For Camden neighborhood, park project promises to open up a path to the river

Officials drove their cars around semitrucks and shipping crates and parked in the large space between a licorice factory and Camden County's waste water treatment plant.

This industrial five-acre lot on Camden's Waterfront South is slated to become Phoenix Park come Spring. It would be the neighborhood's first access point to the Delaware River and a welcome escape for the community which has for decades been impeded from its riverbank by power, sewer and cement plants, and an incinerator.

"This community has been considered one of the top environmental justice communities in the state," Camden County Municipal Utilities Director Andrew Kricun said referring to a Department of Environmental Protection designation given to communities severely affected by pollution.

"This is an environmental justice project in that it provides citizens with access to the riverfront, access to a beautiful view of the Philadelphia skyline, a nice place for picnics, to see a sunset, or to throw a Frisbee around," Kricun said.

At a groundbreaking Thursday, it was hard to imagine a green space blanketing the concrete slab blocked off by fencing that obstructed any view of the water.

It was a bit of a déjà vu scenario - officials held a "ground breaking" for the same park in 2012 but that time it was to launch the demolition of the American Minerals Inc. factory building which had stood vacant on the land for years.

This time, state, county, and city officials gathered in a parking lot, adjacent to where the park will be, to ceremonially plunge shiny shovels into a prepared mound of dirt lying on the ground.

Plans for the park include a kayak launch, green space, a pier, and a connecting pathway to nearby landlocked Liney Ditch Park.

A six-foot-high berm is also planned to separate the park from the treatment plant. Lorna Davis, a 30-year resident of Waterfront South wondered if that would eliminate the smell from the plant which hung in the air Thursday.

"It'll be a visual screen but not a barrier from the odor," said Jeremiah Bergstrom, a landscape architect with Rutgers Cooperative Extension, which designed the plans.

Phoenix Park gets its name from a large park in Ireland - a tribute to Irish-born Father Michael Doyle, a fixture in Camden, who has been advocating for access to the water for more than 30 years.

"The people of Camden have a right to that which inspires or uplifts the spirit," Doyle said in an interview. "People will gather here. Children will play, they will see sunsets and beauty."

The park is being funded by $800,000 of county Open Space money, as one of five CCMUA environmental projects.

The CCMUA purchased the land for $903,500, according to property records, from Jefferson Property Partners L.L.C. in 2010. Jefferson had purchased the land from American Minerals Inc. for $460,000 in 2008.

Kricun said the reason for the higher purchasing price was that Jefferson agreed to sell the property and complete demolition of the factory, which had been vacant for decades.

Kelly Francis, a longtime activist and president of the city's NAACP chapter, has vehemently argued against the park at CCMUA meetings. He says making the land - originally zoned as industrial space - a county-owned park, deprives Camden of needed tax money.

This summer two waterfront properties were promised to the 76ers and Holtec, a nuclear energy company, along with high state tax breaks.

Kricun said no companies had expressed interest in the Phoenix Park site and that the park will also help with flood mitigation, as part of CCMUA's ongoing green efforts in the area.

In the process of building the park, the county will need to remediate the contaminated soil left on the site. Francis questioned why American Minerals, which manufactured cosmetic and industrial powders, isn't on the hook for the cleanup.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club, commended the project but said the city needs to do more than build a park to help the community.

"This area also has some of the worst air quality in the nation," Tittel said in a statement. "What they really need to do to help the Camden Waterfront community is close the incinerator and cement plant."

The neighborhood was once so polluted and mired in decay, former Mayor Melvin "Randy" Primas said it would be "irresponsible" to add any more residential housing to the area. The city had to dispel rumors it was considering demolishing homes and razing the entire neighborhood.

In recent years, organizations like the Heart of Camden have built hundreds of homes in Waterfront South, fought against a proposed methadone clinic, installed rain gardens and built a new gymnasium. The South Camden Theater Company, across from Sacred Heart School, starts its 10th season in the fall.

Mayor Redd, who grew up in South Camden, said just like the phoenix, "who rose from its ashes, Camden is in the midst of its rebirth."

Barbara Pfeiffer, a resident since 1986, called the park "a great thing" but said living among industry can be a challenge - she's often woken up by the grinding metal of Camden Iron and Metal, which operates five blocks away.

"For us, any green space is good."

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso