According to news this week, the way has been cleared finally for Campbell Soup to acquire the historic Sears building on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Camden. Although Campbell spokesman Anthony Sanzio says the poor economy has raised doubts about the company’s plans to build a suburban-style office center at the site, the presumption is that the Sears building will come down. Camden County NAACP chairman Kelley Francis, a fierce opponent to demolition, thinks Campbell will be content to convert the site to open space so the company sign will be visible from the boulevard. Following the controversy closely over the years, he has never heard Campbell once issue the name of a developer or a even possible tenant for the site.

The Sears building was originally conceived as the anchor to a new gateway to the city, stimulated by the opening of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in 1926. The Campbell vision for the land around its recently expanded national headquarters is just the opposite: a freestanding campus buffered from city neighborhoods and connected to the larger region only by highways, including a connection to I-676 which allows employees to drive into the company campus without ever driving through a Camden neighborhood.

The Campbell plan illustrates everything wrong about suburban office pods smart growth critics have leveled at them.  In relying on auto access, an expanded office site will add both to pollution and to rush hour traffic.  The absence of people on the street other hours could well add to Camden’s already soaring crime problem.

Indeed, Camden has just been named for a second year in a row the second most dangerous city in America. Because this rating applies to 2010, it underestimates the problem.  As the Inquirer also reported this week, homicide is up 30% and robbery up 20% since the first of the year.

Most of the blame for Camden’s current crime crisis has been placed on police layoffs earlier in the year. But the problem is deeper and won’t be solved in the long run by the introduction of more state police or even the bolder move of regionalizing police services.  Such immediate responses are no substitute for a long-term plan: a plan to deal with concentrated poverty, and its attendant social pathologies, which have only gotten worse during the recession,

The Sears building controversy points to a larger failure in vision in Camden, not just by Campbell but also by area leadership.  There’s rumbling out there from some concerned citizens that a new assessment of Camden’s inter-related problems is overdue. Watch here to see if anything serious emerges to meet that pressing need.