Countdown to the boom in… CAMDEN

PUBLICATION: The Philadelphia Daily News
DATE: February 26, 1993

In 1987, the height of the 1980s real estate boom, a New York radio personality, Sonny Bloch, was busing Big Apple investors into Camden for a look at one of New Jersey’s most blighted cities.

Bloch believed then, as well as now, that Camden had potential and that investors who bought property at the time would eventually reap a substantial payoff when that potential was realized.

The out-of-towners came they saw, and they bought.

Bloch said he chose Camden as one of his “pick cities” because of the abundance of cheap housing stock, its proximity to transportation, and to Philadelphia, and the new aquarium.

He advised people to buy rental property with the promise of a 20 percent return on their investment if they leased under government subsidized-rent programs.

“Thanks to me, there are hundreds of happy, successful people who own property in Camden,” Bloch said. “I’m still sending people there.”

Alvin Rosen, a Camden real estate broker, acknowledged that Bloch “made a market” in Camden with his weekend cavalcades of wannabe millionaires. But not all of them were successful, he said. “People were going out and buying almost indiscriminately,” said Rosen. “Many of them got hurt doing it, but some made money.”

In the interim years, Camden and the nation have experienced an economic recession that abruptly ended the national spending spree.

But Camden’s still got potential, and some of those early-bird investors are hanging on for the rebirth promised by Camden’s burgeoning waterfront development.

They’ve been joined by a few far-sighted urban pioneers who’ve bought homes and businesses in the city and who also want to be a part of Camden’s promised future.

The impetus behind Camden’s revitalization is the proposed waterfront development that includes a $12 million Sony/Pace amphitheater, a $35-million corporate center being built by Campbell Soup Co., and another $25 million office building to house the Delaware River Port Authority.

These are in addition to the Thomas H. Kean New Jersey State Aquarium, which lured 1.2 million visitors in its first year, and the new $79 million General Electric Aerospace office and manufacturing campus.

There’s also the work of the Camden Redevelopment Agency, created in 1988 to reverse the decline of the city’s neighborhoods and restore crumbling housing stock to use, said Thomas A. Roberts, the agency’s executive director.

Using federal and state dollars, Roberts said, the agency will have rehabbed or built nearly 600 housing units by the end of 1993.

None of these projects existed in 1987, when Louise Bobrow and her husband heard Bloch’s radio show and drove down from New York to see what Camden had to offer. The couple bought several residential rental properties throughout the city, said Louise Bobrow, who runs an audio-video production company.

Over the years, the Bobrowns have sold some of their initial investments and bought others. “For the most part, we’ve done ok,” Bobrown said. “The appreciation in real estate value is slow, but its there. The climate right now to turn things around, I feel very positive about Camden’s future.”

In 1988, Bobrown founded the Camden Property Owners Association, investors from the New York area who took stock in Camden. The group meets once a month in Camden or New York to network and to get updates on the major projects planned for the city. What they’ve heard has justified their faith in the ailing city. Thom Sadloskos, the association’s president, said about 150 people attend the group’s monthly meetings.

Sadloskos works for Gittomer Real Estate & Management Associates in Cherry Hill and lives in Bridgeport, but he has invested his money in Camden real estate. “Camden has hit rock bottom and has nowhere to go but up,” said Sadloskos.”I am right in the middle of a city that is being reborn.”

Most of the out-of-towners have put their dollars in residential rental properties, content with the role of absentee landlord. But Gaver Nichols, a Virginia architect, is taking a more hands on approach.

The Bucks County native is rehabbing a firehouse at Linden and Front streets in Camden’s Cooper Grant Historic Area, just south of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. When completed, it will house six studio lofts.

Nichols bought the 87-year-old firehouse five years ago but didn’t begin work on it until last May, when the aquarium was up and running. “This is my show-me project,” Nichols said. “Since I’m an architect, I plan to take a proactive role in enticing other investors to come behind me or with me on other, larger-scale projects.”

Nichols, 38, said he mostly does historic rehab work in the area around Alexandria, Va., but hopes Camden will provide the opportunity for him to move back to the Delaware Valley.

Nichols, who is also a licensed stockbroker and a real estate agent, is typical of the young entrepreneurs who are nibbling at the edges of Camden’s decay. “There are a lot of younger, thirty something types who have bought in there (Camden),” he said.

Some have bought abandoned commercial buildings with dreams of turning them into retail and entertainment facilities that will persuade the tourist and office workers to linger for dinner or a movie.

Thomas Corcoran, president of the Cooper’s Ferry Development Association, which oversees Camden’s waterfront growth, said spin-off development was always a part of the plan.

“We always wanted to created the market for some of this stuff, but two things have to happen first,” Corcoran said. “The aquarium has to be shown to be successful, and the banks have to star lending to the type of people who build restaurants and entertainment. “

Corcoran predicted the opening next year of the Sony/Pace amphitheater and the completion of the Campbell Soup corporate center, along with the continued expansion of the Rutgers campus and Cooper Hospital University Medical Center, will force lenders to reassess their bias against Camden.

“In the 1980s, investors took a chance on this city, and they have been holding on, hoping that the risk pays off.”


Thomas Roberts at the construction site at Williams Row; a lone house
remains standing on the block.


Contractors Erik and Ted Lenhart,
inside old firehouse on Front St.,
review plans for its renovation