CAMDEN, NJ — Much of the talk around the city’s oft-heralded rise comes in the context of new businesses.
But an overhauled East Camden forested area with a series of trails offers a departure from that—and a unique point of interest.
Officials on Wednesday opened the Cramer Hill Nature Preserve, a once-polluted 35-acre site bordering Pennsauken, offering area residents a retreat from the urban landscape.
“One of the greatest components of a revitalization is to ensure the quality of life for the people who live here, and that’s what this nature preserve is all about,” Freeholder Jeff Nash said.
Between Farragut Avenue and 36th street, the vast area of greenery, plants, and wildlife links the community to Delaware River shoreline across from Petty’s Island.
Two years of cleanup by the South Jersey Land & Water Trust resulted in the restoration of the grounds, which sit in the city’s Biedman neighborhood. The Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority secured close to $500,000 for the renovation project borrowed through a New Jersey Infrastructure Bank program.
Officials hope the preserve’s official designation—the area is fitted with violation signs, a welcome nameplate, fencing, and cameras—will halt the cycle of illegal activity that occurred on the grounds for years.
“We want people to understand that they're not dumping on a vacant lot; this is a park for the community and it should be respected that way," said Andy Kricun, director of the CCMUA. "The thought process was to convert this from a nuisance to an asset for the community."
The space has been plagued by dumping and ATV offroading since the site’s sewage treatment facilities were relocated to the city's south in 1990. Camden opened the plant in 1948 and managed its operations for 30 years before the CCMUA took over.
In the rough stretch of time since the demolishing of the plant, Kricun said that officials have looked to bring a park to the grounds.
One step in that process came in 2006 when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Brownfield Reuse identified the potential of the area, according to Olivia Glenn, NJDEP Director of Parks and Forestry. Then in 2013, the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust secured a conservation easement on the land.
“So while the cleanup from the illegal dumping was ongoing, we knew that the trajectory for this project was safe, that this place would eventually become an urban oasis,” Glenn said.
Heading down the front steps of his house, Norman Lee crossed the street and settled at the reserve fence to view Wednesday's news conference.
Lee, who has owned the property for 11 years, quickly noticed a difference in the area as the cleaning started.
"I haven't seen any dumping; before it used to be bad," Lee said. "You can see more of the wildlife coming out. It just gives it that natural feeling."
The preserve is the third riverfront park recently created in the city, joining Phoenix Park (South Camden) and Gateway Park (Admiral Wilson Blvd.). All are in partnership with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
As part of the Camden Collaborative Initiative, organizations have helped “green” 125 acres of the city.