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Eye On: Camden, N.J.

By Karl Wirsing

Riverfront Renewal

n the early 1900s, the Camden, N.J., riverfront whistled with commerce and activity. Ferry service thrived between Camden and Philadelphia, just a short mile across the Delaware River. The Victor Talking Machine Company and Campbell Soup Company had impressive factories right along the water, and Camden became known as the "biggest little city in the world" for its industrial innovations.

But after peaking the 1920s, Camden's hold on industrial greatness started slipping until the last ferry ran in 1952. Over the course of the next 30 years, all those factories would shut down or move. What remained of the booming riverfront was a vacant stretch of rundown, abandoned and, in some cases, contaminated lots. Camden had become cut off from its own waterfront.

In 1984, though, the nonprofit Cooper's Ferry Development Association (CFDA) formed with the mission of revitalizing Camden's economy through improvement of the central waterfront. Working with the city of Camden, Camden County and local stakeholders, CFDA's first priority was to "unlock" and reclaim the city's riverfront for public use, including the development of a linear waterfront park along the Delaware River.

What CFDA and its partners helped create in the last 25 years—the Ulysses S. Wiggins Waterfront Park—has provided the backdrop for more than $600 million of public and private investment on the Camden waterfront. The mile-long promenade now links numerous attractions, including New Jersey's Adventure Aquarium, Campbell's Field (the minor league ballpark of the Camden Riversharks), Susquehanna Bank Center for large concerts, the Battleship New Jersey, the Camden Children's Garden and other facilities. Since the park opened, in other words, Camden's new waterfront is almost unrecognizable.

The Campbell's Soup Greenway, part of the emerging trails network in Camden, N.J.

"It's an unbelievable, transformative change," says Jacob A. Gordon, Esq., general counsel and project manager for trails at CFDA. "We started with a blank slate of industrial waterfront—in fact in many cases we had to remediate the parcels before we could encourage development—and now we have a vibrant waterfront with multiple attractions that have all been built in the last 25 years."

The first part of that development was Camden County's Wiggins Waterfront Park and the promenade along the banks of the Delaware. The waterfront trail runs from the battleship north to the Ben Franklin Bridge. The bridge walkway offers the only direct bicycle and pedestrian access to downtown Philadelphia. With all potential pedestrian and bike traffic coming through Camden, this bridge link has made the waterfront promenade a crucial component of CFDA's vision for a regional trail network, dubbed the "Camden GreenWay."

Gordon says the goal of the GreenWay is to link all of Camden with Philadelphia and the suburbs through a network of interconnected waterfront greenway trails and on-street pedestrian multi-use paths.

"All the trails we are planning now dovetail with the waterfront trail and the Ben Franklin Bridge over into Philadelphia," he says. "They'll help make connections with public transit and other local institutions, including Rutgers University and the main Campbell Soup [Company] business facility. The benefits are numerous. These routes will improve streetscapes, enhance economic development as well as beautify the city and provide ample transportation and recreation options."

Developing trails is only part of CFDA's work to revitalize Camden. Yet their success along the waterfront has catalyzed enormous changes to the city's visual and economic landscape.

One of the next big steps for Camden is to get a hotel built on the river. That may seem like a simple enough step, but so far there aren't any lodging opportunities near the waterfront.

"I can't stay in Camden overnight when I work there," says Tom Sexton, director of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) Northeast Regional Office. RTC has worked closely with CFDA for several years on their trail, bicycle and pedestrian planning. Adding a hotel to the mix, Sexton says, will be a major improvement. "A big, big anchor is going to be the next hotel. The hotel. It's really urban renewal, and it's fun to be a part of that."

Campaign for Active Transportation

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Campaign for Active Transportation is an ambitious effort to double federal investment in trails, walking and biking. Back in June 2009, RTC encouraged its Campaign partners, including Camden, to apply for TIGER funding. Of the 51 award winners, several were for active transportation projects like Camden's, including in Indianapolis, Ind., and Burlington, Vt.

Learn more about RTC's Campaign for Active Transportation, and find out how you and your community can get involved!

Supporting a Sea Change

Since beginning their work in 1984, CFDA has managed to attract more than $600 million in public and private funding to the central waterfront. Among their most recent victories came this past February when they helped secure an award through the highly competitive Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grant Program.

Part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, TIGER grants fund innovative transportation projects that promise significant economic and environmental benefits to a metropolitan area. More than 1,400 applications were submitted, and Camden and Philadelphia—which applied as a collaborative effort—were among only 51 recipients. [See sidebar.]

Working with a multi-state coalition, the counties of Camden and Philadelphia will together receive $23 million to develop a pedestrian and bicycle network, including commuter routes close to downtown. As part of the award, the Camden GreenWay will receive $5.8 million, most of which will support CFDA's work integrating the city's pedestrian and bicycle facilities.

RTC's 8th Annual Greenway Sojourn

The centerpiece of Camden's trail facilities will be on display this summer. RTC will be using Camden's waterfront promenade as the first leg of its 8th Greenway Sojourn, a seven-day bicycle tour of southwest Pennsylvania and New Jersey. After staying the night aboard the Battleship New Jersey, Sojourners will pedal up the riverfront and cross the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia, eventually hooking up with the Schuylkill River Trail.

For this year's Sojourn, as well, RTC has partnered with Fuji Bikes to donate 20 bicycles and helmets for a group of seventh graders to join the group ride. The students will get to try out some of Camden's newest trails. "Hopefully people will see these kids out using the facilities and showing that Camden is a safe, fun and convenient place to ride," says Sexton.

Twenty-five years ago, that thought would have been almost unimaginable. But these days, with an infusion of funding and the support of local elected officials, CFDA and its partners have ambitions of making Camden one of the most walkable and bikable cities in the country.

Karl Wirsing is the managing editor of Rails to Trails magazine. You can find him, between knee surgeries, running or cycling out on the local C&O Canal towpath in Washington, D.C.

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