Soup giant vs. a hip-hop holdout
Battle over Camden's Sears site simmers.
The entrepreneur charges through the dark, dank historic building at the entrance to Camden, speaking excitedly of its potential and bemoaning the vandals who he says tried to get to him by destroying it.
He is a large man with a wide gait, a gleaming bald head, and a thick Israeli accent that belies the more than 25 years he has lived in Cherry Hill - now in a home built with imported Jerusalem stone.
With broken glass crunching under his feet, he looks around his 1927 Classical Revival structure - known as the Sears building - and asserts that he won't be pushed aside by political insiders who run a Fortune 500 firm with $8 billion in annual revenue.
"I was never afraid of taking on challenges," says the man, Ilan Zaken.
So far, Zaken has put up a remarkable challenge to his formidable foe, the Campbell Soup Co., whose political connections and civic goodwill date to its founding in the city in 1869.
Campbell wants to buy the 110,000- square-foot historic landmark on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, via eminent domain if necessary, and knock it down for an office complex it is developing next to its growing world headquarters. It has won financial support from state officials, approvals from city boards, and challenges in court.
Yet somehow, with help from two savvy attorneys and a litigious city activist, Zaken has delayed these plans, thumbed his nose at the government, and become more than just a fly in Campbell's Chicken Noodle.
The massive two-story structure, whose yellowed bricks and columns have been a popular target of graffiti artists, sits alone just past the Benjamin Franklin Bridge - beautiful in a classical sense, but dilapidated in its current state.
For passengers in the 79,000 vehicles that travel the boulevard each weekday between Philadelphia and South Jersey, it provides a glimpse of what Camden once was, and it tells the story of this town.
The Sears, Roebuck & Co. location opened in 1927, when department stores were showplaces and shoppers did their buying in cities. The bridge had opened a year earlier, and Philadelphians were attracted by the store's 600-space lot.
The store closed in 1971, when the wheels had begun to fall off the once-thriving city. Sears followed the money east and opened in the Moorestown Mall.
Camden was left with a buzz word - redevelopment - and a debate over what that meant. That debate has framed the story of the shell Sears left behind.
Dr. Denim dreams big
Zaken's immigrant success story began at 23, when he rented a booth at a store on Chestnut Street in Center City selling electronics. He quickly moved into the apparel business and found gold in hip-hop fashion.
"I count on my intuition, you call it?" said Zaken, 48, in his first sit-down interview about his years-long fight with Campbell. "I wouldn't be afraid to buy an airline right now. I think it would do very well. I have great ideas."
Aided by relatives, Zaken became the exclusive vendor for several high-end fashion brands, and in 1993 he opened Net, a clothing store off Rittenhouse Square.
"I bought an old building, I fix it, I work myself, I work my ass off, I installed, I paint, I build, I spent a lot of money, I designed it," he recalled. "From that day, nothing could have stopped me."
Today, Zaken is known as Dr. Denim - taken from the name of his shops on South Street and at the Gallery mall in Center City. He owns 12 clothing stores in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, he said.
Zaken spoke in a conference room at Miskeen, the Camden clothing business he opened in 2004 and sold to his brother. Its exterior is covered with graffiti-inspired graphics. Inside, T-shirts in bold colors are designed by young people who look as if they are wearing the clothes they make.
"We decided to do [Miskeen] in Camden because we wanted to bring some life into the area," Zaken said, adding that he hired Camden residents.
Yet it was the Sears building around the corner that he coveted. Since Sears left, it was used intermittently by a disco, a limo dealer, and the city Housing Authority. Much of the time, it sat vacant.
"I loved it from Day One," Zaken said.
But the building had another suitor.
In early 2007 - after Zaken signed an agreement of sale, but months before he closed on the property for $2.75 million - then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine came to town, held up a ceremonial mug of soup, and announced that Campbell would expand its headquarters and help lead the development of a 110-acre office park for other companies.
Touted as part of the state's effort to revitalize the poorest city in New Jersey, the plan included about $23 million in public money to rebuild roads, sewers, and water pipes. The Sears building would have to go.
Today, the company is near completion of its headquarters expansion and is contacting potential developers for the office park. It has spent $93 million on land and construction.
Yet the Sears building remains. With support from city activists concerned about its destruction, Zaken has proposed that it house all of his many operations and include an upscale clothing store. A recording studio also was suggested.
Zaken offered "all of these crazy ideas," and activists "latched on to this fantasy that there was this white knight, a savior for the building," said Campbell spokesman Anthony Sanzio, who said the building had no economic value.
Despite early flirtations with Zaken, public officials have supported Campbell, which threatened to leave the city if the building wasn't demolished. The state Historic Sites Council sided with Zaken, but Corzine's Department of Environmental Protection overruled it. And last week, Camden Mayor Dana Redd released a statement supporting the Cambell plan.
Lacking political juice, Zaken turned to the courts. He provided his own redevelopment attorney, Collingswood Mayor James Maley, to help Camden activist Frank Fulbrook file the most recent suit.
Overplaying his hand?
The ugliness hasn't just played out in courtroom hearings for the five lawsuits filed so far, or at the countless meetings in City Hall.
From the time he signed a sales agreement in May 2006, Zaken said, the building has been sabotaged: electric panels torn out, fire sprinklers broken to flood the floors, sinks ripped from pipes. He said tire marks indicated that a truck had pulled down the front doors.
Joined by two attorneys, Zaken did not accuse anyone specifically. But Richard B. Pressman, one his attorneys, noted that Campbell wouldn't be hurt by the condition of the building, which it intended to demolish.
"This wasn't kids out there joyriding it," Pressman said.
Alluding to Campbell complicity in vandalism is "cowardly" and "patently absurd," Sanzio said. "It's an abandoned building in Camden."
He added that Zaken had done little to prepare the building for occupancy, making it hard to attract interest in the office park.
Zaken blamed the delay on the recession and a drop-off in his retail business. He said Campbell's publicized attempts to raze the property had hurt his ability to rent out the space.
"Sometimes I feel that it becomes personal for them," Zaken said. "And it's wrong!"
On a recent tour, Zaken said he had spent $500,000 to clean the place and replace its roof. A supporter said Zaken had recently had most of the graffiti removed.
The real reason Campbell wants to demolish the building, Zaken said, is so commuters have a better view of the company's sign.
"We had advertising at the end of the Super Bowl," Sanzio responded. "We don't need people . . . to see the Campbell sign to sell more soup."
There have been other distractions. Last year, for example, city officials reported women in hot pants doing a photo shoot in the building, which lacks an occupancy certificate. Zaken said he had nothing to do with that.
And this year, a Camden County man named Tony Merlino launched a Web site, SearsCamden.com, describing a plan to bring in restaurant-equipment dealers, a culinary school, and a museum devoted to the history of Admiral Wilson Boulevard.
"It's going to be one of those David-and-Goliath stories," Merlino said several weeks ago. "Goliath may win, but we have to fight."
Merlino said he was on the verge of announcing the names of investors to buy the building, but he has since not returned calls.
Zaken said he was sticking with his original plan, but he also was considering other uses, such as Merlino's concept or turning the building into a data center to house computer servers.
Mark Willis, a former owner of the Sears property who once believed Zaken wanted to save it, is doubtful.
"He wants that building to sit there until Campbell can't stand it anymore and gives him $5 million," he said. "But he's overplayed his hand."
Back in 2008, after the city's redevelopment plan for the location was thrown out because of a Fulbrook lawsuit, Campbell withdrew its plan for demolition, hoping Zaken would repair the building and make it more attractive.
But Zaken did not sign an agreement with Campbell that contained a time frame for the work. He said there were unreasonable stipulations.
There were direct negotiations, too - including an initial offer, according to Campbell, of $7.75 million. Last year, Campbell said that it was a day away from a deal for just over $3 million, but that Zaken stopped returning calls.
"If he wants more than $3 million, what does he want?" Sanzio asked. "Tell us."
The next steps are for the city's Historic Preservation Commission to make a nonbinding decision on demolition, and for the Camden Redevelopment Agency to pursue acquisition, probably by eminent domain. All of this will likely play out in court.
Unless Zaken gives up and sells.
Asked if he would accept the right price, Zaken dropped his head and remained silent for 20 seconds.
"At this moment, right now, I am not interested in selling this building," he said.
Contact staff writer Matt Katz
at 856-779-3919 or firstname.lastname@example.org.