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Judge Rules Landmark Camden Building May Be Razed

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) - A judge ruled Tuesday that Camden officials can move ahead with a plan to take ownership of a landmark former Sears building, then raze it to make way for an office park being developed by the Campbell Soup Co.

The ruling is a boost to Campbell's development plans and a blow to activists who have been trying for years to keep the building up - even coming up with an alternate plan to give it a new life.

But both sides recognize that the fight's not over.

Frank Fulbrook, a Camden activist who wants to save the building and Ilan Zaken, the hip-hop entrepreneur who owns it, both say they expect to appeal Tuesday's ruling from Judge Francis Orlando.

Fulbrook had sued to try to prevent the city from taking the land and handing it over to Campbell. Orlando found there was evidence that a broader redevelopment of the area east of downtown Camden was impossible if the building stood. He also found flaws in Fulbrook's case that there were procedural flaws in the city and company's efforts.

Campbell is the only Fortune 500 company left in Camden, a former industrial dynamo that is now among the poorest places in the U.S.

Campbell, too, considered leaving the run-down city but agreed in February 2007 to stay, and to expand its headquarters. Part of the deal was that the company would take charge of redeveloping a swath of the city around its campus.

Last year, Campbell opened an expanded headquarters, as promised. But the rest of the redevelopment has not moved ahead. A tepid economy is one possible reason, but company spokesman Anthony Sanzio also blames the presence of the dilapidated Sears building.

He says real estate companies haven't been able to get tenants to agree to move near Campbell's as long as the building is there.

He said the company can't take ownership or raze it just yet, though, because it expects opponents will appeal Tuesday's ruling: Delays, he said, have been the building advocates' main strategy.

"All of the delays have set back the office park and jeopardized the viability of the project," Sanzio said.

The building, which is on state and national registers of historic places, opened in 1927 as a prototype of the malls that would open three decades later. It was near the then-new Ben Franklin Bridge to Philadelphia and was the first department store to feature an expansive parking lot to cater to shoppers getting there by car.

Sears moved out in 1971, and the building has struggled for a new life. It's been mostly empty for the past several years.

But Fulbrook, Zaken and others have been trying something new: turning it into a marketplace for restaurant equipment businesses, along with a culinary school and restaurant. They say tenants have agreed to occupy 60 percent of the mammoth structure if that can be made to happen.

Fulbrook, a wiry, pony-tailed, long-bearded activist who has a shockingly good record taking powerful entities to court, says he intends to quit fighting for that vision because it would create jobs for Camden residents. Campbell's office park, he said, has faltered, and might not provide employment for local residents if he succeeds.

"The Sears building is viable for rehabilitation," he said. "There's no reason to tear it down."

Zaken, the owner of the Miskeen Originals clothing company, agreed to buy the building in 2006 and closed the sale in October 2007 for more than $2.7 million. He said he has sunk $1.2 million into the project in repairs, mortgage payments and legal fees - and that Campbell won't meet his proposed sale price of $4.2 million.

"It's a shame and disgrace what just happened," he said outside the courtroom Tuesday. "It's horrible to take that property from a private owner for the purpose of giving it to another private owner."