In the months following hurricane Sandy, Governor Christie basked in the attention he received for caring about the victims of the storm. The storm brewing on the Delaware River in the City of Camden—a murder rate of epic proportions—received nothing but a cloak of silence from Trenton.
In the new year, the Christie administration has awakened to Camden finally, by determining to sell off land currently occupied since its development in 1999 by the Camden Children’s Garden. The reported beneficiary is the Adventure Aquarium next door, a private operation that apparently eyes the land on its southern border for a new exhibit. The proposed transaction is not being received well locally.
News of the state treasury’s determination to divest the Children’s Garden of three of the four acres it sits upon coincides with the report that Camden was the most dangerous city in America in 2011, beating out Detroit and Flint, Michigan for that dubious honor. With the record-breaking distinction of 67 homicides in 2012, Camden is clearly poised to stay where it is on the list another year.
In an effort to call attention to the human disaster in the city, representatives of Stop Trauma on People (STOP) planted more than 700 symbols—many of them crosses—in front of City Hall Tuesday. These were intended to be reminders of all the victims lost to violence since the homicide record was last set in 1995. In negotiating their willingness to remove the symbols after only one day, STOP got a promise from Camden Mayor Dana Redd to support a conference on trauma this spring. Meanwhile, the fate of the Camden Children’s Garden, one of the few true havens for Camden children, remains very much up in the air.
When I talked to members of the Treasury staff Monday, they assured me that their proposal to keep a portion of the land for Garden operations was a “win-win” proposal. What they apparently meant by that is that there will be an upgraded facility on the waterfront, while the Camden Garden Club, which operates the garden, can continue its many good works in bringing fresh food to city residents and offering programs in the schools. As Inga Saffron and Virginia Smith point out so forcefully in today’s Inquirer, however, the garden has a value of its own that can’t be replaced by a commercial exhibit.
At issue is the Garden Club’s right to operate on the land. Camden City Council authorized the Garden Club to develop the garden. The city’s redevelopment agency, however, reportedly transferred the land to the state. I say reportedly because there is no record as yet of a resolution to that effect. According to Dwaine Williams in the redevelopment agency, the state only filed the deed on the land in the last year, even though the transaction took place before the garden was developed.
When the state authorized the privatization of the aquarium as part of its decision to take effective control over the governance of Camden in 2002, it provided a $25 million subsidy to the new owners to build new exhibit space. In return, the new owner, Steiner and Associates of Columbus, Ohio, was obliged to develop new housing and commercial space on the open land between the facility and the ballpark to the north. That land still remains vacant. Ownership of the aquarium has since changed hands, but it does not seem unreasonable to ask the state to put any interests that facility might have for further development in the context of the obligations it took on in 2002.
When the state gave up the aquarium, it was also understood, though apparently not made part of any contractual arrangement, that joint admissions to the garden and the aquarium would assure revenue for the smaller non-profit. That arrangement, had it been kept in place, would have assured a revenue stream for the garden, facilitating a proper lease agreement with the state that would not necessarily involve state subsidy. Without such an arrangement, the garden is stymied in negotiating a proper return to the state for use of the land.
Earlier this week, I urged the treasurer’s office to seek an outside mediator to examine the problem of the lease. In the meantime, sympathy is building for the garden. At the very least, the state needs to look at the big picture, not just on the waterfront, but in the city. When it takes in the trauma associated with the unprecedented violence in the city, it would do well to credit the garden—a Camden institution serving children in Camden and the region—as an asset worth preserving. This is not Sandy, and it’s not billions of dollars. But, believe me, more than just property is at stake. The wellbeing of children in Camden deserves to be weighted heavily in any calculation on the future of this piece of land.