Eminent domain scrutinized: (South Jersey) Courier-Post, 3/31/05

Panel looks at rebirth of Camden

By Luis Puga

A panel discussion Thursday on the challenges to the rebirth of the city quickly turned to the subject of eminent domain.

The discussion at Rutgers-Camden School of Law included panel members Dan Levine, assistant state treasurer; Arijit De, executive director of the Camden Redevelopment Agency; and Dr. Jeff Brenner, chairman of the Alliance for the Revitalization of Camden City. About 75 people attended.

Brenner, whose group is committed to creating civic involvement among residents, said many alliance members had doubts about the ability of the local government and the redevelopment authority to move the city forward.

"This government has not done many things well," the Cooper Grant neighborhood resident said.

"The only thing they have done well is pick up my trash two times a week."

"If we don't do (redevelopment) well, it could get very ugly."

Brenner said he's concerned that residents' frustrations over issues such as eminent domain could boil over. Under a 1992 law, local government can acquire private property for redevelopment provided the properties meet certain criteria, such as being vacant, underutilized, deteriorated or poorly designed. Opponents say the categories are too broad and open to too many interpretations.

Already, South Jersey Legal Services Inc. has filed suits against development proposals in Cramer Hill and Bergen Square challenging the process and the effect it would have on residents.

Helen Higginbotham, a second-year law student, said she witnessed eminent domain in Washington, D.C. "These big developers don't have benevolent motivations," she said. "It's about money."

She asked what the city would do if a pending U.S. Supreme Court case on eminent domain changed the city's ability to use that power for redevelopment.

De said the city is made up of abandoned and neglected properties in private hands.

"We can't (acquire) those properties any other way," he said.

Casi Otvos, a second-year law student, asked what safeguards existed to ensure that public money is being spent effectively. She said Centerville residents charged that in the past, money intended to rehabilitate their homes was never spent.

De said the process is being conducted in public view. He added that skepticism about how money is spent won't change with verbal guarantees.

"Your view is not likely to change until you actually see Centerville change," he said.

De said the city needs to believe it can succeed and be reborn.

"We have to believe that those being trained for construction jobs today - that the generation that follows them will be able to get the engineering jobs inside those buildings," he said.

Levine focused his comments on the $11 million deal to privatize the state aquarium, which he expects will be reopened as Adventure Aquarium by Ohio-based Steiner + Associates on May 25.

"It isn't easy to bring complex deals like that to fruition," he said, noting the city is in a transition period where ideas must be turned into reality.

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