See How This Political Boss and His Associates Bought Up Valuable Land After A Tax Break Law
For decades, Camden’s waterfront sat vacant, a sea of parking lots with sweeping views of the Philadelphia skyline. Two private developers tried and failed to revitalize the area. But in 2013, George E. Norcross III, New Jersey’s most powerful political boss, helped to usher in lucrative tax breaks for Camden, making waterfront land more attractive in the state’s poorest city.
Now, federal investigators are looking into some of the real estate deals that followed, according to sources with knowledge of the ongoing inquiry.
The original developers are largely gone, and Norcross, his business partners and clients of his brother Philip’s law firm own most of the land in the redevelopment area on the waterfront. Norcross has denied any wrongdoing, saying the tax breaks spurred a “rapid and stunning renaissance” in Camden.
Image: Camden in 2011 After the decline of Camden’s postwar industrial base, state and local agencies took possession of the vacant land on the waterfront. One bright spot was the state aquarium, which got an upgrade in 2003 from Steiner + Associates, a national developer.
Steiner also secured the rights to develop a swath of public land from the aquarium to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
By 2008, the developer had built the Ferry Terminal Building and began to recruit entertainment, housing and retail projects. But over the next decade, the plans fell through or were delayed.
Various parcels faced building restrictions, and Steiner tried to get them removed without success.
A second developer, Carl Dranoff, built luxury lofts and tried to get two other residential projects built, but he also faced delays.
Image: Camden today
In 2013, Norcross and his brothers helped push generous tax breaks for Camden through the Legislature.
The law prompted a land rush, drawing new construction. Along the way, the state awarded more than $1 billion in tax breaks to Norcross and companies connected to him and his family. Some of those firms moved to the waterfront. Meanwhile, Philip Norcross attended weekly meetings with the Camden mayor to discuss development.
In 2015, the real estate firm Liberty Property Trust, headed by a longtime friend of George Norcross’, purchased Steiner’s rights to develop the waterfront. It quickly cleared government hurdles to remove the building restrictions that had blocked Steiner. The following year, Norcross purchased the Ferry Terminal Building from Steiner.
Today, Norcross and his business partners own most of Liberty’s waterfront land, according to public records. Liberty said it wanted to get out of the office business and focus on industrial development.
The remaining projects are largely owned by businesses with connections to Norcross. A former business associate and the hospital Norcross chairs own the L3 Complex as part of a joint venture. And clients of Philip Norcross own the historic RCA headquarters and the American Water building.
George Norcross’ insurance brokerage and its business partners were investors in the hotel until the project’s ownership changed hands in 2017.
Dranoff has filed suit against the city of Camden, alleging he was stonewalled by City Hall after falling out of “political favor.” The city disputes that claim and the case is ongoing. Dranoff declined comment.
Last month, Norcross told a legislative committee examining the tax break program that he and two business partners have spent about $300 million in investments in the city.
“We took a chance because of these incentives,” he said. “No one was going to invest in a city where you could buy sex, get murdered and buy drugs all in the same block. No one.”
|Building||Norcross Connection||Tax Break||The Backstory|
Victor Talking Machine Building
|The property is owned by Eastern Metals Recycling, a client of Philip Norcross’.||$133 million to Eastern Metals Recycling||In 2018, the Camden City School District sold its headquarters in the historic RCA Victor building for $5.2 million to a developer named Millennial Place, a client of Philip Norcross’. Within a year, the firm sold it to Eastern Metals Recycling for $13.2 million, and the company moved its offices there.|
L3 Technology Complex
|George Norcross is a former business partner with one owner, Ira Lubert. A second owner, Howard Needleman, leases space to Cooper University Health Care, where Norcross is chairman of the board. The health system is also a co-owner in the building.||Lockheed Martin is a tenant and received a $107 million award from the state, and Cooper University Health Care, another tenant, received $39.9 million.||A Camden nonprofit had an agreement to purchase the 17-acre site for $32.5 million, but its leaders were pressed to sell their interest to Lubert and Needleman by George and Philip Norcross. At the time of the sale, the building was appraised at $54 million.|
|American Water is a client of Philip Norcross’.||$164 million to American Water.||Liberty Property Trust purchased a larger parcel from the Camden Redevelopment Agency for $1 million. It sold this smaller parcel to American Water for $971,404. The property houses the company’s offices.|
|The garage belongs to several property owners on the waterfront, including George Norcross’ brokerage, Conner Strong & Buckelew.||The parking garage was included in the $164 million tax break for American Water.||The garage serves as parking for several buildings on the waterfront, including American Water and projects currently under development.|
Triad 1828 Office Tower
|George Norcross’ insurance brokerage, Conner Strong & Buckelew, owns it with NFI Industries and The Michaels Organization. All three companies are headquartered in the building.||$245 million to Conner Strong & Buckelew, NFI Industries and The Michaels Organization.||Liberty Property Trust purchased the land from the Camden Redevelopment Agency as part of a larger parcel for $1 million. It sold the Triad parcel to Norcross and his partners for $3 million.|
11 Cooper St.
|George Norcross’ insurance company, Conner Strong & Buckelew, owns it with NFI Industries and The Michaels Organization.||$18.1 million to CP Residential GSGZ LLC, which is now owned by Conner Strong & Buckelew, NFI Industries and The Michaels Organization.||11 Cooper marked the first new residential development in the neighborhood since developer Carl Dranoff's Victor Lofts conversion in the early 2000s. Dranoff was an initial partner in 11 Cooper, but he was replaced by George Norcross and his partners in 2017, one month before the group bought the land for $55,355. The land is part of a larger parcel that Liberty Property Trust purchased from the state for $134,191.|
Hilton Garden Inn
|George Norcross’ insurance brokerage, Conner Strong & Buckelew, NFI Industries and The Michaels Organization were investors in the project until late 2017.||$18.3 million to Camden Hotel Partners LLC, which was initially backed by Conner Strong & Buckelew, NFI Industries, The Michaels Organization and a California hotel developer.||Liberty Property Trust purchased a larger parcel of land from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority for $134,191. It then sold the hotel parcel for $470,661. Conner Strong & Buckelew, NFI Industries and The Michaels Organization were initial investors in the project, but are no longer involved.|
Ferry Terminal Building
|George Norcross’ insurance brokerage, Conner Strong & Buckelew, owns it with NFI Industries and The Michaels Organization.||One of the building’s tenants, Webimax, won $6 million from the state, and another, Corporate Synergies Group, received $15.6 million.||Steiner + Associates spent $20 million to build the office building in 2007. In 2015, Liberty Property Trust negotiated a sale price of $16.5 million for the office building as part of a larger development deal. Norcross and his partners ultimately bought it the following year.|
Parking Lot 9
|George Norcross’ insurance brokerage, Conner Strong & Buckelew, owns it with NFI Industries and The Michaels Organization.||None||The Delaware River Port Authority sold the parking lot to Liberty Property Trust for $800,000. Liberty sold it to Norcross and his partners for $350,000 — a price that reflected a lack of parking spaces at the Ferry Terminal Building, according to a Liberty spokeswoman.|
Map sources: Google, Airbus Defense and Space, Camden County
Correction: Dec. 12, 2019: This story, originally published on Dec. 9, incorrectly described the ownership of a hotel on the Camden waterfront. It is owned by several entities, not George Norcross’ current business partners, NFI Industries and The Michaels Organization. Those partners, along with Norcross’ insurance brokerage Conner Strong & Buckelew, were investors in the project when it received a tax break from the state, but were no longer involved by late 2017, according to records from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
Jeff Pillets contributed to this story. His reporting was supported in part by the McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism, City University of New York.
Nancy Solomon is managing editor for New Jersey Public Radio and WNYC. Email Solomon at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @nancysolomon2.