Will New Subaru HQ Really Revitalize Camden? Um, Maybe.

Stakeholders talked a big game at today's groundbreaking for Subaru of America's new Camden headquarters. Let's hope it's more than just talk.

Subuaru - Camden HQ groundbreaking

The groundbreaking at Subaru’s new Camden headquarters was done, appropriately, by an Outback. (Photo: Dan McQuade)

Subaru put on quite the dog-and-pony show today.

Outside an enormous tent, the company set up a display of four Subarus from its history in the United States, from a 1968 Subaru 360 to a 2015 Outback. Inside the tent, every seat at the ceremonial groundbreaking at Subaru of America‘s new Camden headquarters had a mysterious black box on it. (It had a mug and a floor mat-style coaster in it.) There were copious amounts of food and drink. A brass band played Christmas songs and selections from West Side Story, including “I Feel Pretty.”

When the event began a line of speakers praised Subaru, its new development, the city of Camden, the Campbell Soup Co., government officials and, well, each other. Everyone talked about what a great development this headquarters would be for the City of Camden. Michael McHale, Subaru of America’s head of communications, ended the speeches by saying that the groundbreaking wasn’t quite complete without a little more fanfare. In walked the Camden High School drum line.

The curtain at the back of the tent then dropped, and the band marched out to the pile of dirt. The dignitaries posed for photos as the groundbreaking began: A Subaru Outback, fitted with a plow, pushed a pile of dirt up a hill. The ground was broken, or at least moved around a bit. The new headquarters for Subaru of America, which is currently located on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, is scheduled to open near the end of 2017.

It was an impressive kick-off for Subaru’s new headquarters. The company was looking to move — it had outgrown its Cherry Hill location — and decided on Camden in part due to $118 million in tax credits it received from the state. Subaru is just one of many companies getting tax breaks in exchange for a move to Camden.

Speakers talked up the move as a great one not just for Subaru but for the city of Camden, among the poorest in the nation. “Today not only signifies a long-term commitment by Subaru to the region, but now to our city and, yes, to our residents,” Camden mayor Dana Redd said. “To say that this is an incredible investment to our city and region is an understatement.”

Subaru’s move to Camden was precipitated by the New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act, a 2013 bill that was, for once, loaded with perks for South Jersey. (South Jersey’s power, once limited, is growing. N.J. Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Camden native, is an ally of power broker George Norcross. Congressman Donald Norcross, George’s brother, also spoke at today’s groundbreaking.)

Thomas Doll, president and COO of Subaru of America, was bullish on the future of Camden. He said Subaru of America would help revitalize the city. “We look at this move like a marriage,” Doll said. “We are saying, ‘I do.’ We like the potential of the city. We want to be a part of this amazing redevelopment which is going on in Camden. We want to be in on the ground floor. We want to be part of it. We want to help be a catalyst for it, and we want to contribute to it.”

Doll said Subaru employees spend about $1.5 million each year (an average of $2,500 for each of their 600 employees) at local businesses within 3 miles of where they work. “With that kind of buying power, combined with Campbell’s Soup, and the other businesses that are coming here in the near future, there is going to be the need for a lot of services and ancillary businesses to support this growth,” Doll said. “This kind of investment is going to have a huge impact on the local economy of Camden. Bringing all of this business to Camden will bring more investment and jobs into the city. Bringing investment will bring more businesses. Bringing businesses will bring people. People will bring their money. And they will want better schools and more services… this is the virtuous cycle that we want to be a part of.”

Campbell Soup Co. has been pushing for development of the area surrounding its New Jersey headquarters for about a decade now. Campbell’s sits in the Gateway District, a long-neglected area of the city, and its campus is fenced-in. It’s a 15 minute walk to the nearest PATCO stop. Campbell’s president, Denise Morrison, said Subaru’s headquarters is a first step in building what Camden mayor Redd said “will soon be the region’s top office park.”

“Campbell’s has called Camden home for nearly 150 years,” Morrison said. “And we’ve seen good times and we’ve seen tough times. But through it all, we’ve been committed to this city. Today, we’re on the cusp of great change in Camden inspired by courageous leadership, fueled by public-private partnership and investment, and driven by a renewed focus on improving the quality of life of our neighbors. I’m proud of the contributions Campbell’s has made to Camden’s renaissance.”

Campbell’s first announced its Gateway Redevelopment Plan in 2007. In 2013, Campbell’s had glossy renderings of proposed redevelopment made. The next year, Campbell’s announced the selection of Brandywine Realty Trust as the developer for the office park. Brandywine owns a number of buildings in Philadelphia; Campbell’s remains the master developer.

The company has christened the new development Knights Crossing, named after the former Knights Point Camden neighborhood (now Kaighnsville) founded by abolitionist Dempsey Daniel Butler in the 19th century. It’s a nice nod to Camden’s history; the neighborhood was set up as a home for freed slaves and other black residents.

“Knights Crossing has the capacity to change perception, to create a new day and to be an important component of Camden’s rebirth,” Brandywine president Jerry Sweeney said. “Knights Crossing will be an urban neighborhood that fits perfectly with Brandywine’s philosophy of creating multi-modal, mixed-use town centers that shape, connect and inspire the communities in which we do business.”

Subaru - Camden HQ rendering

Rendering courtesy Subaru of America

But Subaru’s headquarters is an inauspicious start to a “mixed-use town center.” As Inga Saffron pointed out in her evisceration of an earlier project rendering, Subaru is actually downsizing in height — from seven stories to four — with this move from the suburbs to the city. The new Subaru HQ looks fantastic. But it’s also surrounded by a sea of parking. It may not be fenced in like the Campbell’s site, but the only ancillary improvements on a site map are a bike path adjacent to the site and some green space.

This makes sense, of course: Subaru is an automobile manufacturer. Of course its development is car-centric! But it’s building an office in a giant parking lot, which is the opposite of the modern office park trend. “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,” South Jerseyist‘s Joseph Russell wrote.

It’s disappointing, because it’s clear Subaru, Campbell’s — and all the stakeholders at today’s groundbreaking — really do want to improve the city of Camden. Subaru’s Doll talked extensively about how it was important to answer the question Camden residents have: “What’s in it for me?” The whole plan should not be deemed a failure. Subaru employees may end up patronizing local businesses. (The Anthony Bourdain-approved Donkey’s Place, which serves some of the best steaks in South Jersey, is a five-minute drive away, after all.) Subaru is merely the first of a slew of businesses relocating to town. Brandywine says the rest of the development will not be like Subaru’s headquarters.

“Knights Crossing, when completed, will consist of 1.4 million square feet of livable space,” Sweeney said. “It will be a master planned community, with ample public space… a full service amenity program — basically, a brand new town center within the City of Camden.”

Let’s hope so. Because right now, the new development is an office tower in a sea of asphalt. It’s a pretty building that’s replacing previously vacant land. It’s nice. But if this massive new development is going to revitalize Camden, it needs to be done better.

Here’s a list of all the companies being offered incentives to move to Camden:

CompanyIncentive to Move to Camden
Holtec International$260 million
EMR Eastern $252.7 million
American Water Works$164 million
Subaru of America $118 million
Lockheed Martin$107 million
Philadelphia 76ers$82 million
Cooper Health System$40 million
WebiMax$12 million
DioGenix$7.9 million
Volunteers of America Delaware Valley$6.3 million
Plastics Consulting and Manufacturing$3.9 million

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