In a Faded City, Plans to Build a Hotel Build Hope

New York Times – May 6, 2008

By Kareem Fahim

Camden, N.J. — The old Plaza Hotel downtown is a tomb, sealed shut for more than 20 years now, it’s windows shattered and its green marquee worn and stripped of letters.

Trapped inside the hotel are the memories of a once-thriving industrial town, where business people and job seekers and even the occasional entertainer came to visit and dine. Since it closed in 1985, the hotel, battered by the city’s decline, seemed to deliver a warning: Camden was not a place to linger after dark, not a place one stayed. But a group of developers is seeking the planning board’s approval this week for a 140-room Hilton Garden Inn on Camden’s waterfront, what would be the first new hotel built here in about 70 years.

“We want to get in at a time when there are things to be done here,” said Vijnan Chandra, of PRA Development and Management, the Philadelphia-based company that would build the Hilton. “We don’t paint Camden with a broad brush. This signals to the public that the city is open for business.”

For a city struggling to revitalize, a hotel is a signature, a symbol. It suggests there is a critical mass of tourists — in Camden’s case, lured by a new aquarium and a minor-league baseball team — and supporters of the new hotel say that Camden, offering tax breaks and cheap rents, has started to lure businesses again, too, and that there are not enough hotel rooms in Philadelphia, a 10-minute drive over the river, to house the new visitors.

“A hotel can start to leverage quite a bit,” said William H. Hudnut III, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, an education and research group in Washington, D.C. “It brings people, and it brings rooftops — restaurants, bars and eateries. One hotel won’t do the trick, but it’s certainly a positive piece in the jigsaw.”

In the years since the Plaza closed, the business that thrived here was the drug trade, and the superlatives thrown at Camden usually concerned its status as one of the nation’s poorest or most dangerous cities. Thousands of residents have left the city, leaving behind neighborhoods of boarded-up row houses and empty lots. For those people who have remained, there are few comforts: no supermarkets or movie theaters, and, for a generation, no hotel rooms.

Camden was different place in the 1930’s and 1940’s, when employers like Campbell Soup, RCA Victor and New York Shipbuilding Corporation made the city, positioned strategically on the Delaware River, a center of industry. Several hotels operated here over the years, including the Walt Whitman Hotel, where Red Skeleton is said to have requested a room on the second floor, so he could lower his dog, rather than walk it, according to Paul W. Schopp, a local historian.

The hotels were not just way stations for businessmen and itinerant salespeople, Mr. Schopp said; the region was considered a “mecca for the jazz supper clubs,” and entertainers would stop in Camden as well.

The Plaza was a business hotel, where professionals who worked on Cooper Street would gather for lunch. The Walt Whitman was the scene of the city’s fancier soirees, where M. Allan Vogelson, a retired judge, saw several friends get married.

“Our high school fraternity had its annual sweetheart ball there,” recalled Judge Vogelson, who grew up in Camden. “The Walt Whitman brings back wonderful memories. It was a different time for Camden.”

By the time the Rev. Michael Doyle arrived in Camden in the late 1960’s, middle-class residents had begun fleeing the city, an exodus that accelerated after race riots in 1971. He found that the city’s shoreline — its great treasure — was “gobbled up by crude industry,” Father Doyle said.

“I remember walking through abandoned factories and sumac trees to get to that river,” he said.

Efforts to revive Camden have focused on that waterfront, and in the last two decades, large swaths of the riverfront property under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge have been transformed, with new office buildings, an aquarium, a concert hall and upscale apartments. About nine months ago, a developer was found for the hotel, according to Thomas P. Corcoran, the president of Cooper’s Ferry Development Association, the master developer of the waterfront.

The five-story hotel, with an indoor pool, would cater to several different kinds of travelers, Mr. Corcoran said, including business people and visitors to Campbell Soup, Cooper University Hospital and Rutgers University’s satellite campus here. The developers also hope to lure families visiting the waterfront’s entertainment attractions, as well as visitors to a new convention center in Philadelphia, where hotel rooms can cost far more than the Hilton’s planned rate of $125 per night. Mr. Corcoran said that rock stars playing the concert hall, the Susquehanna Bank Center, usually stay at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia, but their road crews could stay at the proposed Hilton.

Several hurdles remain, he said, including gaining approval from the local planning board and obtaining large bank loans in a weakening economy.

Talk of the new hotel could revive the debate about the revitalization process here. Community activists have complained that Camden’s beleaguered neighborhoods have garnered far less attention from developers than the waterfront, and they worry that the riverfront is becoming an enclave — an annex to Philadelphia — rather than part of Camden.

But Mr. Corcoran said that the waterfront plan was designed to be an extension of Camden’s downtown, and not a “gated community.” Projects like the hotel, he added, also promised to bring the city badly needed tax revenues.

Father Doyle is among those working to restore Camden’s neighborhoods, and last month an organization affiliated with his church, Sacred Heart, broke ground on a new community theater. That new building gained far less attention than the plans for the new hotel, but Father Doyle and several people involved in the project say that it is no less important, and will be the first theater for live performances to be built in the city in decades.

None of that diminished the pastor’s enthusiasm for the new Hilton. “It’s a long time since I walked through that sumac,” he said. “I want to go in that hotel, hold a glass of wine and look across that river.”

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