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Private developers tackle Camden waterfront near Philly

After 22 years, revitalization plans are finally gaining momentum for a former riverfront manufacturing district just outside Philadelphia that has been criticized by local news media outlets for its painfully sluggish progress.

Developers unveiled plans on June 20 to bring $500 million in commercial and residential projects to Cooper’s Crossing, a 35-acre, mixed-use development on the shore of the Delaware River in Camden, N.J. Planned for phased development over the next decade, the complex may eventually provide 500,000 sq. ft. of office space, 1,200 mid-rise and high-rise residential units, a hotel, and 100,000 sq. ft. of retail, dining and entertainment.

Cooper’s Crossing is part of a larger section of downtown Camden that has been targeted for urban renewal since 1984, when state and local leaders formed the non-profit Cooper’s Ferry Development Association (CFDA) to plan and coordinate redevelopment of the decaying waterfront. Until recently, however, improvements there were mostly limited to government-funded infrastructure improvements, including a renovation of New Jersey’s state aquarium in 2005, construction of the 1.3-mile Wiggins Waterfront Park, and completion of the Rutgers station on the new $900 million River Line light rail system linking Camden to Trenton, N.J.

“Now the private sector is starting to step up to the table,” says Joe Myers, project manager at the CFDA. Indeed, private developers have moved to the forefront with Cooper’s Crossing, which will serve as a sort of town-center for the larger, 150-acre waterfront district.

Foundation work has already begun on the Ferry Terminal building, an 83,000 sq. ft., four-story office building under development by Columbus, Ohio-based Steiner & Associates. Steiner created the original master plan for the Camden waterfront and completed the $35 million aquarium overhaul.

Steiner’s new office project will be the first privately-funded office project in Camden since 1958, and is named for the ferry service platform that will be constructed right outside the building.

Nearby, residential developer Dranoff Properties Inc. will start work this summer on Radio Lofts, an 86-unit loft condominium conversion of a 154,000 sq. ft., 11-story building previously owned by RCA Victor. Units will be priced from the low $300,000s to the high $400,000s, according to Carl Dranoff, president of Dranoff Properties.

“These prices are going to be extremely attractive, maybe two-thirds or less of comparable waterfront prices in Philadelphia,” he says. “And we have something Philadelphia will never have — a view of Philadelphia.”

Radio Lofts is across the street from Dranoff Properties’ first redevelopment in Camden, The Victor, a 341-unit apartment property converted from RCA’s former phonograph and television manufacturing plant.

Dranoff says he secured exclusive rights to residential development in Camden’s waterfront when he took on conversion of the former RCA plant into The Victor. While he purchased the massive structure for only $1 under a government incentive program, Dranoff Properties immediately had to spend $7 million on environmental remediation before proceeding with the conversion to apartments.

Completed in 2004 at a cost of $65 million, The Victor is already 93% occupied. The rapid lease-up at The Victor probably comes as a surprise to the 49 banks that turned Dranoff down when he was seeking financing for the project in 2002. Due to The Victor’s success, however, Dranoff’s lenders on Radio Lofts aren’t requiring presales as a condition, so the condominiums will be built on a speculative basis.

“The Victor was a huge gamble,” Dranoff says. “But what had been the symbol of decay became the symbol of revitalization. Now our ground-up construction can leverage off the success of The Victor.”

When work concludes on Radio Lofts late next year, Dranoff plans to launch the first phase of East Village with construction of 113 residential units, including three-story and four-story townhomes and a mid-rise loft building. Future phases for East Village will add mid-rise and high-rise townhomes and two, 30-story residential towers. Dranoff Properties’ projects at Cooper’s Crossing and East Village will amount to about $400 million, and the Ferry Terminal office project represents about a $100 million investment by Steiner & Associates, Dranoff estimates.

Following Steiner and Dranoff’s development announcements on June 20, revitalization leaders received a nod of approval from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has criticized the State of New Jersey in the past for slow progress in redeveloping Camden’s waterfront.

“After 13 years and hundreds of millions [of dollars] in public investment since the opening of the first big attraction, the New Jersey Aquarium, the waterfront is finally attracting the long-desired confidence of private investors that New Jersey expected,” the Inquirer stated in a June 22 editorial. “It was the right gamble for the state.”

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