Camden's 'renewal' is really just a landgrab: The Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, 1/15/06

By Jonathan Last

In a few days, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Michael Kassel will begin hearings to determine the future of the Cramer Hill neighborhood of Camden. It is a neighborhood whose existence, like many others across America, is threatened by the abuse of eminent domain.

Camden, the city of my birth, is - stop me if you've heard this - something of a national joke. Over the years, many attempts have been made to revitalize the city. Successes have come slowly, but they have come.

The latest plan to save Camden focuses on the residential neighborhood of Cramer Hill, an area near the river with about 40 small businesses, 700 homes, and 500 units of low-income housing. But this plan is not urban renewal. It is a simple landgrab, by, and for, the rich.

In April 2004, Cherokee Investment Partners, a development company from North Carolina, submitted to the city both a study of Cramer Hill and a plan for the neighborhood's future. One wonders which was written first.

The study explained that Cramer Hill was a blighted area ("blight" and "area in need of redevelopment" are legal terms of art now used interchangeably by developers). The plan called for Cramer Hill to be razed. In its place, Cherokee proposed to build 6,000 houses, 500,000 square feet of retail space, a marina, and - just what residents of Camden have been pining for - a golf course.

The study's conclusions seemed predetermined. It claimed, for instance, that Cramer Hill suffered from the large-scale abandonment of industrial and commercial sites. But while there are some abandoned industrial sites in the neighborhood, almost 70 percent of Cramer Hill is residential. As for those homes, the study concluded that the homeowners in Cramer Hill were not keeping their houses in "fully productive condition."

By the study's own reckoning, 84 percent of Cramer Hill homes were in fair condition; only 7 percent were in poor condition; only 6 percent were vacant. Mind you, Cramer Hill wasn't Haddonfield: Nearly 20 percent of the residential lots were vacant. Surely these small percentages couldn't justify the demolition of two entire census tracts?

But to developers with a hammer, every neighborhood is a nail. Camden adopted the plan. The city began moving forward with proceedings to declare Cramer Hill a "redevelopment zone." Once that designation stands, the city will be empowered to take the homes of every property owner in Cramer Hill, hand them a few dollars as "fair payment," and send them on their way. Cherokee can then freely build its houses and marina and golf course for use by younger, richer citizens. "Fully productive condition," evidently, means "owned by people who aren't poor."

Melvin R. Primas, Camden's chief operating officer, has promised that anyone whose house is taken will get a replacement home for the same mortgage, but that's not quite what the plan says. As Legal Aid attorney Olga Pomar noted in a letter to the city, "The Plan provides that 'up to 1,200 units' will be constructed and does not guarantee these will be subsidized or otherwise affordable." Note the phrase up to.

The power of government is mighty, and sometimes terrible. Once a redevelopment zone has been declared, any property within it can be taken and handed to another party. In a May 2005 deposition, Primas explained that city officials were "desirous of having all of Camden come under first a neighborhood plan and then ultimately a redevelopment plan." Which means that private property would, as a practical matter, cease to exist in the city of Camden.

Don't be fooled. This isn't about enhancing the lives of those who live in blight. It's about further gilding the lives of the wealthy. There are plenty of poor communities in inland New Jersey, but developers don't want that land. Why? Because wealthy people don't want to live by the Pine Barrens. The reason the residents of Cramer Hill are in danger of losing their homes isn't that their community is "blighted." It's that they're poor people with water-view homes.

The message of eminent domain abuse is simple: "You aren't rich enough to deserve the land you own." If the right to private property isn't inviolable, then it's no right at all. It becomes merely a privilege of the wealthy and well-connected.

Philadelphia Inquirer: www.philly.com