At Camden's Subaru site, plans for a city within a city

The metal skeleton of the future Subaru of America headquarters in Camden stands alone on a plot of land just off the Admiral Wilson Boulevard, surrounded by dirt and empty roads.

But Brandywine Realty Trust, the Radnor-based firm that is developing the site, is betting that an influx of businesses, increased public transit access, and other investments will transform the area into a commercial hub and retail corridor, flanked by parks and bike trails. Plans for the 13-acre site include an additional 1.5 million square feet of office space, a new PATCO station with a plaza, a walkway to the bank of the Cooper River, and a hotel for business travelers.

If built as envisioned, the Knights Crossing development could function almost as a self-contained city in what is now a desolate part of Camden.

"Hopefully as the neighborhood evolves, retail will pop up and employers will want to come here," said Brian Berson, vice president of development for Brandywine, who shared new details of the plan last week. "If we design it correctly, people will want to be here."

Berson acknowledged that some might criticize the creation of a neighborhood apart from the rest of the city, a place that would give employees few incentives to explore the rest of Camden. But he said the company's goal is to make the area a more welcoming destination for both Camden's daytime and full-time populations.

"What's the alternative? Not improving these blocks?" he asked. "The whole city is improving. I hope that we're all improving pieces of Camden, and that it continues to become a more rich, diverse place. We can't control the rest of the city, but we can improve this piece."

Subaru, which is moving four miles away from its current location in Cherry Hill, announced its relocation to Camden in 2014, after it was awarded $118 million in state tax incentives under the Economic Opportunity Act. The credits, spread over 10 years, are conditional on Subaru creating or saving at least 100 jobs and remaining in Camden for 15 years.

Subaru was the site's first anchor tenant announced after the nearby Campbell Soup Co. bought the property in 2012, demolished the former Sears building, and hired Brandywine to develop the land.

Brandywine plans a series of buildings with office space for rent, connected by streets with restaurants and shops. Berson hopes a vacant stretch of 10th Street will become a strip of shops and restaurants and parks will offer benches and green space. A network of bike paths will link paths in Camden, Philadelphia, and beyond to farther-flung parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Several developers have expressed interest in putting a hotel in the area to accommodate traveling visitors to Subaru and Campbell's, Berson said.

A planned transit hub would connect PATCO to Philadelphia and the rest of New Jersey, said Jeffrey Nash, vice chairman of the Delaware River Port Authority. The site could also link to the long-planned Glassboro-Camden light rail line.

The new PATCO station is one of several improvements planned for Camden's public transportation, Nash said.

"Pretty soon there's going to be an influx of new employees coming into Camden, and the DRPA and PATCO have to accommodate that," he said.

The Camden location will be the new home base for Subaru's U.S. operations, bringing together four offices. In addition to the 250,000-square-foot headquarters, the company will build an 83,000-square-foot training facility. The project, which broke ground a year ago, is expected to be completed by the end of 2017.

In all, the state Economic Development Authority has promised more than $1.5 billion in tax credits to companies that agree to relocate to Camden, including Lockheed-Martin, Holtec, and the 76ers, which built a gym on the waterfront last year.

Critics of the Economic Opportunity Act have said the deals are too generous because they largely involve the relocation of high-paying jobs from elsewhere in South Jersey, with no strategies aimed at addressing Camden's chronic unemployment. Subaru's move will draw more than 500 existing jobs to the city and create about 100, but those positions are unlikely to match the qualifications of many of Camden's long-term unemployed. The move will also result in Subaru's paying far less in property taxes than it did in Cherry Hill, meaning it will have a nominal impact on the city's anemic tax base.

Critics of the Subaru plan, meanwhile, have complained that the company's location is so isolated from the city's downtown restaurants and other commercial corridors that members of the workforce would have to drive in order to patronize local businesses.

The EDA credits do not mandate that businesses invest in Camden, something that has frustrated community activists over the last several years.

Ray Lamboy, head of Camden's nonprofit Latin American Economic Development Association, has for years advocated that companies moving to Camden be made to sign community benefit agreements. Over the months, he became discouraged as city officials shut him and others out of the negotiating process, he said.

"At the end of the day, the community wants to see something in return for the tax-free land these companies are getting," he said.

In recent months, several companies have begun sketching out agreements with City Hall to contribute to Camden's community programs, provide job training, and more. Liberty Property Trust, which last month began work on an ambitious project to build offices, a hotel, and parks on the waterfront, signed a community investment agreement with Camden officials to recruit city residents for construction jobs, establish apprenticeships, and offer paid student internships. Liberty's agreement, which a representative of the company said is legally binding, also calls for investments in youth sports programs and a mural arts initiative. Subaru has already created a program aimed at training young people in mechanics.

Berson, of Brandywine, believes that as more companies move to Camden, more investment in the city will follow.

"We have a group of people waiting to see if the experiment has worked," he said. "It is not our intent to build Subaru and leave."

asteele@phillynews.com

856-779-3876@AESteele

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