Linchpin of future Camden Waterfront redevelopment is haven for drug users
In the spirit of the new "Say Something Nice About Camden" marketing campaign, let us say this: Since the State of New Jersey cut down the dense patch of trees next to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, heroin addicts are no longer shooting up there. Mission accomplished. But because this is Camden, there is unfortunately a downside to this victory.
Residents say some of them are instead injecting the drug in an abandoned RCA factory on the Delaware River waterfront -- the city's primary destination for tourists, Rutgers students and urban pioneers. They claim a group of five to six addicts travel from Burlington County via the NJ Transit River Line five to six times per day, five to six times per week to buy and use drugs in the vicinity. These users have also been observed during daylight hours snorting heroin on the outdoor train platform that services the district.
The building they favor is RCA Factory Building No. 8, which is slated for conversion to 86 luxury condo units by Philadelphia real estate mogul Carl Dranoff, who redeveloped and owns the upscale Victor apartments next door. The project has frustrated area residents for years, as Dranoff initially promised to have the so-called Radio Lofts, reported to be priced between the low $300,000's and high $400,000's per unit, ready for market by the mid '00s. But the discovery of toxic dioxin in the concrete during the environmental remediation phase coupled with a lack of public funds to remove it has stalled progress, and since work stopped last winter the 88-year-old structure has stood partially boarded up and roofless.
"It's a cancer on the neighborhood," said Jonathan Latko, president of the Cooper-Grant Neighborhood Association that represents the interests of Riverfront residents. "It's the broken window theory. Disrepair leads to minor crimes in the neighborhood, which then lead to bigger crimes. Except Radio Lofts has no windows. So I guess it's the 'no window' theory."
The irony is that Cooper-Grant has relatively little crime. Populated mostly by college-educated professionals and students, it's one of the city's only contemporary residential success stories. But in the ten years that have passed since parties signed an option agreement for the building, an eagerly anticipated Dranoff project to build a $400 million mixed-use development along the water's edge still exists only on paper, and stores and restaurants on the ground level of The Victor have come and gone, chiefly failing because of a lack of foot traffic.
Some neighbors worry that Dranoff might abandon the project – and the city – and leave the historic building vulnerable to demolition or eventual collapse. "The longer the building sits with no windows, the more potential for further deterioration of the shell," Latko said.
The Camden Redevelopment Agency (CRA) owns Building 8, with Dranoff serving as the property manager until the day remediation is completed and he purchases it from the city. Dranoff did not respond to several requests for an interview but Sandra Johnson, executive director of the CRA, says not only will Mayor Dana Redd never allow Building 8 to remain in permanent limbo, the project is one of the CRA's top five priorities.
"No, no, no, that's not going to happen. That is not a part of the mayor's vision," she said. "(But) did I think we would be much further along by now? Yes."
Johnson added, though, that she would have to meet soon with Dranoff, who made news last week when The Inquirer reported that an admitted lack of funds was keeping him from beginning to repay a DRPA loan for environmental remediation at The Victor, to ascertain his continuing level of interest. The CRA has already spent $4.7 million worth of public grants on remediation – a figure that was originally expected to cover the entire cost -- and needs $2.1 million more to finish the 15 percent that remains undone.
"We've received no indication that he's backing off but he's a business man so we'll certainly review possible alternatives for him and our city regarding the redevelopment of the Radio Lofts," Johnson said.
"I've already got 700 names on a waiting list - many Victor renters who want to own - and the market will be different when Radio Lofts opens in two years," Dranoff told the Courier-Post two years ago. Three years before that, he acknowledged that he was frustrated with the slow pace of development and attributed it to a high number of personnel changes in city and state licensing and funding agencies. And his website, along with countless old reports and marketing materials published by city organizations, expresses a deep optimism for the impact Radio Lofts can make. "The historic renovation will serve as a residential anchor for the revitalization of the Camden Waterfront," reads a company case study posted on dranoffproperties.com.
Until that happens, Radio Lofts is serving as little more than a haven for drug abusers, and although Latko says police are aware of the problem and have stepped up patrols in recent days, they have yet to stop the flow. Late last month, the CRA cleaned up most of the discarded needles and drug baggies and patched a torn fence that's designed to keep trespassers from entering the building. However, Latko wishes they would erect another gate to prevent people from trespassing on the property.
"We have working families in the neighborhood and I have a daughter. I don't want people shooting up one block from my house," he said. And as for Building 8, "I would love to see the thing fixed but in the meantime I'm not going to let it deteriorate in front of us," he said.
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RCA Factory Building No. 8