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South Jersey Times: Camden housing development attracting new neighbors

Standing on the sidewalk near his brand new townhouse, in a brand new housing development, with bright red brick on one side of the street and an immaculately green park on the other, James Warren said he loves living in Camden.

He moved in barely a month ago, arriving from his former home in Burlington City on Aug. 1. A 49-year-old grandfather of six, Warren said he was lured by the prospect of a shorter commute — it would take him 45 minutes to get to his office at 8th and Market in Philadelphia, if he felt like walking — and a new, $8.8 million housing development in Cooper Plaza.

“I love it here, after seeing for myself what’s going on here,” he said, pointing around to the dozen or so new town homes constructed over the past 12 months around the intersection of 6th and Washington streets. “It’s nice to be on the ground floor for something like this. My neighbors, they’ve been here for 26 years, and they told me they were ready to move before all this started.”

In all, there have been 24 four-bedroom homes built in the area so far, by the Newark-based M&M Development LLC. Those located at around the 6th and Washington intersection had been constructed on an empty lot purchased by the developer from the city and state in 2011. Others, along Chambers Avenue on the other side of Sheila L. Roberts Park, are renovations of historic homes that had been shells of their former selves.

The new homes range in price from $162,000 to $229,000, and of the 24 constructed so far, five are still available.

M&M plans on building six more, on Berkley Street between 6th Street and Broadway, for a total of 30 new town homes. Five of them will be constructed where abandoned, boarded-up houses currently stand.

Demolition of those vacant houses begins next week, according to M&M co-owner Maria Lopez.

“The idea was to change a neighborhood,” she said. “We wanted to build beautiful homes, for anyone, as long as they can get a mortgage. We have a good mix of first-time homes buyers, and people coming from outside of Camden, as well as people from other areas of Camden.”

According to Lopez, five of the new residents hail from other parts of Camden, with others coming from Philadelphia, New York City, Delaware and the surrounding New Jersey suburbs.

There are more than 2,000 vacant and abandoned houses in Camden. In neighborhoods throughout the city, there are rows upon rows of them.

That includes Whitman Park, the home neighborhood of Camden County Freeholder Scot McCray, who purchased a home in Cooper Plaza in 2005.

Speaking on Friday, McCray said it could take decades for other neighborhoods around the city to begin seeing progress similar to Cooper Plaza, which until recently had been a center of drug activity and other issues.

“Cooper Plaza is a super historic place, where there used to be professionals, doctors and attorneys all around here 100 years ago, but there was a complete 180-degree turn,” said McCray. “There was a lot of abandoned houses and a drug infestation. It was through the efforts of neighborhood groups, and bringing in brand new houses, and rehabilitating houses, which happened in the mid-2000s.

“Now we have the medical school here, and the new renaissance school being built here, and you see kids playing in the park, and people barbecuing outside — all of this happening in a pretty short amount of time. It’s not just going to happen everywhere, though. You have to take it chunk by chunk, and take another bite out of it every day.”

Warren, the new Camden resident of barely more than a month, said he would encourage residents from the surrounding suburbs to come visit his new neighborhood to see the change for themselves.

“I would say to them, ‘You have to come and see the area where I’m at,'” said Warren. “It took me coming over here to see it. This is not the Camden I remember. I look up and I see Cooper hospital — the only thing that’s waking me up at night is a medical helicopter landing.”

Jason Laday may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JasonLaday. Find the South Jersey Times on Facebook.