- Associated Press - Thursday, September 24, 2015

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) - A developer that is remaking the Philadelphia skyline plans a $1 billion transformation of a 16-acre swath of the Camden waterfront, the latest in a series of projects spurred on by the promise of state tax incentives for companies that relocate to the city.

The plan for what’s now a sea of parking lots in one of the nation’s most impoverished places calls for 1.7 million square feet of office space in two towers, along with lower-slung buildings including a hotel, 325 housing units, retail and parking garages in the most expensive single development plan the city has seen. Liberty Property Trust hopes to start construction by fall 2016 and have it completely built in 2019.

The master plan was created by renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern, who said the project will be connected with a park along the river.

“So it’s not just a bunch of buildings and parking lots,” said Stern, designer of the Comcast Center just across the Delaware River in central Philadelphia. “It’s going to be a real urban neighborhood.”

For decades, the site on the formerly industrial waterfront has been a centerpiece for visions of remaking Camden. The proposal is significant enough that Gov. Chris Christie took a break from his presidential campaign to be at the announcement Thursday.

Back in the 1990s, there was a plan to build an aerial tram over the Delaware River to Philadelphia. Then there was supposed to be a museum dedicated to the history of recorded sound, a nod to RCA, which had offices, recording studios and factories there.

Those and other ideas never came to fruition, though the waterfront does have a minor-league baseball stadium, aquarium and concert venue bookending the blank spaces south of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

If the latest hopes for the waterfront are realized, it will be largely because of a 2013 state tax incentive law that has already sparked a building boom in Camden.

“In previous years, the advantages of the Economic Opportunity Act were not in place,” said Louis Cappelli, the director of Camden County’s freeholder board. “That’s the game changer.”

He also said he has confidence in the developer that has signed on.

Liberty Property Trust, based in Malvern, Pennsylvania, has already turned Philadelphia’s former Navy Yard into a thriving office park, it is building a second skyscraper for Comcast, and it manages some of the biggest office buildings in Center City Philadelphia.

Bill Hankowsky, president of Liberty, served as Camden’s planning director back in the 1970s, and he credited southern New Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross for making him aware of the opportunity.

For a time, Norcross and Liberty chairman Bill Hankowsky were both members of a local investment group that owned The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Hankowsky said the developer will not apply for any state tax incentives, but the businesses that relocate there likely would; it’s not clear how much the incentives, which are tied to job creation, might be worth.

Cappelli said a handful of major area companies, including the law firm Archer & Greiner, based in Haddonfield and Philadelphia, and the Cherry Hill-based supply chain company NFI Industries, are among several firms planning to move to the mixed-use development.

Several of the businesses have connections to Norcross, and his insurance company could also move in.

Under New Jersey’s tax incentives, firms that move into Camden can receive tax credits over 10 years equal to the amount they spend on construction. They have to meet conditions, including bringing an agreed-upon number of jobs to the city and keeping them there.

Among those moving already include the Philadelphia 76ers, who are building offices and practice facilities near the waterfront, and Subaru, which is moving its North American headquarters to another section of Camden from suburban Cherry Hill.

So far, nearly all the companies that have agreed to move to Camden have come from nearby towns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Some Camden residents have said they fear that the people who live in the city won’t benefit from the new, mostly white-collar jobs. Hankowsky said that service jobs and the possibility of jobs nearby would boost the city.


Follow Geoff Mulvihill at https://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill

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