Visitors to Atlantic City can walk indoors block after block, casino to casino, without ever smelling the ocean or seeing sunlight hit the sand. But with business down and competition for casinos from neighboring states heating up, state leadership in Trenton was concerned that the potential of the city’s prime assets—the ocean, the marina, and the Boardwalk—was being overlooked. Bluntly put, Governor Chris Christie and state legislators considered it problematic that any major planning or zoning overhaul needed to go through City Hall. The solution came in the form of a state-controlled tourism district run by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA).
In grand Moses style, CRDA, created in January, took control of a large swath of the city on May 1, including the entire Boardwalk, the Marina District, the convention center, an outdoor mall called The Walk, and a 143-acre former airport known as Bader Field. Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford was not pleased, complaining that the district has “bifurcated” the city and equating it to redlining. “You have a situation where the big boys, the state if you will, are trying to muscle in on municipal government,” he said. “If you ask the professionals, the engineers, the architects, they will all tell you that if there’s anything in the city that has worked well it has been planning and zoning.”
“Clearly everyone focuses on the Boardwalk, and that was the tradition,” said architect Sam Luckino of Arquitectonica, architects of the Revel Casino. When Revel opens next summer it will add more than 4 million square feet of resort space to the Boardwalk. The $2.5 billion project, which stalled in 2009, got a jumpstart in January when Christie pushed through $261 million in tax incentives. “Revel has always been part of redeveloping the urban experience,” said Luckino, the project manager. “All of the streetscape was redesigned, and all of that was done with the city. It was also part of cleaning up that end of the town, to get rid of the undeveloped and blighted areas.”
No one disputes that the many vacant lots and abandoned buildings behind the casinos along Atlantic and Pacific avenues make for a desolate atmosphere. “There are certain areas on the Boardwalk where you look down to the street, and you’d say ‘I’m not going down there,’” said State Senator Jim Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor and a prime sponsor of the legislation who, when he was mayor, sold the Atlantic City Airport to the state for $11 million in the 1990s. “We need to demolish a lot of the abandoned buildings,” he said, adding that significant buildings would not be destroyed. He noted that CRDA helped the city save and restore the Carnegie Library Center, a 1908 Beaux Arts gem in the center of town that now serves as Stockton College’s Atlantic City branch.
CRDA can now allow the airport to be sold or leased to an interested party, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. If a sale goes through, proceeds would be distributed amongst eight counties in South Jersey rather than directed to Atlantic City. While proponents argue that the Port Authority has the clout to bring in more airlines and tourists, the current mayor says that’s just one more example of the city’s 40,000 residents getting the shaft. “Why is the sale of the airport tied into the creation of a tourism district?” asked Langford. “And why is it that the bounty would be split among the eight southern counties when they have nothing to do with it? We got the short end of the stick 20 years ago and we’re getting the short end of the stick again.”