Claudine Conaway vividly remembers growing up and raising a family in a Burlington City rowhouse by the Delaware River, only to be forced out with her neighbors — more than 100 African American families — to make way for urban renewal more than 40 years ago.
"We were the last house standing," said Conaway, recalling how the city initially offered $10,000 for their three-story, four-bedroom house. She helped organize the black community to protest at meetings at city hall, and eventually got the city to quadruple the offer and find her a comparable house in a different part of town.
Now, Conaway, 76, is one of the city's biggest cheerleaders and the chairwoman of its powerful Land Use Board. Over the last five years, the board has reviewed a spate of development projects, including a controversial luxury apartment complex that began construction Monday on a site cleared by the urban renewal project.
Two four-story apartment buildings with 184 units are being built on land that has stood vacant since the decade-long urban renewal ended in the early 1970s, when the last of the 200 homes, factories, and shops on the waterfront were razed. Most of the cleared land was later turned into a grassy riverbank and a paved promenade after a seawall was erected to prevent flooding from the Delaware.
But one part of the waterfront, where more than a dozen rowhouses stood, was empty for years and became an informal gravel municipal parking lot for the downtown. Conaway said developers proposed a variety of plans for that land over the years, but Perone Development and Edgewood Properties approached city officials with "a solid commitment" to build luxury apartments on the space, which should attract coveted millennials and baby boomers to the town and spark a rebirth in the business district.
"We have to grow and bring new people into the town. … It also would be nice to have a Trader Joe's here," Conaway said.
Conaway's son, Barry, is the mayor of the city of 10,000, which has struggled to survive a long economic decline that brought vacant storefronts and poverty in some neighborhoods. The city is trying to reinvent itself with upscale restaurants in its downtown and construction projects that have begun to transform shuttered industrial sites.
Plans to revitalize the nearly one-mile promenade along the river are also underway. The city recently solicited bids to build a band shell to host concerts and theater performances on the grassy riverfront. About $400,000 in county grants have been set aside for the architectural work for the structure.
"I was 10 when I left the riverfront area, and obviously you now have a great riverfront park that was created from the urban renewal project," Barry Conaway said. "We're committed to not put any housing or [industrial] plants along the promenade that would take away from enjoying this parklike setting."
But the mayor said he supports building the Pearl Pointe apartments, saying the apartments will bring new life to the community. "This was land owned by the city and was always an area in need of redevelopment. It was appropriate for that spot to bring another chapter to the city of Burlington," he said.
Some residents, however, complain that the apartments are going up in a poor location — right at the foot of downtown and in the middle of a bustling area of the riverfront. The midrise buildings will block the views of the sunset that people enjoy while dining at a restaurant called the Riverview, which some sarcastically suggest should be renamed the River-Glimpse.
Burlington City Facebook pages are filled with comments from residents and restaurant patrons bemoaning the loss of the view and the parking spaces near downtown. Many also worry that the public may be deprived of an ideal spot to watch the fireworks being shot off from Burlington Island and that the apartments will consume a big footprint.
Adrian Thomas, a co-owner of Riverview, which opened last year, did not respond to a request for comment. In a 2017 interview, Thomas said: "We will maintain a river view, but undoubtedly we will lose some of our view. We are not sure of the impact. It's supposed to be low-profile towering. … We're in favor of progress, but it is a historical town and we hope it fits in with the town."
The apartments will be built directly in front of the two-story restaurant, leaving it with a partial view of the river off to one side.
Duane Deppen, a resident who was bicycling along the promenade last week with his 5-year-old twins, Autumn and Neave, said he was "not thrilled with the use of the space" that will be dedicated to the apartments.
"Any improvement is good… but this is a beautiful riverfront property and should be used to attract tourists and be used for entertainment," he said. "I like what Bristol did, on the other side of the river, and that's what this should be, not apartments."
Claudine Conaway said there is plenty of riverfront for everyone to enjoy. "When we lived there, we never saw the river," she said, describing how the Delaware was once lined with factories, a coal supply company, a lumber yard, bars, grocery stores named Sam's and Rosie's, and nearly 200 rowhouses. "Now we have this beautiful promenade."
The house where she lived most of her life is now a small parking lot next to a strip of four new rowhouses that were built for some of the families that were displaced in the 1970s. The houses are across the street from the promenade.
Plans designed by the Philadelphia architectural firm Olin Studios four years ago call for new lighting, landscaping, pavement, meandering pathways, and other cosmetic improvements. City spokesman John Alexander said the band shell will set the stage for the promenade's makeover.
In another part of the city, Amazon began construction of a one-million-square-foot distribution center a few weeks ago at the site of the former U.S. Pipe plant, which straddles the city and Burlington Township. The plant closed a decade ago.
Another revitalization plan calls for the site of a former munitions plant near the Burlington-Bristol Bridge to be developed, potentially with a mix of residential and commercial development.