Campbell Soup Buys Landmark Building

Soup company could demolish old Sears building as part Camden redevelopment plan

The Campbell Soup Co. on Monday purchased a landmark building in the impoverished city of Camden as part of a plan to redevelop the neighborhood surrounding the corporate headquarters of the Fortune 500 company.

The world's largest soup maker bought a long-vacant former Sears store built in 1927. The move likely ends preservationists' five-year effort to save and re-purpose the building, which was among the first department stores to be built with its own parking lot -- a precursor to the shopping malls that popped up decades later.

Campbell paid about $3.5 million for the property, company spokesman Anthony Sanzio said.

The soup company coveted the land the building sits on as part of a plan to redevelop the neighborhood surrounding its headquarters. The company could soon demolish the landmark building.

Campbell has called Camden home since 1869, but had flirted with moving out of the city. In 2007,the company agreed to stay. Part of the deal was for the company to oversee development of the area around its campus -- turning it into an office park in hopes that other businesses could be brought in.

But redevelopment during and after a deep recession has been slow going. Campbell has expanded its headquarters and roads have been reworked. But so far, no buildings have gone up for other businesses. Campbell says it's marketing the office park to real estate brokers, but doesn't have commitments from any tenants, yet.

The legal battle over the old Sears building was a major obstacle.

The building went up in 1927 when drivers could zip out of Philadelphia on the then-new Ben Franklin Bridge in their Model T's.

The building has now been a former Sears store for nearly as long as it was in business as a Sears.

The retailer moved out in 1971, the same year race riots gripped the city, to open instead in a mall in suburban Moorestown.

In the years since, the building has housed a nightclub, car dealership, day care center and housing authority office. But it's been empty and boarded up for the past several years.

Ilan Zaken, who also owns the hip-hop clothing company Miskeen Originals, bought the building in 2007 for $2.7 million. He's announced plans to reinvent it as a home for his clothing company, and as a culinary school and restaurant supply mall.

And though he's put more than $1 million into the building, none of the plans have materialized.

Zaken didn't immediately return a call seeking comment on the sale.

Over the years, courts have agreed that the city government would be allowed to obtain and raze the building -- making either a sale or taking by eminent domain seem inevitable. Monday's sale, though, averts the possibility of a taking, which can be controversial.

Frank Fulbrook, a Camden activist who worked with Zaken to try to preserve the building, called the sale "unfortunate" because converting the building could have brought jobs to the property and produced more tax revenue for the city.

"Now, it will be a front lawn for Campbell Soup," Fulbrook said. "Seven hundred feet long -- that's a big front lawn."

Early plans from Campbell on how to develop the site don't call for using the building site for a new structure.

Campbell's Sanzio said potential development partners have told the company that uncertainty around the old building is an impediment to building.

The imposing building, as it stands now, also blocks the view of Campbell's modern headquarters from Admiral Wilson Boulevard, a busy road that leads up to the Ben Franklin Bridge.

"Campbell's acquisition of this property will clear the way for future development in the Gateway Neighborhood and create potential jobs in our city," Camden Mayor Dana Redd said in a statement Monday.

Camden's planning board and the state Department of Environmental Protection have approved plans to knock down the building.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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