Shortly after taking office, New Jersey governor Chris Christie moved decisively to set the agenda for the ever-ailing resort town of Atlantic City. In January 2011, the state created the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), and by May the authority seized control of a large swath—some 40 percent—of the city. Now, one year later, CRDA has released a new master plan by the Los Angeles– based Jerde Partnership.
In 1978 the city entered a Faustian bargain when it sold its Miss America soul to the gambling gods, and now the Jerde plan represents a last chance at redemption. Atlantic City’s woes are well documented: grinding poverty, crime, and an inwardly focused casino industry that doesn’t interact with the city. With competition brewing in Pennsylvania and New York, the gaming table crowds have grown thin.
Jerde’s answer is to try and bring back the middle class who long ago abandoned the second Sin City. Following the lead of now family-friendly Vegas, the plan calls for a more holistic approach that focuses on spectacle, entertainment, and corporate sponsorship. John Simones, a partner and design director at Jerde, said that the transformation will create a resort town that is distinct from the casinos. Even the casinos are recasting themselves as entertainment complexes, with the $2.5 billion state-subsidized Revel resort leading the way. The Arquitectonica-designed complex had its soft opening on Monday. The website touts restaurants, spas, and meeting rooms, with barely a mention of the casino.
The Jerde plan focuses on the streetscape through connecting greenways, new multi-use neighborhoods, and the boardwalk. “It’s ocean, emotion, and constant promotion,” Simones said, paraphrasing old AC promo materials. “We worked for months on a street experience that has nothing to do with gambling.” He added that the city already has significant tourist anchors in its aquarium, convention center, marina, and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean.
With four million people walking the boardwalk each year, the plan creates a core there before shifting focus to the streets. Three “Icons of Experience” will anchor the strip with a band shell, a light show, and a beachside wind sculpture. Between each attraction, Simones envisions up to 15 corporate pavilions that will act as 3-dimensional billboards and experiential stores.
Back out on the street, the plan calls for Atlantic Avenue to become the new “Main Street,” with tree-lined boulevards connecting to the marina and at least two new neighborhoods. Bader Field, a defunct airport, will be transformed into a mixed-use residential neighborhood. Gardner’s Basin, an area adjacent to the marina, still has an active clamming industry. There, Simones foresees education opportunities alongside a youthful cafe culture.
The plan only addresses areas controlled by the CRDA. AC’s dreary residential side streets will have to hope for trickle down. “You create zones that become catalysts,” Jerde said. “If you create a prosperous resort town, everybody will benefit from that; it’ll be a cleaner, safer place that will spread out into Atlantic City as a whole.”
Last year Mayor Lorenzo Langford bitterly opposed the CRDA takeover, telling AN he believed it would bifurcate the city. This year he seemed resigned: “There is nothing in that master plan that I found earth-shattering and nothing I found objectionable,” he said.