Where the bald eagle and owl dwell in Camden

The Delaware River's back channel shimmers between the Camden shore and the lush, green expanse of Pettys Island.

Beyond the trees, Center City's highest peaks rise toward a silvery late-afternoon sky.

"This is it," says Andy Kricun, my guide on a tour of a little-known, long-neglected beauty spot in the city that's expected to open next year as the Cramer Hill Nature Preserve.

The site encompasses about 30 acres and is bounded by North 32nd Street, the Pettys Island bridge at North 36th Street, Farragut Avenue, and the river.

"It's sort of an oasis of nature in a highly developed area," says Michael Hogan, of the preservation group South Jersey Land and Water Trust.

"There's a bald eagle habitat, deer, migratory birds. I've heard an owl in there," adds Hogan, one of the volunteers who has helped clear hundreds of discarded tires from the site.

The land is owned by the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, which demolished a sewage-treatment plant at 32nd and Farragut in 1990 and built a fish spawning pool and other improvements.

But illegal dumping "has endangered the environmental resources here," notes Kricun, the authority's executive director.

"By creating the preserve, we're getting rid of what has been a nuisance to people who live here," he says. "We're protecting the flora and fauna, and providing people with an opportunity to see the river."

Construction of a walking path from Farragut Avenue and installation of lighting, signage, and security cameras will cost about $250,000.

The work is expected to start next spring; a zero-interest loan from a state financing agency called the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust will cover the costs.

"The goal is to do the right thing with this place," says Kricun, noting that the area was envisioned more than a decade ago as part of the failed Cherokee redevelopment project.

The demolition, displacement, and disruption that would have been inflicted on Cramer Hill under the Cherokee proposal may account for the lingering skepticism of some longtime residents - even toward the welcome prospect of a nature preserve.

"They should meet with the entire neighborhood and see what the neighborhood wants and how they want it," says Jose Santiago, 76, a retired city employee who has lived in Cramer Hill for 35 years.

"I like the idea of having a park," says Mary Cortes, 60, who is president of the currently inactive Cramer Hill Residents Association. "We always wanted something like that."

But like Santiago, Cortes is concerned about having the preserve patrolled solely by the Camden County Police. Without additional security, the rather secluded spot "will invite a lot of problems," she says.

Mike Hagan, 62, a musician whose home at 32nd and Farragut overlooks the site, is enthusiastic. "We have to iron out some of the wrinkles to make sure it doesn't become a dumping ground," he says. "But it's absolutely visionary. The best thing that could happen. The answer to a prayer."

Created mostly from Delaware River dredge spoils in the first half of the 20th century, the swath of wetlands, woods, and waterfront "has quite a diversity of native trees and plants," Hogan says.

The area has been substantially cleaned up, thanks to a partnership among government agencies and private organizations, including the New Jersey Audubon Society and the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust.

The partnership is called the Camden Collaborative Initiative and was established by Robert Martin, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, in 2013.

The initiative has been able to successfully steward the site so far; advocates hope the site will eventually become part of a larger Pettys Island preserve.

"A conservation easement has been placed on the CCMUA property to protect it in perpetuity, thanks to Andy Kricun's persistent hard work," says Frank McLaughlin, the DEP liaison to the initiative.

The natural lands trust "is working closely with the CCMUA and is very excited about expanding the partnership," says chairman Michael Catania.

A shipping terminal on the island is expected to cease operations by the end of 2017, he says, adding that a cleanup of oil-storage facilities there should be finished by 2020.

The nearly 300-acre island would be conveyed to the trust.

Kricun notes that while much of Camden is surrounded by or near water, residents of Cramer Hill and other sections have been long cut off from the Delaware and the Cooper.

"People who live in this neighborhood can't even see the river," he says.

Soon, thanks to the Cramer Hill Nature Preserve, they'll get a chance.