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Putting the River Back into Cooper River Park

For everyday visitors, just seeing Cooper River from the park is difficult, accessing it even more so.

Credit: philly.com

Every avid rower in the country knows Camden County’s Cooper River Park, located on the Cooper river just east of Camden. As the nation’s third most prestigious course for high school, college and masters regattas, the jewel of the county’s park system annually draws tens of thousands of athletes and spectators from around the United States. But for regular users of the park, access to the river is almost as elusive as winning an Olympic medal. Although the river cuts through the middle of the park, there are few places to reach it.

To rectify this, freeholders have hired the architectural team that landscaped the Revel casino to imagine the first phase of an anticipated $23 million project to upgrade the park and better integrate it with the Cooper river. The Philadelphia-based Cairone & Kaupp expects to break ground by early June on what freeholders expect will be a seven-to-ten year project. Freeholders have released $5 million from the county’s Open Space Preservation Trust Fund and the NJDEP’s Green Acres program to fund phase one. It’s money they consider well-spent, despite the recession.

Lead landscape architect Joseph Cairone hopes his design will also provide a statewide model for sustainability. He envisions powering stations for electric cars, raised boardwalks built from recycled materials, porous walkways to limit stormwater runoff, riparian buffers of native trees and plants, and innovative placement of berms to control erosion. He aims to build on an already established legacy of environmental stewardship at the park: in 2006, Cooper River became one of the first parks in the country to geothermally power one of its public structures -- the Camden County Boathouse at Cooper River-- with water that naturally pools in a nearby field.

Click to enlarge.

“It’s a precious urban basin we have right here so we’ll incorporate sustainable design and potentially be a vanguard of the future in terms of efficient use of fuels,” he said. For Jeffrey Nash, freeholder liaison to the parks department, “It’s a gift of nature that the residents can enjoy without spending a dime. He noted, “It adds to the quality of life and quality of life increases property values. It’s up to government to ensure that quality of life continues.”

Camden County freeholders are seizing on a national push to capitalize on waterfront assets, following a similar philosophy seen in cities like Camden and Bayonne, Philadelphia and Nashville, which are are undertaking large riverfront redevelopment projects.

“To a large degree industry has cut off access to what humans have for thousands of years created civilizations around,” said county spokesperson Dan Keashen. “To connect people back to their waterways is something that planners know needs to happen, for the sake of alleviating the stress of city and suburban life.”

Though Cooper River Park is not a victim of industrial abandonment, it is a victim of outmoded civic design. Built by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration out of land carved from Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, Collingswood and Haddon Township, most of the park’s dirt shoreline is blocked by trees or brush and is falling prey to erosion. Paved walkways sit hard against the road that circumnavigates the exterior, which means the water lies several hundred yards away.

While the park draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually for organized sports, recreation, large family gatherings, and free concerts featuring international headliners like Judy Collins and America, in most cases they’re forced to crouch on the banks or squint between the trees to so much as glimpse the river that gives the park its name.

The proposed solution includes removing vista-blocking trees from heavily trafficked areas and planting others where designers desire a more natural habitat. Boardwalks, docks, and manmade plateaus will increase interaction with the water, and renovations and additions to existing pavilions, fields, playgrounds, parking lots, and entrance points should lead to a more visitor-friendly experience.

Officials are also trying to stay in front of two catchphrases favored by the conservation community: connectivity and greenways. They expect future phases of construction to include bikepaths to better connect disparate recreational facilities in the area and link to greenways that are being built piecemeal from Valley Forge to the Delaware Bay.

But there’s one big problem with all of this connecting and greening. Though the vision has received widespread support, a few county residents warn that officials are being regressive in their approach, not because of what they are funding but because of what they’re not. They accuse freeholders of ignoring adjacent riverfront land in Camden city that was long ago apportioned for parkland and a section of that Philly-to-Jersey bike trail: Gateway Park.

“It’s an environmental justice issue,” said Tom Knoche, a city planner, part-time lecturer in the Urban Studies department at Rutgers-Camden, and long-time advocate for Gateway Park -- which is directly adjacent to Cooper River Park, in Camden. “It’s looking like they’re willing to spend money in a suburban portion of park but not in the Camden portion. And Camden has a greater need.”

County representatives say talks are ongoing to receive a transfer of the Gateway parcel from the Delaware River Port Authority, which seized it by eminent domain in advance of the Republican National Convention in 2000, so that then-governor Christie Todd Whitman could quickly tear down the adult businesses that lined the property. Parks Director Frank Moran -- who’s also the president of Camden City Council -- says although he’s not sure why the waterfront land sits idly while the transfer takes more than 12 years to complete, he’s grateful for the attention it does receive.

“At least we can say that Gateway has been preserved, and it’s being maintained. The grass is cut regularly, and trash continues to be picked up. Hopefully we can move forward with it,” he said, after noting that the county is spending upwards of $3 million to renovate another Camden city park this year.

But when and if Gateway Park does get transformed into a connector that transports bicyclers back and forth from Philly, freeholders will still have a public relations problem. On the day the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board endorsed the Cooper River Park plan, editors posted an online poll to determine how its readers, who come from Philadelphia, South Jersey, and Southeastern Pennsylvania, view the park as a family destination. More than one-third of respondents answered that they’re not familiar with the park and more than half said crime spillover from Camden scares them away, even though neither Moran nor Keashen could think of a single reported criminal incident.

Perhaps what will help dispel misperceptions and increase visibility is the $5 million river dredging project that, when completed later this year, is expected to draw even higher-profile regattas and boost the $10 million in revenues the competitions inject into the local economy. If that doesn’t do it, freeholders have their sights set on bringing Olympic rowing trials to the Cooper River. When that happens, they say, the park will be ready.

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden, NJ, waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer specializing in Philadelphia-area destination coverage, travel, craft beer and dining trends. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.

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