He gave a Camden star new life

Among his works, RCA factory's transformation still stands tall.

An exquisitely detailed scale model of the Victor Lofts building commands a corner of the lobby at Dranoff Properties.

On the wall above hangs a reproduction of the Camden landmark's stained-glass "Nipper" window.

An almost life-size figurine of the RCA pooch himself sits, head cocked as if listening to his master's voice, on the floor below.

"The first time I saw the inside of the building, I had to get boots, the water was so deep," says Carl Dranoff, whose Philadelphia firm welcomed the first tenants to the $55 million, 341-unit complex on Sept. 3, 2003.

The former RCA Victor factory, he notes, had been vacant for a decade.

"I'll always be the person who turned an eyesore into an asset," Dranoff says. "No one can take that away from me. No matter what happens."

The respected developer says he has been receiving unsolicited inquiries about the Victor since last spring. He adds that with Camden's turnaround finally underway, Dranoff Properties will consider selling but only "if we get an offer that meets our needs."

The Victor's many young tenants, popular pub, and other amenities have brought new life to the Camden waterfront and adjacent Cooper-Grant neighborhood.

"The worry is that whoever buys the Victor will end up having to raise the rents," Rutgers-Camden student and blogger Brian K. Everett says. "There are worries about people leaving."

"The Victor Building is an asset . . . and [its] continued success is important to the City of Camden," city spokesman Vincent Basara says in an e-mail. "We expect to continue our relationship with Dranoff Properties, and we expect the building will always be a highly desirable location."

Dranoff, 66, built his reputation by transforming formerly industrial or commercial buildings in Philadelphia into hip residential addresses. His emphasis has in recent years shifted to new construction, particularly along South Broad Street in Center City. Coming projects include One Theater Square, an apartment tower set to break ground in January near the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts in Newark.

The Victor - built before World War I to house cabinetmaking operations for Victrola record players - nevertheless remains one of Dranoff's signature projects. It is prominently featured on his website and in promotional materials, and the developer, a history buff, has put several Victrolas from his collection on display in his headquarters on South Broad.

"The Victor was probably the most difficult building I ever did," he says, noting that financing took three years to assemble. The last piece, for a final round of environmental cleanup, was underwritten by a $3 million loan from the Delaware River Port Authority.

Dranoff says he will pay off the full amount - including about $1 million in interest - on Jan. 31, 2015, whether or not he decides to sell the building.

"I have pumped $2 million into the property in the last 12 years," he says. "I have not taken one dime out of the property."

The Victor was Dranoff's first venture in Camden; the nearby RCA Building #8 has long been envisioned as his second.

But conversion of the structure into an 86-unit condominium complex called Radio Lofts has been held up for years by environmental cleanup costs.

Currently owned by the Camden Redevelopment Agency, the building once housed metal manufacturing operations, says Fred Barnum, author of a company history titled "His Master's Voice" in America.

Water used to fight a seventh-floor fire in the 1970s spread PCBs, dioxin, and other toxic substances, which penetrated concrete floor slabs, Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, says in an e-mail.

Although the department approved an $865,243 grant for the work in 2013, the city Redevelopment Agency "has not closed on the grant with the N.J. Economic Development Authority," Hajna adds.

Noting that the state's cleanup standards are lower for structures that will not be put to residential use, Dranoff says reconfiguring Radio Lofts as an office and retail project may be the way to go.

"The Victor proved people could love living on the Camden waterfront," he says. "We want to be in Camden for a long time. But we no longer have to take a lead role."

The Victor is the last great industrial structure left from Camden's heyday, and Dranoff is justifiably proud of having brought it back to life.

"I think I've been a good steward of the building," he says.

Let's hope the next owner has a similar aspiration.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.philly.com/blinq

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