CAMDEN, NJ—On the corner of Copewood and Davis streets, hidden behind overgrown bushes and weeds, lies the abandoned Camden Laboratories site. It sits caddy-corner to one of the city’s high schools, Brimm Medical Arts Academy, and is near the baseball fields, football fields and playgrounds of Whitman Park.
Abandoned since 2008, the former medical bio-tech facility has also been the largest illegal dumping site in the state.
However, on Wednesday, federal, state and local officials announced plans to transform the abandoned and contaminated complex into an open, recreational space that will serve as an expansion of Whitman Park.
The project is being spearheaded by the Camden Collaborative Initiative [CCI], a partnership between more than 70 governmental, non-profit, private and community-based agencies working to improve the environment and the quality of life for the city’s residents, and Camden County Freeholder Jeffrey Nash.
“One day they are going to write a book about how to revitalize a struggling urban community, and that book is going to be written about the great City of Camden,” Nash said.
In 2016, the CCI removed over 500 tons of debris from the site. Now, with over $1 million in total grant money from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the six decrepit buildings on the site will be demolished, and an estimated 1,000 tons of soil contaminated with mercury will be removed.
In April, the city received a total of $400,000 in federal funding through two United States Environmental Protection Agency brownfields grants for the cleanup of hazardous waste at two sites within the city — one being the Camden Labs site. The EPA has also provided over $500,000 in assessment and cleanup grants for the almost four-acre site, and $200,000 for the Camden Redevelopment Agency to work with the community on developing an area-wide plan and strategy.
“Camden has been overburdened for too many years by environmental and public health hazards, from pollution and contamination that has threatened the city’s air, water and land,” Catherine McCabe, acting commissioner for the NJDEP, said. “We all recognize that cleaner environments promote stronger communities and that’s what we’re here for.”
Officials expect the transformation to be one of the many examples to come of one of the CCI’s main goals — to put and end to illegal dumping in the city. Cooper’s Ferry Partnership President and CEO Kris Kolluri called illegal dumping one of the single biggest social justice issues in Camden.
“Nothing is more harmful to a person’s health, to a person’s environment and to the general image than illegal dumping,” Kolluri said.
Mayor Frank Moran said that in addition to transforming blighted properties like the Camden Laboratories site, the city is also planning on raising the fines for illegal dumping and posting signage at main entry points into the city’s neighborhoods warning illegal dumpers of the consequences. The end goal, he said, is to redevelop the land where the illegal dumping takes place.
“What good of it is for us to remediate this property and leave it an open lot where it just becomes inviting,” Moran said. “We’re going to continue working on remediating and going after grants because we don’t the resources or the bonding capacity to go after real dollars, and then subsequently we’re going to sell the properties for redevelopment.
The city is also one of 14 finalists nationwide for the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge 2018. If selected, the city receive up to $1 million in funding to convert vacant lots in Camden from illegal dumping sites into public art spaces.
The proposed project is a collaborative effort between the City of Camden, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership [CFP] and Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts to turn vacant lots along the northern side of PATCO transit line — often used for illegal dumping — into community gathering sites centered around public art.
Kolluri said that depending on if the project is funded and the amount that is awarded, five to seven lots of different shapes and sizes could be transformed from blighted, empty lots into community gathering spaces.
The CCI has an online reporting tool, Camden Reports, for residents to anonymously report incidents of illegal dumping, and also has an illegal dumping task force.
Once the demolition and site cleanup is complete, Whitman Park will be expanded to 10 acres and have facilities for football, baseball, basketball and more.
“The end chapter of that book of revitalization is the story of the children of this community playing on this lot. We know that the end of the book will be a happy ending, and we are greatly looking forward to that,” Nash said.
The CCI is led by the City of Camden, NJDEP, USEPA, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, Camden County Municipal Utility Authority and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. It is comprised of seven working groups that focus on air quality, environmental justice, brownfields, waste and recycling, health and wellness, stormwater management and environmental education.