By Luis Puga
[Camden NJ] City Council members on Thursday amended a $1.3 billion downtown redevelopment plan, acting to preserve the current library, a business block, an office building and a private home.
Council members also tabled a controversial ordinance that would allow 72 properties in Cramer Hill, including 43 occupied homes, to be taken by eminent domain.
"They did the right thing, but this isn't over yet," civic activist Frank Fulbrook, who fought to save the Federal Street library, said after council approved the amendments.
Council members were considering the downtown plan on second reading, the final step before a measure can be approved. But the amendments created a new plan, so council members must have a public hearing and second vote at a yet-unscheduled meeting.
The amendments would preserve the library at 418 Federal St. and the South Jersey Legal Services building at 745 Market St. It would also spare businesses along the 500 block of Market Street and would remove a private home in the 400 block of Lawrence Street from the "may be acquired" list.
Attorney Mike DelDuca, representing South Jersey Legal Services, expressed gratitude, but noted that Randy Primas, the city's state-appointed chief operating officer, could still overturn council's decision.
"Thank you, but we know you don't have the final word on this," he said.
Primas could not be reached before press time for his reaction.
Fulbrook presented 806 signatures on a petition to keep the library on Federal Street. The plan called for the library building to hold county offices and for a new library to be built downtown.
The revisions to the downtown plan passed in a 4-2 vote.
"I support the first three amendments, but not the fourth," council President Angel Fuentes said. He and Councilman Israel Nieves voted against the amendments. Councilman Frank Moran was absent.
The Market Street amendment was proposed by council members Ali Sloan El and Dana Redd. Redd said there was no developer interested in that portion of the city and no existing plan for what would be built there.
"I don't feel comfortable leaving them to be acquired if there is no plan and no project that is moving forward," Redd said.
Eric Eifert, owner of 418 Lawrence St., convinced council that his small plot, with a single-family home, should not be acquired by eminent domain for the expansion of Rutgers University. He noted that the home has historic value and that Rutgers would not have to pay taxes on the lot.
However, most of the 86 people who attended the meeting came to comment on an ordinance to acquire 72 properties by eminent domain in Cramer Hill. Eminent domain allows the city to acquire private property for public use. The properties would be acquired to make way for the construction or rehabilitation of low- and moderate-income housing.
Olga Pomar, an attorney with South Jersey Legal Services, said council shouldn't adopt the ordinance because of ongoing litigation surrounding the $1.3 billion Cramer Hill redevelopment. She also noted that council is in the process of readopting the plan.
"Eminent domain is an extreme option," said Ivan Foster, a Cramer Hill resident. "Why use it at this juncture?"
However, Olivette Simpson, of the Camden Redevelopment Agency, told council members that the acquisitions were not part of the redevelopment plan. She said they would facilitate building replacement housing for residents of Ablett Village and Centennial Village. Those residents would be relocated under the redevelopment plan.
While Sloan El pressed to vote against the ordinance, it was tabled in a 4-1 vote, with Redd abstaining.
At the same meeting, the Bergen Square Redevelopment plan was approved on first reading. Council members amended that plan to include an avenue. The avenue is smaller in width than a proposed boulevard that planning board members opposed when they approved the plan in December.