April 26, 2019 In The News, Media

Historic Camden homes get upgrades but will remain affordable

Cherry Hill Courier-Post
April 26, 2019

As Frances Ward-Green and Teal Corr toured the newly-renovated two-bedroom townhouse Friday morning, they talked about their own decades living in Camden’s Cooper Plaza neighborhood.

“It was beautiful,” said Corr when asked what the historic townhomes were like when she moved in in December 1994.

“It was,” nodded Ward-Green, who’d moved into her own place there about a month before.

But things changed, the women recalled: “The neighborhood got really bad,” said Corr. “Murders, rapes, break-ins.”

“It was like night and day, totally different,” added Ward-Green. “Crime. Drugs. Homeless people. Tenants that went bad.”

Management of the Victorian-era townhomes, once occupied by Camden’s thriving upper-middle class, went downhill as well. Designated as affordable housing — meant for those making 60 percent or less of the area’s median income — the houses fell into disrepair.

Ward-Green, a self-described retired widow, said she’s seen a lot of change since moving to Camden in 1957, raising two children in the city. Some of it hasn’t been good.

But, she said, “the last five years or so, with the community policing, the police coming into the neighborhoods, the living standards have changed.”

“It’s become better,” she added. “I feel more comfortable walking the streets, shopping, meeting my neighbors.

“It’s become more compatible with community.”

The Cooper Plaza townhomes that Ward-Green and Corr have called home for 25 years are now getting makeovers as part of a $14 million effort by The Michaels Organization. The 64 two- and three-bedroom units will get new roofs, new floors, new windows and new, energy-efficient appliances. Porches will be refurbished, HVAC systems upgraded, and new drainage and waterproofing added to basements.

The Michaels Organization, which is also building a 156-unit apartment complex along the Camden Waterfront and is moving its own offices to a new waterfront tower now under construction, will “get this thing done in six months,” said CEO John O’Donnell — and remains committed to keeping the units affordable for Camden residents.

“Affordable housing should be easier than it is,” he said.

Keeping homes within the financial reach of residents is crucial to Camden’s turnaround, said Mayor Frank Moran.

“It”s not just about bricks and mortar,” he said. “And it’s not just corporate buildings.”

U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross lives in the Victor Lofts right across from the new office tower that will be called Triad 1828 Centre — a reference to the year Camden City was incorporated and three major tenants (Michaels, NFI and Conner, Strong & Buckelew, the latter headed by George Norcross).

He noted his personal history in Camden, and recalled being an apprentice electrician at the nearby Coriell Institute.

“If you lived in this neighborhood, it meant you were making it,” he said. The neighborhood’s turnaround is, he added, “nothing short of remarkable.”

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