Development swirls around S. Jersey's transit hub, but can drugs and homelessness be shed?

Regular transit rider Lena Adams, 26, waits with her 2-year-old for a bus. Behind them is Adaia Ingram. "Some people just aren't fortunate to make it," Adams said of some Rand denizens.

On a cool, bright May day in 1989, New Jersey’s Gov. Thomas Kean, accompanied by a jazz band and applause, made a prediction in the newly opened Camden Transportation Center’s atrium.

"Good times are coming to Camden," he said. "The good times can now get here by bus and they can get here by train."

Twenty-eight years later, Debbie Murphy, 55, reclined on a bench in that same atrium and snored. Times aren’t so good for her.

“There’s shelters but they’re so far away you have to walk, and it’s cold out there,” Murphy said. “I just say, sit here.”

She’s one of more than a dozen slumped on slatted wooden benches in what is now called the Walter Rand Transportation Center at the junction of Broadway and Martin Luther King Boulevard. They are surrounded by sacks and bags, like weary holiday travelers stranded by bad weather far from home. But no homes awaited them, and although some had bus tickets, they weren’t going anywhere. Police let the homeless chill in the terminal, Murphy said, if they can plausibly pass as someone waiting for a bus.

Outside, where buses idle and a light rail train clatters past, young, wiry men cough softly, “loosie, loosie,” hawking smokes at 50 cents a cig. Less than a block behind them a portent of change rises. Rutgers-Camden’s new nursing school is nearly finished, the latest in a torrent of demolition and development remaking the area into an education and medical mecca and sparking major redevelopment dreams for the transportation center itself.

Rand, named after a late state senator with a passion for transportation, is the nexus of South Jersey’s public transit, reaching Philadelphia and Camden County by PATCO, Burlington County and Trenton via the River Line light rail, and throughout the rest of the region on 23 NJ Transit bus routes. It's a transit confluence that developers and planners dream about. They foresee a modern, multistory transit hub with stores, offices, and apartments. The first step, a market feasibility study, is underway. Redevelopment of Rand could begin as soon as 2021.

“Urban centers would kill to have the kind of transportation that we have,” said Kris Kolluri, CEO of the joint Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden board of governors, which has driven development in Camden’s downtown. 

Change, though, will require more than shiny new buildings. The drug trade throbs around the transit center, and there are concerns about the homeless who rely on Rand. Along with shelter from the elements, Rand is a magnet for the destitute because of its proximity to social services, said Christina Lemma, program director for Camden County Volunteers of America’s homeless outreach team. Plans to move those services elsewhere could be a positive, but Camden -- while good at providing services -- is less adept at offering beds, she said.

On the blocks around Rand, as storefronts and restaurants make way for academia, Camden’s people worry they will be made unwelcome in their own city.

“Everything is going to change," said Lamar Adams, 27, as he waited at one of Rand’s outdoor bus shelters for a ride to a rehab program in Turnersville. "Camden’s going to be a whole different environment.”

About 9,000 people a day use the Rand's three modes of travel. Lawyers share space with ex-cons. Parents with children wait with addicts craving a fix. Students, workers, pushers, and crooks all pass through.

In the bus terminal’s atrium, Erika Eckler sat, ear buds inserted, among the homeless in a red Rutgers sweater and backpack. She got to Rand by bus from her Cinnaminson home, and was waiting for another to take her to class at Camden County College in Gloucester Township.

“You see a lot of characters down here,” the 29-year-old said.

She has never felt unsafe, she said, but “every time I'm down here you get asked for a cigarette, you get asked to use your phone, you get asked for a dollar.”

Across Broadway, on the platform beneath the pyramid-roofed PATCO Broadway station, Patricia Clarke, 62, awaited the train to Philadelphia. The Center City properties manager from Pemberton got to Camden after boarding the River Line at the Burlington South Station. Her commute takes an hour and 20 minutes.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s my peace before I do my job.”

In Camden, 35 percent of households have no car, compared with 14 percent in the region, according to the U.S. Census. Getting around often means a stop at Rand. Lena Adams, 26, a Fairview woman shuttling her children between home and school, has been using the transportation hub since she was a student at Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy. She takes the bus now to drop her son off at Camden County Charter School. She waited in the PATCO station with her 2-year-old daughter for her next bus, and said she is accustomed to the begging and drug use.

“Some people just aren’t fortunate to make it and some people choose to be this way,” she said.

For some, Rand is the last stop. Missing people’s families regularly search Camden with one ominous clue: last seen at the transit center. Like Jenna Lord in 2010 or Gerald O’Bryant in 2013, the missing sometimes turn up dead in a forlorn corner of the city after overdosing.

Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson notes that the city’s infamous drug trade thrives on suburban customers. For many, Rand is their entry point.

One suburbanite with a heroin habit used to call Gloucester Township and Somerdale home, and spent his winter nights under a railroad bridge. P.J., who didn’t want to give his full name, said that by 1 p.m. his first bag of heroin that day had worn off and he was 70 cents short of the cost of another. He carried a jokey sign — “Bet you can’t hit me with a quarter” — and begged for change to “get what I need.”

Tackling the drug trade has been a priority of Camden’s police, and it’s a must for the area around Rand to be welcoming for students and educators. The department has eliminated half the city's drug-selling locations in two years, said Louis Cappelli, Camden County’s freeholder director. The trade has adapted by moving indoors, but is far less visible.

Redevelopment surrounds Rand like a halo. This spring, construction should begin on a Broadway block catty-corner to Rand to raise a $70 million, 65,000-square-foot Joint Health Sciences Center for Rutgers and Rowan. In two months, stores on the other side of Broadway should also be acquired by the Rowan/Rutgers Joint Board. The center will expand there.

The corner of Broadway and Federal Street opposite Rand is also vacant, cleared of the Commerce Building in 2015. By late 2018, the county's Aletha R. Wright Administration Building should also be gone to make way for green space.

The redevelopment frenzy is one reason politicians say a revitalized Camden is more likely today than when Kean made the same promise nearly 30 years ago.

“The momentum is too strong to stop,” said Kolluri.

A new transportation center is central to the development plan for Camden’s downtown, but what that will look like is uncertain. The $125,000 market feasibility study by the engineering and design firm AECOM should be done in September, but planners already know they want certain elements.

Indoor bus boarding, for one. Rand has a large bus bay, but buses also pick up directly on Broadway in front of the terminal and across the street. A long-promised light rail from Gloucester County to the Rand is a possibility. The new structure could also be multi-story, Cappelli said.

“If you go above it, there’s opportunity for economic development.” 

A 2013 report on downtown Camden estimated that new development could attract up to 5,000 students and almost 600 workers as residents. Apartments above a transit hub, within walking distance of schools and government buildings, could be prized. 

The 2013 report from the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership proposed $18.5 million for a redesigned transportation center, but that number may not match the final cost. Money, of course, is an issue. 

“NJ Transit is out of money, is the number-one obstacle,” Cappelli said. The agency, which owns the Rand, said it was working with Camden County on the center’s development.

Some funding will likely come from a public-private partnership, Cappelli said. New Jersey’s transportation trust fund could also be a source, and officials are hopeful about White House promises for major infrastructure investment.

The redevelopment plans are sure to change downtown Camden, which worries some. Miaton Fitzpatrick waited for a bus to visit his daughter in the Centerville neighborhood, and said any homes in a new transit hub likely wouldn’t be occupied by Camden residents because nearly 40 percent of them live below the poverty line.

“That would bring more money to the community but I also think that’s going to shut out the minorities that are here that can’t afford to get these houses,” he said.

The services most needed by the region’s poor and homeless - food stamps, Medicaid, child support, and other public assistance - are housed in the Aletha Wright building, and they will be moved to Mount Ephraim Avenue when that is demolished. A methadone clinic nearby on Fifth Street is also moving.

Lemma has mixed feelings about the homeless at Rand. It’s indoors and it’s a place where providers like herself know they can reach people, she said. But the homeless there need help with mental-health problems and addiction. Shifting services away from downtown Camden to Mount Ephraim Avenue, where there is also job-training assistance, could be a positive, she said. “It would also be nice to have everything in close proximity.” 

Shelter is needed most, she said. There are 350 beds for the homeless in Camden, county officials said, and without more, the region’s homeless will still need a place to stay.

Camden County is considering a 24-hour day intake center for the homeless, county spokesman Dan Keashen said. There are also plans to invest in homeless housing and an office of mental health and addiction.

Those involved with development, such as Kolluri, said a new transit center would not displace people. 

“Everybody that uses the station for transportation services should still be able to use it,” he said. “This isn’t a mechanism through which we intend to gentrify the neighborhood.”

Back outside the Rand, people are running hustles a world apart from the eds and meds corridor to come.

In winter, a Senegalese man sold clothes and watches from a sidewalk stand. Near the RiverLine platform, hack cab drivers awaited fares. Near the bus shelters, men hawked white T-shirts and portable phone chargers. 

In the PATCO station, Steven Steed,  46 and without a home, spotted a travel mug left atop a ticketing machine.

“You know the law of the land,” he said, claiming it. “Finders keepers.”                                                            

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