CAMDEN, NJ — It’s been almost exactly a year since the old Campbell’s Field on Camden’s waterfront was leveled.
It wasn’t a melancholy loss, though.
With its demolition came the promise of new athletic fields and facilities for the city and the Rutgers-University Camden — notably the school’s NCAA Division III baseball team, as well as exhibitions for softball, soccer, lacrosse and field hockey.
However, in the year since engineers and architects have worked to develop the parcel of land, locals say they haven’t had a fair share of say about the project.
"We're not asking for a million things in the world. We just want routine open hours...[so] people from any part of the neighborhood down there can walk into the field with no problems," resident Ben Saracco said during a Planning Board meeting Thursday. “If it's going to be run as a public park in this city, it needs to have meaningful public access.”
Saracco explained that in the past year he and other neighbors have reached out to the Camden County Improvement Authority (CCIA) and Rutgers University to host more community gatherings to no avail.
The Rowan-Rutgers Board of Governors, Ewing Cole, the design firm handling the project, and engineering firm, Pennoni, are also involved in the project.
During the meeting, CCIA Chief Operating Officer James Lex, a Ewing Cole engineer and an architect submitted preliminary work to the city board as part of a courtesy review.
The nature of the review only allows the board to submit recommendations to planners, which don’t have to be adhered to.
At the start of their presentation Thursday, Lex said, “that because Camden County is involved that [the project] is going to have a public component” but it “hasn't been final how those uses are going to be worked out yet.”
He also said a community access agreement will also take place down the line.
The field, owned by the CCIA since 2015, cost $1.1 million to demolish.
Although they haven’t been formally named, the Planning Board agenda item was listed as “Project: Rutgers Camden Athletic Fields.”
Pending Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permits, construction on the field — which will cost $15 million to build — is expected to start this summer.
The project cost will be divided by Rutgers and Camden’s finance board, which the city would aim to make up with Green Acres funds from the state.
Camden County spokesperson Dan Keashen said it will likely open in the spring of 2021.
In one sense, “we’re really excited for the potential of more recreational assets in the city,” President of the Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association, Jonathan Latko, told TAPinto Camden over the phone. “But I think there’s been a history of green-acre assets that Rutgers controls that we haven’t had a clear understanding of community access over.”
Saracco noted that visitors that don't have scheduled-use of Rutgers-Camden's current park on Pearl Street will be greeted by a padlock upon arrival.
Latko hopes local entities like the North Camden Little League and Youth Soccer League will be able to play sports, run track and fully access the new field with ease. He said thus far the only significant input for the project has come from Rutgers-Camden Athletic Director Jeff Dean, which is noteworthy but not enough.
In a statement sent to TAPinto Camden following the meeting, Rutgers-Camden spokesperson Mike Sepanic said, “We share the community’s enthusiasm for this new athletic complex. It has the potential to promote healthy lifestyles and offer new opportunities for recreation. We understand the need to maximize access for everyone and look forward to working together with our neighbors and partners.”
Sepanic highlighted more than 700 hours of community-activity that occurred between 2016 and 2018 at the school’s other field on Pearl Street by groups including The Joseph Fund, Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association and the NCLL.
He also noted the community’s welcomed use of the Walter K. Gordon Theater, Campus Center, and the Robeson Library.
Concerns and recommendations
A 15-page list of recommendations was read at-length during the meeting, after the Planning Board received a project layout on Jan. 24.
The review notes among other things that 26 trees are slated for removal as part of the application, a traffic impact assessment should be submitted for review and trash receptacles should be placed every 200 feet along road frontages.
“I would just ask that you circle back with the Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association, the Concerned Citizens of North Camden, and any other groups that have reached out to you,” said Jessica Franzini, of Camden Lutheran Housing Inc. at the meeting.
Franzini, a longtime community advocate who clarified she doesn’t live in the city, provided a list of concerns and suggestions from residents.
These include: Penn Street and Delaware Avenue require major work as it lacks crosswalks and flooding is common, bus drop-offs should be established, routine open hours for access to the fields (without needing to call ahead) should be publicized, a 24/7 phone line should be set up for residents with after-hours issues, and complimentary admission to sporting events should be provided to Camden residents.
Keashen said the county will continue to have open dialogue with the community as the field comes to fruition.