Lawnside, historically Black N.J. town, worries warehouses will pave over its proud past

Lawnside made history when it was incorporated in 1926 and became the first independent, self-governing Black municipality above the Mason-Dixon Line.

As its centennial approaches, and amid a boom in warehouse construction across New Jersey, the 1.5-square-mile Camden County borough’s biggest-ever redevelopment project is taking shape and imperiling its small-town character, some residents say.

A $100 million plan to transform much of a long-vacant, 135-acre site along Oak Avenue calls for a mix of light industrial, residential, office, retail, and recreational development. Station Place, a 144-unit apartment complex, opened last summer.

The corporate headquarters of a subsidiary of the boiler manufacturer Rheem, as well as a fulfillment center for RevZilla, the motorcycle gear and accessories company, have moved into a pair of recently completed buildings along a new boulevard through the heart of the park. Construction is underway on a regional operations center for the New Jersey American Water company as well.

But some residents of Lawnside are alarmed that the three additional industrial buildings, totaling more than 650,000 square feet of flex space, represent too much transformation.

As trees fall and buildings rise, the wooded and open spaces of the borough’s eastern corner are disappearing fast, residents say.

They’re concerned that more heavy trucks along an east side landscape dominated by contemporary industrial buildings will make the borough more like other congested South Jersey suburbs.

And in a community established in the early 19th century as a haven for free and formerly enslaved Black people and where the current population is 77% Black, the history is important. A fund-raising campaign to cover repairs to the Peter Mott House, an Underground Railroad site, attests to that; about half of the estimated $101,011 cost of the job has been raised so far.

“This is a historical town, and I’m afraid it’s going to lose that,” said Thelma Tutt, who moved to the borough from Maple Shade 31 years ago. “If I knew they were going to be having warehouses in the neighborhood, I wouldn’t have come to Lawnside. They wouldn’t allow warehouses in a ritzy neighborhood.”

Said Ida Conaway, a 96-year-old great-grandmother who has become the face of opposition to the project: “Lawnside was trees and lawns, and now it’s becoming asphalt city. I don’t know of anything being built that is beneficial to the people.”

With the exception of the UPS Hub on Oak Avenue — and several blocks with a shopping center, fast-food restaurants, and a strip mall along the White Horse Pike — Lawnside has hardly any sizable commercial properties. Most of the tax burden falls on homeowners.

Discussions about a redevelopment plan for a nonresidential stretch of Oak Avenue near Lawnside’s border with Cherry Hill began in 2005. The borough then, as now, was keen to reverse its slow population decline and bolster a primarily residential tax base by taking better advantage of Lawnside’s proximity to I-295 and PATCO’s Woodcrest Station.

“My vision is that through this project, Lawnside will become more financially secure while we preserve the historical value of the community,” said Mayor Mary Ann Wardlow, noting that the American Water facility alone will generate $800,000 annually in property taxes. That’s equivalent to about 10% of the $8 million Lawnside collected in property taxes in 2020.

“We’re tying to create ratables, and to beautify that area, which was looking so bad [due to illegal dumping] that we just had to do something,” said Wardlow, who’s in her 12th year as mayor and earlier served on the borough council for 27 years.

“This is going to be a great project for the town. We have done everything we can to protect [the interests of] residents. But some people just don’t like change.”

“After the borough selected us as the developer in 2007, there was a 10-year-long process to [create] a plan the town found acceptable,” said John Krauser, president of the Vineland Construction Co.

He said the company has so far spent $2 million to remove vehicles, tires, appliances, and acres of material illegally dumped in the woods along Oak Avenue for generations. The woods also had been used as staging areas during construction of the New Jersey Turnpike and I-295.

The Historic Borough of Lawnside Station Business Park — a name Wardlow insisted upon — is being built in its place. It will be home to companies that will create 300 new jobs and employ 600 full-time workers. Business park employees, Station Place tenants, UPS workers, and local residents will form a customer base to sustain stores and restaurants in the two planned retail buildings, said Krauser.

Vineland Construction has widened East Oak Avenue; built the boulevard, Walter A. Gaines Way (named for the former mayor); and will improve the approaches to a county bridge that connects Lawnside and Cherry Hill across a branch of the Cooper River. The developer also will install a sidewalk along Oak Avenue and construct a combined walking and cycling trail to bolster “connectivity” within the borough, and to the Woodcrest PATCO, said Krauser.

The $32 million Station Place, built by Sterling Properties, and the $23 million water company facility, both on Oak Avenue, also are part of the project.

“The town has high expectations that what we do will not destroy what Lawnside has been all these years,” said Krauser, adding that Wardlow “recognizes what the town needs.”

Cynthia and Micaiah Hall, a married couple with three children, established Fair Haven Farms on their half-acre Lawnside property several years ago.

Then, the field where they use organic practices to grow vegetables and teach sustainability was surrounded by dense woods.

Not any more. The redevelopment project “removed all the trees and we lost all of our shade,” said Micaiah.

“The farm got a lot hotter, wild animals lost their habitat, and it [the construction] has changed the ecosystem,” he said. “We’re concerned about how it might affect our well water.”

The Halls, who named their farm for the 19th-century settlement that became Lawnside, also said the large buildings in the business park appear out of scale, and out of character, with the borough.

“A lot of this industrialization happens in Black communities and low-income communities, and it may look good on paper, but it’s kind of an eyesore,” said Micaiah.

Ida Conaway, her son Harold, and grandsons Chris Curtis and Stan Conaway took a reporter and photographer on a tour of the project area March 30. From the end of the street where some members of the family live, crews were sawing down a towering stand of pine trees, one by one.

Chris and Stan said the pandemic limited the ability of older residents, many of them unable to use Zoom, to share their concerns about the project during borough council meetings. They also said communication from the borough was spotty, particularly about what has been described as potential opportunities for local small businesses in the two planned retail buildings.

“There’s been a lack of civic participation in the process,” said Harold. “The key is to involve the citizens, and the citizens weren’t really involved.”

Krauser said that in addition to a series of public hearings related to approval of the plan, “there have been multiple meetings with stakeholders the mayor brought into the process, including ministers and members of her administration.

“At these meetings, there was opposition, and there were positive comments,” he said. “People provided input into the project. And there were town hall meetings as well.”

Nevertheless, Ida Conaway is upset to see what’s happening to her town.

“Right in people’s backyards, they’re putting up big buildings. They’ve put up luxury apartments in a low-income community,” she said.

“I’m worried about the whole environment — the noise, the traffic, the pollution.”

Wardlow insisted the Oak Avenue project will add to, not detract, from the borough she has called home for half a century.

“I have a great love and respect for this town. Great love and respect and loyalty,” she said. “We have never done anything that would harm the community.”

Asked if Oak Avenue is a legacy project for her, Wardlow said: “Everything’s a legacy in Lawnside.”