Built Environment, Camden, Development

Why it matters that Camden won an award for its parking lots

All throughout the month of March, the website Streetsblog USA held a competition to find the worst misuse of space in America’s cities. There were contenders from across the country from cities like Boston, Los Angeles, Syracuse, Detroit, and Fort Worth. As their website says, the competition’s goal is find “sorriest wastes of urban space [we] can find” in the form of the massive parking lots that scar the urban fabric of cities across the country. Given my neighboring city of Camden’s high number of parking lots on its supposedly-valuable waterfront, I decided to enter it into the competition to give these huge wastes of space some visibility beyond South Jersey.

The reaction was more than I could have hoped for. Comment after comment lamented the wasted opportunity presented by these parking lots. They talked about things like how much they separate the waterfront from the city. How people working in the office buildings there are utterly disconnected form the city. One commenter enumerated the wealth of public transit options that surround such a huge collection of parking lots:

“Camden has the potential to be very walkable. There’s Walter Rand Transportation Center, with dozens of NJTransit bus routes and the RiverLine light rail to Trenton, which connects with the heavy rail Atlantic City Line in Pennsauken and the Northeast Corridor in Trenton, with NJT rail to NYC and multiple Amtrak connections. There’s PATCO subway service into Center City, which is one of the nation’s only 24-hour rapid transit lines. There’s also the seasonal ferry to Penn’s Landing, and not to mention being walking / biking distance over the Ben Franklin right into the heart of Philadelphia.”

Overall, the theme was clear. These parking lots could be doing so much more than sitting there storing cars. The opportunity of transit-oriented developments in the heart of the metropolitan region is as immense as the waste of space created by the lots. Worse still, land that the Cooper’s Ferry development organization has slated for productive development for ten years has sit idle. These lots do nothing but tear the urban fabric of the waterfront the shreds.

To their credit, the neighborhoods these lots are located in, Cooper-Grant and Central Waterfront, have been coming up with plans to become a viable neighborhood. But walking through these neighborhoods, it’s clear just how much these parking lots hurt that effort. You can’t build a vibrant place when there are football fields worth of asphalts between you and where you want to go. You can’t feel cozy and safe in a neighborhood where one entire block is taken up by a corporate office’s big blank walls, as is the case of Market Street and the L3 buildings.

In the end, the choice was obvious. Camden’s horrible parking lots won the Golden Crater.

It’s my hope that the local urbanist and development community, along with the city and Cooper’s Ferry, recognize that there’s a city waiting to be set free from the bad decisions of the past. Downtown Camden is closer and has better transit connections to the jobs of Center City Philadelphia than most of Greater Philadelphia, including neighborhoods even within Philadelphia itself. These lots could be actually be transforming Camden into a vibrant city; instead, we’re left to imagine that tax breaks to rich companies will do the same, which they certainly will not.

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