Camden celebrates $200,000 grant to restore derelict neighborhood

Standing in front of an abandoned and very heavily polluted Camden Labs building on the city’s south side Monday afternoon, New Jersey officials including U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez celebrated a $200,000 federal grant for neighborhood improvement.

The money comes from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfield Planning program, and the city will use it to focus on a cleanup strategy for dilapidated areas in the Mt. Ephraim area – already a part of the federal Choice Neighborhood program.

“These are legacies of failures of the past that now have to be borne by the present,” said Menendez. “Look, New Jersey has a history replete with areas like this which have been successfully reclaimed. It’s just going to take a lot of effort to do it.”

Menendez indicated that based on the scale of the city’s vision, full area revitalization could take at least five years.

U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, also on hand Monday, said that for too long, the city has been talking about change. But with the Choice Neighborhood program funding, and now the EPA money, it’s finally happening.

“What you’re seeing now is the state, the county, the city and federal all coming together because they all understand how important this is now,” said Norcross.

In 2012, Camden was awarded a Choice Neighborhood planning grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to devise a citywide revitalization strategy, which was just submitted on Feb. 8.

If accepted by HUD, Camden could potentially qualify for a second Choice Neighborhood grant of more than $30 million to implement its strategy.

Nando Micale, a principal designer with Wallace Roberts and Todd, helped develop Camden’s Choice strategy. He said initial feedback on the plan found that significant contamination at the Camden Lab site would be a difficult short-term problem to overcome, but this new infusion of funding would go a long way to developing a solution.

“This is a major milestone of development, which is significant in that neighborhood particularly because of its proximity to public transportation,” said Micale. “It moves the ball forward on figuring out remediation.”

Camden Mayor Dana Redd, who also attended Monday’s announcement, said that nearby Whitman Park is also heavily used, and that revitalizing the whole area might attract new business.

She also hoped the EPA money was a sign of larger federal aid to come.

“The [EPA] planning grant, we’re hopeful, is a prelude to the implementation grant award,” said Redd. “It’s very important to the work that we’re doing here in Camden to address blight and abandoned buildings but also to improve the quality of life for our residents.”

Menendez said that with the EPA award, Camden was “primed for the Choice Neighborhood Grant.”

“I will be advocating for their application when they make their final presentation,” said Menendez. “On the federal level, I’m looking at a lot of different pots of potential resources once I see the city’s full implementation.”

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