In Camden, Campbell Says It May Go if Sears Building Stays

The future of Camden may depend on Sears and not Campbell’s?

In Camden, Campbell Co. Says It May Go if Sears Building Stays

CAMDEN, N.J. — For decades after it was built in 1927, shoppers drove to the Sears, Roebuck & Company store on Admiral Wilson Boulevard just beyond the center of town. A colonnaded temple to both commerce and the automobile, the store, in the classical revival style, had a lot with parking spaces for about 600 cars.

But in 1971, as the middle class fled the city, the store closed, and reopened at a mall in nearby Moorestown. In the years afterward, most of the drivers who stopped by this despondent stretch of freeway were visiting seedy strip joints. And the old Sears building went on to become a car dealership, then an office. Today it is vacant, vandalized and in need of repair.

Now, amid an effort to revive a city mired in a crippling cycle of crime and unemployment, the Campbell Soup Company, Camden’s longtime and most prominent corporate resident, has proposed expanding its presence and transforming the area where the empty store sits into an office park.

The soup company is prepared to spend $72 million to improve its headquarters, and has also promised to help lure developers to an adjacent office park with the help of $26 million in state funds. But the company’s pledge comes with one nagging caveat: The Sears building, which is listed on state and national historic registries, must come down. If not, Campbell Soup, which has been an enormous presence in the city since 1869, may abandon Camden and go elsewhere.

Thousands of the city’s residents worked at the factory on the Delaware River, producing the famous condensed soup invented by John T. Dorrance, until the plant closed in 1990. The company still employs 1,200 workers at its corporate headquarters here, and its soup cans, which captured Andy Warhol’s fascination with the American marketplace, are visible everywhere in this city — on wall murals, hanging in courthouses and, most prominently, on the front of a downtown baseball stadium.

Leveraging that reputation, the soup company says it could lure investors to the office park. But the Sears building, with its wide footprint, would thwart the effort, blocking the views of all the proposed development, including a view of the Campbell headquarters, the company said.

“If you’re leaving Philadelphia, you would like that office park to be visible for potential occupants,” said Anthony J. Sanzio, a Campbell Soup spokesman. “This structure is completely inconsistent with what one would expect in a 21st-century office park.”

In mid-May, the city’s planning board narrowly approved the soup company’s application to raze the yellow brick building. Local leaders, ranging from the mayor to the heads of community groups, said it was important for Camden — one of the nation’s poorest cities, according to recent census figures and studies — to look forward, especially when the past and the present look the way the old Sears building does.

As if to emphasize that point, in the past few days the front door of the building has been ripped down, exposing the building’s moldy innards.

Those opposed to the demolition are a small but committed group that includes a former owner of the building, preservationists, a local activist, a Camden historian and the head of the local N.A.A.C.P. branch. They have asked questions about a city’s connection to its past, and about the influence of corporations on development.

“I’m not submitting to blackmail from anyone,” said Frank Fulbrook, an activist here who has a filed a lawsuit against the soup company as well as the heads of the local planning board and the redevelopment agency, saying the planning board violated procedures when it approved Campbell’s demolition plans.

“I want Campbell’s to stay, but I’m not going to beg them,” said Mr. Fulbrook, who owns a few properties in Camden.

For the city, the importance of the company — the only Fortune 500 corporation operating here — is hardly disputed. In fact, it is spelled out in the development agreement for the proposed 110-acre office park, which notes that the soup company is one of the largest taxpayers in Camden and contributes millions to local charities.

In its odd but not-so-subtle vernacular, the agreement spells out the stakes: It says that if the soup company “were to relocate its headquarters out of the city, it is probable that these numerous public benefits derived by citizens of the city, county and the State of New Jersey would be severely reduced if not eliminated.”

The importance of the faded Sears building, surrounded by abandoned buildings, overgrown lots and roads riddled with potholes, is less clear. But Paul W. Schopp, a consultant hired by the building’s previous owner — who in 2000 wrote the successful application for its designation as a historic site — sees it differently.

Mr. Schopp said that Charles W. Leavitt, a New York landscape architect and planner, conceived the whole area in the 1920s around what was then called Bridge Boulevard, as what he hoped would be Camden’s civic center. And Mr. Leavitt insisted that the architects design the Sears building accordingly.

“He designated it in the classical revival style, as an interpretation of the City Beautiful movement,” Mr. Schopp said. “They acquiesced.”

The architects, Nimmons, Carr and Wright, had designed other Sears stores, including landmark buildings in Chicago and Boston that have been preserved. Their Camden store, a few miles from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge linking Camden to Philadelphia, was a destination for drivers at a time when America’s love affair with the automobile was blossoming. In the 1930s and ’40s, families from southern New Jersey and Pennsylvania flocked to the nation’s first drive-in theater, on nearby Crescent Boulevard, and to the Whoopee Coaster, a Depression-era amusement for automobiles and passengers on undulating wooden tracks.

“There was a drive-in boxing arena, and White Tower, a drive-in restaurant,” Mr. Schopp said. “At one time, the Admiral Wilson Boulevard was a source of car culture, perhaps more so than Los Angeles.”

The supporters of Campbell’s plans have focused not only on the importance of keeping the food giant in the city, but also on picking battles wisely as the city makes hard choices.

“Look, if it was a beautiful building downtown, that would be one thing,” said Caren S. Franzini, the chief executive of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. “It creates new tax ratables in the city. It enhances a neighborhood in terms of new development. It provides opportunities for new jobs for Camden residents. Those are all fantastic things.”

In addition, Thomas P. Corcoran, the president of the Cooper’s Ferry Development Association, which focuses on the city’s waterfront, said that the soup company’s demands, despite what detractors say, were not unreasonable. “I think if I were Campbell’s, I would insist on the same thing,” he said of the building’s demolition. “They’ve got to present a vision of the future.”

The shaping of that future is still bitterly contested in Camden. Some opponents of the demolition have also complained about the proposed office park, saying it will create an enclave of nonresident workers rather than employing locals.

They have urged the city to take a closer look at other options, like the bid by the businessman Ilan Zaken, who is trying to create an outlet of his Dr. Denim clothes store in the old Sears building. “It would employ more than 100 people, most of them Camden residents,” Mr. Zaken said, adding that he hoped the office park would be built.

There have been other recent attempts to demolish the building, including an unsuccessful effort in 2000 by Gov. Christie Whitman, who sought to clean up Admiral Wilson Boulevard, which had become an eyesore.

For now, Mr. Fulbrook’s lawsuit and several other obstacles could get in the way of the Campbell plan. The state’s Historic Sites Council will make a recommendation to the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection for a final decision. And the Camden City Council may still have to vote on parts of the plan.

Howard Gillette Jr., a historian and a professor at Rutgers-Camden, who opposes the demolition, said: “That building is one of the few links to the old city. Camden was once the height of the region, and it’s been severed from the region. You need lines of continuity.”

But underscoring the problem, he added, “The presence of Campbell Soup is one of those lines.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company