The State We're In
From landfill to ‘crown jewel’ of Camden parks
By Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director
Like a caterpillar that becomes a beautiful butterfly, a contaminated property along the Delaware River in Camden has been transformed into a vibrant city park where people and nature can once again thrive.
This is the first spring for the Cramer Hill Waterfront Park, a 62-acre urban oasis completed last November after five years and $48 million of work. As the weather warms, the new park is poised to blossom into one of Camden’s best places to enjoy nature and recreation.
It’s part of a Camden rebirth that’s healing past inequities and giving residents a new sense of ownership, pride and hope. Pollution has been remediated and, for the first time in many Cramer Hill residents’ memories, the public has safe access to the Delaware River.
Located at the confluence of the Cooper River and the Delaware River Back Channel, the new park offers sweeping views of the Philadelphia skyline, the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and, often, bald eagles soaring above the river. Amenities include a fishing plaza, hiking and biking trails, a kayak launch, a picnic area, a large playground, a sensory garden and nature observation areas.
Named for the neighborhood in which it’s located, Cramer Hill Waterfront Park was once the Harrison Avenue Landfill, an 82-acre garbage dump that operated from about 1952 to 1971. The landfill was never properly closed or capped after shutting down, and illegal dumping of toxic chemicals further contaminated the land and river.
Efforts to clean up the site began in the early 2000s. One huge early step came in 2012, when 20 acres of landfill were remediated to allow the construction of the Salvation Army Kroc Center. The 125,000-square-foot community facility, which includes a pool, water park, fitness center and gym, was funded by government grants and a gift from the estate of Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.
Building on that success, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) in 2016 began creating Cramer Hill Waterfront Park on the remaining landfill property, using Natural Resource Damage funds paid by polluters to compensate for past environmental harm.
Over a five-year period, the state moved 375,000 cubic yards of soil and stabilized over 3,000 feet of shoreline. It planted 365,000 trees, installed bald eagle perch poles and turtle basking islands, expanded existing freshwater wetlands and preserved wooded areas as wildlife habitat.
Cramer Hill Waterfront Park was officially unveiled in late November at a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Governor Phil Murphy and a host of officials and community members. “The wrong choices and inequities from the past that loomed over this neighborhood are finally being lifted,” Murphy said. “Justice comes in all forms, and today is about environmental justice for the families of Cramer Hill.”
Olivia Glenn, a Camden native who serves as the NJDEP’s Deputy Commissioner of Environmental Justice and Equity, said that the promise of environmental justice “is rooted in the belief that all New Jersey residents have a right to live, work, learn, worship and recreate in a clean and healthy environment. This includes transforming liabilities into assets and landfills into parks.”
The park offers access to both nature and the water. A 13-mile “water trail” is being developed to connect Camden parks and access points along the Cooper River and the Delaware Back Channel. Connected parks will include Cooper River Park, Farnham Park, Gateway Park and Pyne Poynt Park.
Another park along the water trail will be Petty’s Island, a former marine terminal and oil storage site owned by the CITGO Petroleum Corp. Located across the Back Channel from Cramer Hill Waterfront Park, the 500-acre island is now protected by a conservation easement held by New Jersey Natural Lands Trust and is being cleaned up and restored to become a public nature preserve.
The Cooper and the Delaware rivers are already extensively used for youth and community programs, such as those offered by the local group Urban Promise.
Kudos to the State of New Jersey, the City of Camden, Camden County and dozens of local partners for a job well done. Cramer Hill Waterfront Park is already being described as the “crown jewel” of Camden parks – and it’s no exaggeration!
The new park offers great opportunities this spring for the public to get outside, enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, and connect with nature and the water. Bring your fishing pole, kayak or binoculars! Stroll along the paths, watch for eagles on the hunt and turtles basking along the pond, take notice of the butterflies and native bees, and marvel at this remarkable reclamation accomplishment!
To watch a NJDEP video about the making of Cramer Hill Waterfront Park, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=je_R_AxTjq0&ab_channel=DiscoverDEP-NewJerseyDepartmentofEnvironmentalProtection.
To learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including parks in Camden – go to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Authors
John S. Watson, Jr.
Michele S. Byers
Executive Director, 1999-2021
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