Letters come off Atlantic City's Trump Plaza Casino in October 2014. Mark Makela/Reuters

The Boardwalk Empire can save itself by betting on resilience and research in place of tourism and vice.

It’s been five years now since New Jersey Governor Chris Christie uttered this sentence:Atlantic City is dying.” The governor’s 2010 plan to turn Atlantic City into “Las Vegas East”—what was it before?—has failed. In 2014, four major casinos shuttered, including the Revel Casino Hotel, which was built in part with state money. Three of the casinos declared bankruptcy.

There’s some indication that the bleeding may have slowed. The Associated Press reports that four of the eight surviving Atlantic City casinos enjoyed a better June than they did one year ago. Three saw big gains, even, although one casino—the Trump Taj Mahal, which is mired in a fierce union struggle—suffered a double-digit decline. Signs of life notwithstanding, from January to June, the year-over-year benefits of decreased competition slipped significantly.

Has the sun finally set on the Boardwalk Empire? Not quite yet. As it stands now, the sea may rise to reclaim it first.

That’s why a prominent global architecture and design firm has a different future in mind for Atlantic City, something far from the realms of tourism and entertainment and yet very close to the heart of the Jersey Shore. The firm, Perkins+Will, is pitching a plan to make Atlantic City into a research center for climate change and coastal resiliency.  

This scheme aims to turn Atlantic City into Defense Post One in the battle to turn back the rising tide. The firm’s brief recommends repurposing the Atlantic City Convention Center as a “civic-scale academy” for training leaders from around the world on resiliency standards, techniques, and doctrine.

A diagram showing what an integrated resilience-research campus in Atlantic City might look like. (Perkins+Will)

“We’re not suggesting that Atlantic City is doomed and they should fold in their cards,” says Daniel Windsor, senior urban designer and senior associate at Perkins+Will. “We’re just thinking there’s a lot of alignment between what’s happening in Atlantic City and the gap in resiliency preparedness.”

Windsor says the campaign was devised by Janice Barnes, a planning principal and chair of the firm’s Resiliency Task Force. Barnes has worked with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Capacity-Building Academies on training leaders who work on climate and sustainability. Chief resilience officers, for example. Windsor says that this work has uncovered a niche, an unfilled gap, in the discussion about preparing the world for climate change. Resilience needs a hub—a headquarters.

Atlantic City is four square miles, roughly the size of a medium college campus, and at present it suffers from a glut of large hotel buildings with flexible spaces for conferences and presentations. The windowless basement rooms currently reserved for slots machines could be transformed as wind tunnels and labs for other experiments. There’s little that the city would need to do structurally to re-jigger these buildings as research institutions, according to the Perkins+Will brief.

Building research institutions requires more than buildings, though. It takes research and researchers, for example. By partnering with universities from around the world, an Atlantic City 2.0 would consolidate the physical-space needs of a variety of research centers. The city’s former casinos would serve as enterprise coordination centers. That’s the idea, anyway, borne out of a pro-bono charrette session at Perkins+Will to think about the future of the city.

“Two things aligned in Atlantic City,” Windsor says. “Its current economic state and its climate vulnerability.”

Rising sea levels pose an imminent threat to Atlantic City and other coastal communities on the Jersey Shore. (Perkins+Will)

Ultimately, it is within Atlantic City’s own best interests to make sure this work happens, and that it happens in Atlantic City. It took months to convince a majority of people that Superstorm Sandy didn’t completely destroy Atlantic City’s boardwalk, according to polls. In fact, the city avoided the worst of the storm, reopening for business about a week later. That’s not always going to be the case.

Increasingly ferocious storms and rising sea levels will threaten the Atlantic coast sooner rather than later, according to a terrifying new report by James Hansen, the former lead climate researcher for NASA. The paper was just released in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions.

“Humanity faces near certainty of eventual sea level rise of at least Eemian proportions, 5–9 m, if fossil fuel emissions continue on a business-as-usual course,” the paper concludes. “It is unlikely that coastal cities or low-lying areas such as Bangladesh, European lowlands, and large portions of the United States eastern coast and northeast China plains could be protected against such large sea level rise.”

Authorities in Atlantic City are already shifting gears away from casinos. This week, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority—the zoning and regulatory body within Atlantic City’s Tourism District—approved plans to convert a former casino into an 81-000-square-foot hotel and waterpark. The CRDA also approved a mixed-use corporate and academic center called the Gateway, per The Press of Atlantic City.

A focus on family-friendly entertainment may save the city economically (maybe), but a fate worse than financial straits looms over Atlantic City.

"The economic and social cost of losing functionality of all coastal cities is practically incalculable,” Hansen et al. write. “We suggest that a strategic approach relying on adaptation to such consequences is unacceptable to most of humanity, so it is important to understand this threat as soon as possible.”

Changing course from vice to research represents a risk for Atlantic City. Extend the timeline out long enough, though, and the odds that the city can afford to do nothing grow quite long. Against Mother Nature, the house always wins.

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