard.

The cost of implementing the vision is unknown.

The new park would not be part of the Camden County Park System, as was envisioned in the 2000 agreement under which the Gateway portion was built.

Already responsible for Farnham, Pyne Poynt, and Wiggins Parks in the city, the county has been reluctant to take over Gateway. DRPA is preparing to convey the park at no cost to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the county utilities authority.

"There's a definite commitment," DRPA Commissioner Rick Taylor said during Tuesday's meeting. "There's no hemming and hawing. It's just a matter of cleaning up a few parcels. There also are some title problems."

The pollution caused by storage tanks at former gas stations "is nothing very serious," said Andy Kricun, executive director of the utilities authority.

"Transferring [ownership of] the 17 clean parcels would give us the benefit of public access to the park right away," he added.

Why the urgency?

DRPA built the park in less than a year, but it's taken a dozen more for the authority and the county to figure out what to do with it. Two years of community organizing and concerted pressure have finally gotten their attention.

"A number of organizations with diverse missions have come together," said Maria Tranguch, who heads the conservation foundation's Camden office. "It shows the power of one voice."

The new park "will have a major impact on Parkside," said Bridget Phifer of Parkside Business and Community. "Right now, I have to cross [Route] 130 to enjoy the river."

Added Tom Knoche, a leader of the Friends group: "Seeing is believing. The point is to get it open."

He's right. It's time to open the park.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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