Why New Jersey taxpayers’ $118 million giveaway to Subaru won’t revitalize Camden (and how they’re creating a problem that will take decades to fix)

It’s often said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but you rarely get to see it play out so perfectly in front of your eyes as it does here in New Jersey. In the summer of 2013, state legislators were busy revamping the state’s system of tax breaks that works to keep businesses in the state when they start to make noise about moving to take advantage of tax incentives from other states. In the race to the bottom in which American taxpayers bankroll corporate operations with little to no net benefit, New Jersey is clearly a frontrunner.

The state has given hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to projects ranging from an “entertainment complex” in the Meadowlands to multiple corporations moving their headquarters just a few miles down the road. But after years of the majority of tax breaks going to North Jersey interests, State Senate president Steven Sweeney (who represents parts of Gloucester, Cumberland, and Salem Counties) pushed back to get the reworking of the tax break system, the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, to focus more on South Jersey. As an NJ.com article from the time reports:

“A bill to overhaul how the state lures businesses has been loaded with last-minute sweeteners for South Jersey and pushed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney. The New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act, a mammoth bill supported by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, now sets aside deals for the state’s eight southern counties, especially Camden.”

Ever since then, Camden has received the bulk of the state’s tax breaks. Far from promising to revitalize the city, they’ve gone to a few politically connected entities. But there was one project that was supposed to be a game changer for the city. Subaru of America, currently located on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, was granted a $118 million tax incentive to move a few miles west to the Gateway district of Camden, where Campbell’s Soup has a vision to create South Jersey’s version of Philadelphia’s successful Navy Yard. That Subaru would take the incentives and move to Gateway was seen as potential progress toward the goal of actually realizing the revitalization of that part of the city.

Sadly, it appears as though we were all taken for fools. As news of the plans for their headquarters came out last week, it came to light that this would be no game-changing, world-class headquarters. The plans call for a building shorter than the current headquarters in Cherry Hill. Brandywine Realty Trust, which has developed some wonderful buildings in Philadelphia, wants to build a squat suburban headquarters located in a sea of over 1,000 parking spaces. Inga Saffron has written a spot-on evaluation of the failure of this plan in today’s Inquirer.

The suburban style campus surrounded by parking that Subaru wants to bring to Camden.
The suburban style campus surrounded by parking that Subaru wants to bring to Camden.

From the perspective of those who thought, maybe, these tax breaks might actually lead to positive change in the city, as everyone working toward them has claimed, disappointment is the kindest word for what we are feeling. Devastation, bewilderment, and disgust are far more apt. This project could not be more disengaged from the city. Those parking spots guarantee that every single Subaru employee will drive in to work in the morning, stay on campus to eat lunch, and drive home at night. They will not interact with the city. Even if they wanted to, they are hardly given the chance. Employees would have to traverse a punishing sea of asphalt to get out of the suburban-style office park.

And the site’s lack of engagement isn’t the only issue. This asphalt will complicate the poor drainage that this part of Camden experiences. Even today, Admiral Wilson Boulevard constantly floods. Subaru has decided to not even incorporate rain gardens to address runoff that they saw fit to construct in their Cherry Hill and Pennsauken campuses. There are a few trees dotted throughout their parking lot which they claim add green space. It is a transparent attempt to pull one over on all of us.

When Campbell’s broadcast to the world that they were committed to building a forward-looking office complex in the Gateway district, they created glossy renderings of a successful future. Looking at Subaru’s plans for this site, it’s impossible to not conclude that that was a only marketing ploy for future tax breaks, and that no such office complex will arise. New Jersey taxpayers have once again been duped by greedy corporations and small-minded politicians who live in an alternate universe where tax breaks, trickle-down economics, and forcing suburbanization onto a city really works.

This is what Campbell's wants us to think Gateway will become. This will not happen with the current development mentality.
This is what Campbell’s wants us to think Gateway will become. This will not happen with the current development mentality.

This plan, should it get built, will set the city back decades. Successful cities and towns all around the country are working to undo the harm caused by sprawling development. Here in New Jersey, office parks like this are going empty as people seek dynamic, urban environments to work in. What Subaru is doing here is guaranteeing that South Jersey will pay for the privilege of living in an increasingly obsolete development model, truly a dying past, for decades to come.


4 thoughts on “Why New Jersey taxpayers’ $118 million giveaway to Subaru won’t revitalize Camden (and how they’re creating a problem that will take decades to fix)

  1. Pingback: Jersey Pays Subaru to Bring Another Parking Crater to Downtown Camden | Streetsblog.net

  2. Of course, Christie is creating MANY problems that will take decades to fix. In any case, New Jersey is possibly the most politically balkanized state in the country. Planning is run by parochial interests in individual towns and cities. Most of our large infrastructure problems have regional impact, however, and should be planned on a regional basis. Few are. Local corruption, inefficiency, and financial waste result routinely.

  3. Pingback: The Streetsies: Vote for the Best and Worst of 2015 | Streetsblog USA

  4. Very interesting take. I sort of agree but to me bringing businesses into Camden where they belong is just a way of beginning to right the wrongs of the past, even if that wasn’t the original intention. The thousands of manufacturing jobs that have or are coming to the city within the past five years to me is the real game-changer for actual Camden natives but having an actual headquarters is the game-changer for the city. That was unthinkable before that bill was passed, unfortunately entirely due to outdated perceptions. Yes, Subaru employees will unfortunately drive to and from work but their tax dollars won’t.

    I look at the situations of Camden and Chester as being many decades in the making and thus requiring decades to fix. Subaru’s campus is suburban but it is replacing what was basically a wasteland. Same with the other jobs coming to the city. Then you add in the Sixers building their practice facility on the waterfront, Liberty Property Trust’s master-plan, what Cooper and Rutgers-Camden and Rowan are doing, and that “innovation neighborhood” they plan to build in part of downtown and you have the bricks being laid to build Camden back into an actual city. One that isn’t dependent on any one industry or entirely on manufacturing the way it used to be.

    I see this as one of many, many steps in building Camden into a twenty-first century city. The big dominos to me are hotels. Once the first one of those is built in Camden as opposed to its nearby suburbs, it will signal that the city is starting to be seen differently. As misguided as the corporate welfare and breaks that have brought in these things are, they’re what has gotten the ball rolling a lot quicker than it would’ve otherwise been imo. That can have a snowball effect. Look at Conshohocken or even more recently at Allentown.

Let me know what you think.

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