CAMDEN, NJ-By a 6 to 1 margin, the city council of this long-troubled city in South Jersey has approved a plan to pump some $1.2 billion into a 450-acre waterfront tract in the Cramer Hill section of town. The project is being done by Cherokee Camden, which is part of the Raleigh, NC-based Cherokee Investment Partners, a well-known developer of brownfield sites.The project has been in the works for a few years, and the city council’s approval brings it a key step closer to happening. Cherokee officials have indicated that they hope to break ground by the end of the year.

By any yardstick, the project is massive. Cherokee’s plan, as approved by the city council, calls for at least 5,000 new residences, some 500,000 sf of retail space and a new marina on the Delaware River. The plan also calls for turning a 90-acre landfill within the tract into an 18-hole golf course. And in the retail category, it would bring so-called “big-box” stores to a city that has none.

The project isn’t without controversy. Prior to the city council vote, almost three dozen local citizens weighed in with testimony against it, mostly citing displacement of existing residents. According to local estimates, at least 1,000 homes, mostly single-family, would be razed to make way for Cherokee’s project, and a number of are residents and businesses have threatened legal action.

Nonetheless, “Cramer Hill has existed as an underutilized and environmentally degraded area for far too long,” according to Arijit De, executive director of the Camden Redevelopment Agency. “The redevelopment will bring in private capital and enhance the quality of life.”

And Gov. James McGreevey, whose administration has long touted so-called “smart growth” as a statewide development theme, has weighed in on the Cramer Hill project, calling it “a perfect example of the way we’re using public-private partnerships to build neighborhoods, create opportunities and put people back to work.”

And while most of the investment will be of the private variety, the state has also come across with some cash to help things along. The Cherokee Camden project will benefit from the Camden Revitalization Act, signed by McGreevey last year, as well as from a pool of $175 million approved by the legislature in 2002 for redevelopment projects in the city. In return, officials estimate that the completed project will generate more than $20 million a year in property taxes.

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