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A state authority has approved a master plan for an $830 million transformation of Camden's Waterfront.

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CAMDEN - An investor group affiliated with Democratic power broker George Norcross III is expanding its presence on the city’s fast-growing Waterfront.

The partners, already involved in three projects valued at $353 million, have replaced Philadelphia developer Dranoff Properties at a planned $55 million apartment complex near the Delaware River, according to the state Economic Development Authority.

Last week, the EDA authorized a venture formed by the group to receive up to $20.4 million in tax benefits for the 184-unit complex. The group is made up of Norcross family members and executives of Cherry Hill-based NFI, a logistics company, and The Michaels Organization, a Marlton housing firm.

The Authority previously approved incentives of almost $265 million for two Waterfront projects — an 18-story office tower and an 8-story hotel — backed by the investors’ companies.

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The individual investors also purchased the Ferry Terminal Building, a four-story office building next to Adventure Aquarium, for $16 million one year ago. That deal involved no state tax breaks.

A Norcross family representative said the investments show confidence in the city’s future.

“As individuals and as a family, they are supporting the rebuilding of Camden,” said spokesman Dan Fee. “The recent decision to become a limited investor in this proposed project is just another example.”

He said the Waterfront investors do not include Rep. Donald Norcross or his immediate family. Norcross, as a state senator in 2013, co-sponsored legislation that provides lucrative tax breaks for Camden projects.

George Norcross, who also heads the Marlton insurance firm of Conner Strong & Buckelew, is the congressman’s brother.

Under the 2013 law, the EDA has approved more than $1.5 billion in tax breaks for Camden projects. That includes $40 million in incentives for Cooper University Health Care, where George Norcross is chairman.

Critics contend the state's incentives can be too generous and divert funds that could be used more effectively elsewhere.

“There is no question that the city is better off with these new projects than without them,” Paul A. Jargowsky, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University-Camden, said Monday.

But he asserted the tax breaks have “minimal community benefits requirements” and asked if state funds could not be spent “such that a greater proportion of the benefits would accrue to the residents and the residential neighborhoods of Camden, and less to the bottom lines of companies and investors.”

The EDA in March supported $245 million in incentives for the proposed Camden Tower, which is to hold offices for Conner Strong, NFI and The Michaels Organization. The agency approved an $18.3 million tax break and a $3 million low-interest loan in June for the proposed 180-room Hilton Garden hotel.

”Camden is going through a renaissance and it is a great time for economic growth and investing in the city," Sid Brown, NFI's CEO, said Tuesday.

The apartments, hotel and office tower are part of a $1 billion Waterfront makeover by Liberty Property Trust of Malvern, Pennsylvania. The overall project includes a five-story headquarters building, now under construction, for American Water Works

The project is expected to hold up to four more office buildings, townhouses and a riverfront park, said Jeanne Leonard, a Liberty Property spokeswoman.

All of the office buildings, once completed, are to hold some 7,300 workers, according to the EDA.

The Norcross group agreed to buy the apartment-complex site in June. The 3.4-acre property at the northwest corner of Cooper Street and Delaware Avenue currently is used for parking.

The complex, with two four-story buildings and about 6,500 square feet of retail space, is to be completed by March 2019, according to the EDA. Twenty percent of units will be reserved for "moderate-income housing," it adds.

The Michaels Organization, which develops affordable housing, has been active in Camden for almost 20 years, noted company president John O'Donnell.

He said the company is "excited to be part of the extraordinary rebirth under way not only on Camden's Waterfront, but in all its neighborhoods."

A Michaels Organization affiliate owns 10 percent of the investors' company, according to the EDA.

The balance is held in three equal stakes by Norcross family members, Michaels founder and CEO Michael Levitt, and NFI owners Sidney, Jeffrey and Ike Brown.

At its Sept. 14 meeting, the EDA said the new investors could receive a tax break previously approved to close a financing gap for the Dranoff group. The Philadelphia developer had been pursuing the project with The Michaels Organization.

Carl Dranoff, the firm’s founder, “remains positive about Camden’s future,” spokeswoman Barbara Gall Sheehan said Monday.

“Once we completed the design and approval phase, we felt the project could be placed in the capable hands of our collaborating partner,” she said. “The scope of this project simply didn’t warrant two development companies from start to finish.”

Sheehan noted the Dranoff-owned Victor Lofts, a former factory converted to an apartment building in downtown Camden, “just underwent major reinvestment …with significant interior upgrades.”

She said Dranoff is “exploring commercial development options” for Radio Lofts, a former factory that also rises above the downtown area.

Jim Walsh; (856) 486-2646; jwalsh@gannettnj.com

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