Veteran Broadway merchants have been dragged through race riots, drug wars and bottomless economic pits, but nothing compares to Cooper University Hospital's current land rush, which prompted one shopkeeper to call these "the worst of times."
"Cooper is playing hardball with us, but we don't want to leave," said David Lee, whose parents have owned a variety store on the south corner of Broadway and Martin Luther King Boulevard for more than 30 years.
"This street is still viable and as small business owners we are the backbone of this city. At the very least, we pay taxes and Cooper doesn't," said the Voorhees resident, who fears the family business with be replaced with a massive medical complex.
Iconic stores like Broadway Eddie's have closed without a peep, fueling speculation among survivors about who is selling to whom?
Lynn Warhoftig, widow of Broadway Eddie, who ran a string of stores on Broadway for three decades, declined to comment about the future of her Broadway real estate. Warhoftig closed four stores without warning in April.
"I'm in the middle of closing a deal now. If it falls through, I'll let you know. But right now, I can't talk," said Warhoftig, of Cherry Hill.
Lynn Brown, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southern New Jersey, said Broadway needs a transfusion of new buildings and new types of retail to support the growing medical community.
Planned Parenthood pioneered new development in the area in 1995 when it built a $2 million building at Broadway and Benson, instead of fleeing to the suburbs.
"Cooper's long-range plan is stepping into the future. It will make the downtown a place where people can feel safe and proud to work," Brown said.
In December, Cooper hired a real estate appraiser from Turnersville to notify businesses of its desire to acquire their properties, if necessary through eminent domain. Appraiser Steven W. Bartelt requested individual meetings with business owners and access to all documents pertaining to each property, including income statements for the past three years.
"We have built this business up little by little and now they want to take it away. How can this happen in America?" asked Chung Choi, proprietor of a men's clothing store at 220 S. Broadway since 1978.
"They are building a parking lot on one of Broadway's best blocks. This will be bad for Broadway business," said Choi, who was educated in South Korea as a nuclear engineer.
Charles Lyons, Camden's chief of planning, fired off letters to Broadway's business community saying that as a private hospital, Cooper does not have the authority to exercise eminent domain, that the requests for information were unreasonable and that letters were sent "unbeknownst" to him. He also instructed the appraiser to cancel all appointments and send no more letters.
The clash between the city and one of its oldest institutions has shopkeepers frightened and confused. Even Lyons, who has been in Camden planning for nearly 20 years, is uncertain about who is really driving this evolution that could include a medical school, science building and enough new office space to move Cooper's 375 employees from Cherry Hill back to Camden.
"UMDNJ (University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) is a public teaching institution with the power of eminent domain. This medical school is supposed to be for them, but they have been silent. I think Cooper is pushing the envelope, taking advantage of turmoil at UMDNJ and new leadership at CRA (Camden Redevelopment Agency)," said Lyons.
John Kromer replaced Arijit De in January as executive director of the Camden Redevelopment Agency.
"To threaten anyone with eminent domain is unnecessary and outrageous. It is always a last resort. For us to do it, we need approval by city council and, so far, it has said no. UMDNJ could do it on its own. It does not even need the city to move forward. It seems Cooper is pushing us, so the city looks like the bad guy. So far, the city has approved clearing the 400 block of Broadway on the north side of Broadway for a medical school and science building. Council has approved the use of eminent domain on six businesses and two private residences, if the owners refuse to sell," said Lyons.
Approved two years ago, the city's redevelopment plan for the rest of the business district moving toward Martin Luther King Boulevard is flawed, said Lyons, because it calls for demolishing two blocks of retail on both sides of Broadway and replacing them with six-story buildings to house new storefronts on the ground floor with offices above. Presumably, one side or both would be owned by Cooper Health System.
"Displaced business owners do not want to return as tenants paying high rents," said Lyons.
The only compromise worth exploring is the possibility of dividing the new retail space into condominium units so businesses could buy them if they want, he said.
Another move in what appears to be a master chess match is the redevelopment plan for Lanning Square, which includes the north side of Broadway.
City Council had asked that a vote on the plan, which includes the acquisition of about 80 private properties, be delayed until after the May election. No action was taken.
"Whoever is in charge here really needs to come forward. Is it UMDNJ or Cooper? We're trying to help Cooper, but is the med school project for real, or could people be displaced for nothing?" asked Lyons.
If a four-year medical school does not go forward in Camden, the existing facilities for the approximately 110 third- and fourth-year medical students attending class in Camden will be inadequate, according to Cooper Executive Vice President John P. Sheridan Jr.
Sam Steingart, owner of Broadway Jewelers for 15 years, said the stakes are rising and the rules are becoming less clear. "It's time for us to get a lawyer to represent us as a group," he said.
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