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In Atlantic City, a New Master Plan Confronts an Old Problem

With the troubled town now largely overseen by state authorities, residents may have very little say in their own future.

Atlantic City, New Jersey, is weighing ambitious zoning changes in an effort to turn the city's fortunes around. (Reuters )

Atlantic City, the exhausted Queen of Resorts, has been waiting for rebirth for forty years.

Maybe longer—the beach town’s early-20th century boom was a distant memory when legal casino gambling arrived in 1976. The monopoly the city held over the lucrative industry was supposed to herald a renaissance. That didn’t happen, exactly. Total tax revenues from casinos increased every year from 1978 through 2006, when it topped out at $500 million. Then the city started to feel competition from neighboring states. And the financial crisis hit. Taxes fell every year from 2006 to 2015 when they bottomed out at $206 million. 2016 was the first uptick.

Despite this history—or maybe because of it—Atlantic City today is an unusually blank slate. First-time visitors are frequently struck by the huge swaths of undeveloped land—former neighborhoods—that sit vacant just a few feet off the iconic Boardwalk. Since 2010, the city’s ratable base has fallen by $14 billion, an astonishing 66 percent.

But irrational optimism has always been Atlantic City’s chief natural resource. There are now, by some estimates, $1 billion in construction projects in the pipeline as the region attempts to wean itself from the monocrop of casino gambling and pivot to a more diverse mix of family-oriented tourism, residential uses, and higher education (a $200 million branch of Stockton University is going up on the Boardwalk). The projects are clustered in something called the Tourism District—1,600 acres of the most valuable real estate in the city.

A new master plan for Atlantic City will create a Tourism District, with an eye toward promoting more mixed-use development. (CRDA)

To speed that transition, city planners are drafting an updated master plan. The problem is in 2011, two crises ago (they come fast and furious here) land-use authority over this district was handed over to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), a state agency created in 1984 and overseen by appointees from the governor’s office and the state legislature.

The mayor of the city also has a seat on the CRDA, but for a town that’s a byword for municipal incompetence, Atlantic City’s elected officials play a vanishingly small role in managing city affairs. For most of his three-plus years in office, Mayor Don Guardian has operated under different forms of state oversight as the city flirted with bankruptcy. A team of lawyers from the State Department of Community Affairs works out of offices on the fifth floor of city hall. They effectively run the city. “Every major decision that the city has made during my administration has been checked, double checked and checked again,” Guardian wrote in a January 2016 op-ed in the local paper. “We couldn’t mismanage a paper clip without a review.”

At this opportune moment, the CRDA, the city’s de facto urban planning agency, has opted to take its amended master plan public, as a step toward adopting new land-use regulations. Among other things, the plan creates an arts district and encourages mixed-use development, in an effort to attract coveted Millennials who want a live-work-play environment. “We’re streamlining a lot of the land use issues that we have through the Tourism District,” says CRDA Planning and Development Director Lance Landgraf. “Right now a lot of people are sitting on vacant land. Some of them are restricted, some of them are still waiting for the next casino to be built. We’re opening up that opportunity to different uses, and hopefully we’ll spark some additional economic development.”

But the people most directly affected by that plan—the current residents of the city—have little say in this process. The CRDA board is not accountable to them. In other words, the biggest redevelopment project in the city’s modern history will be administered at a time when residents are unusually divorced from decision making—even by local standards.

An updated master plan may not seem like a big deal, but zoning changes prompted the great Atlantic City land rush of the 1970s, when the city’s old-guard hotels, along with many of its residential neighborhoods, were swept away. In a handful of years, glitzy hotel-casinos radically reshaped the face of the city. Land values in the Inlet, once a residential area, jumped from $4.45 per square foot to $39.15 per square foot after zoning changes made casinos a permitted use, according to a 1983 study by the Rouse Company, which called for the creation of a “balanced community” in the neighborhood. But land like that was too valuable to have people living on it, especially if they were poor.

Those gambling jobs also fed a housing boom, but most of it went to the suburbs. The casinos themselves became self-contained economic universes. Twenty years after the referendum, the city had 100 fewer restaurants and bars than before gambling. The poverty rate last year was a shocking 37 percent.

Though there’s no pressing procedural reason to redraw the map, there are many practical ones. The current zoning is 39 years old. Lance Landgraf, at the CRDA, calls the current map “an antiquated wreck,” saying he regularly fields requests from telecom firms who need a use variance to install a cellphone tower. Unlike a conventional beach town, Atlantic City doesn’t allow amusement parks on the landward side of the Boardwalk. The new plan would change that, making way for water parks and a “Polercoaster” (a vertical rollercoaster) at Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard and the Boardwalk.

Hang on! A rendering of Atlantic City’s proposed Boardwalk “Polercoaster.” (CRDA)

And it would allow single-family projects back into the Inlet: The plan for residential development follows recommendations from a 2014 study by the Urban Land Institute, Landgraf says. Thirty-three years after that Rouse study, the city is finally embracing the idea of a “middle-income diverse community” in the Inlet.

One increasingly urgent concern that isn’t addressed by the plan is climate change. Rising sea levels are already an issue in this low-lying beach town, and nuisance flooding follows even minor storms across the city. The city’s planning director, Elizabeth Terenik, supports a proposal put forth by a team of Princeton researchers to raise the streets and homes in low-lying AC neighborhoods and create “amphibious suburbs” that can withstand frequent flooding. The master plan, however, is conspicuously mum on the subject of climate resiliency.

Another issue the plan has drawn fire over is race and inclusion. Atlantic City is a town of immigrants, many of whom came to work in the casinos; its Lower Chelsea neighborhood must be among most diverse Census tracts in New Jersey. Further back, the city boasted one of the largest African-American communities above the Mason & Dixon Line in the 19th century. But you wouldn’t know any of that to look at the CRDA board, a group of 16 white men and one white woman. To help address concerns that the group is out of touch with the community, CRDA scheduled two public meetings, and, in response to a request from a local pastor, Landgraf is holding a third with local clergy in one of the churches. He’s held more public meetings to solicit community input for this master plan than for the four other master plans (or amended master plans) he’s worked on—“and rightfully so,” he says.

But strong feelings about this aspect of the project linger, and are expected to continue. In 2011, when the Tourism District was first proposed, then-mayor Lorenzo Langford said that the plan had all the “hallmarks of apartheid”—a reference, perhaps, to the fact that its northern boundary, Atlantic Avenue, also served the dividing line between the white and black halves of town in segregation-era Atlantic City.

When cornered on the Boardwalk last week and asked about the plan, the former mayor said he had no desire to go back “around the block” on the issue of the Tourism District; his comments at the time triggered a war of words with Governor Chris Christie. But he was clearly frustrated. It’s one thing to surrender the city to state overseers. It’s another to see city residents still take the blame for policy failures, so many years later.

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