Op-Ed: Atlantic City and the American Dream 2.0

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This opinion piece was first published by NJSpotlight and is reproduced here with permission from the author and publisher.

The emails and phone messages from Atlantic City native Reese Palley were punctuated with a sense of urgency for the city’s survival. His pitch was simple: reinvent the image of a summer resort, promoting second homes within financial reach of young families. Before Reese passed away in 2015, he advised the highest and best use for the city is recreation. We should forgo other industries; get rid of our high-tech ideas, “What are you going to do, screw it up a second time? Atlantic City has used up its God-given chances!”

Seems real estate research firms agree. Earlier this year, Atlantic City was named the most affordable beach resort in the United States by national realtor Redfin.

Reese had ideas. He had more than his fair share in his lifetime. He grew up in the city, graduated from Atlantic City High School and became the “merchant to the rich” selling art and collectibles on the boardwalk and Atlantic Avenue. In the late 1970s after casino gaming had been approved, he bought and sold the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel in the course of 10 days, then sailed around the world finding adventures along the way.

Icons and values
As we sat at his Philadelphia home in the fall of 2014, Reese reminisced about his childhood growing up in the Inlet on Massachusetts and Drexel Avenues. He extolled the inherent virtues of the city’s icons and values: White House Subs, open trolleys, and freedom. I knew exactly the freedom Reese spoke of thanks to my family’s Wildwood Crest summer home. He captured what I have been thinking about for years as a city planner: Shore towns provide a freedom that kids can’t experience in the suburbs — freedom to earn and manage money at a young age; to stay out of the house all day; and to find the shortcuts to make curfew. This kind of freedom leads to vital character traits such as self-sufficiency, independent thinking, good decision making, and a strong work ethic.

On those rare occasions that I had to go back to our Bucks County home in a subdivision, I felt tortured. It was hot and boring. Air conditioning and the mall replaced ocean breezes and the corner store. Unless I was driven somewhere and with my parents, I was stuck at home. For a kid, life in the suburbs is the opposite of freedom.

For all the great memories and positive experiences I had as a kid, I later learned that the beach is the greatest place in the world to be a parent. At the beach, our four kids never fought, asked for PlayStation, or complained about food. The best years of my life were spent holding them as they napped, shaping sand to turn them into dolphins and mermaids, helping them make human pyramids with their cousins, and watching them surf for hours. An added bonus was they fell right to sleep after a day at the beach.

How can all this excitement of summers at the shore be recaptured in Atlantic City for economic development?

Unparalleled opportunity
There is an unparalleled opportunity for second-home ownership right now in Atlantic City: affordability. When my parents bought our home a short walk from the beach and boardwalk in 1969 (they were 28 and 29 years old), they paid $13,000. In 2017 dollars, that is $92,584. There is only one beach front community where you can buy single homes, duplexes, and condo units at that price: Atlantic City.

In the Redfin study, it was reported that the median home price for the City is $52,250, with 27.6 percent of the homes located on the waterfront. Atlantic City received a walk score of 72 out of 100, second only to Miami. Redfin real estate agent Kimberly Morgan stated “Atlantic City and its surrounding beach towns have so much to offer someone looking for a vacation home. Not only does Atlantic City boast some of the finest beaches on the east coast, including an iconic boardwalk, the town offers glitzy nightlife, beautiful casinos, restaurants, and an impressive lineup of year-round events. It’s a perfect home away from home for someone who thrives in an action-packed city.”

Atlantic City, however, is very different than most shore towns. It’s a city, gritty and working to recover from urban decline and disinvestment that started in the 1950s. Its revival is a few years behind cities such as Philadelphia, which has benefitted from millennials and empty-nest baby boomers attracted to city life.

But it’s also wonderfully diverse and artistic and interesting: There are fascinating exhibits at the African American Heritage Museum of South Jersey located in the Ducktown Arts District; the Atlantic City Ballet is enjoying its 35th season, and pop-up art installations are becoming a regular occurrence. Just walking through town you can come upon Pakistani kids playing cricket, African-American veterans playing chess, and hundreds of year-round parades, races, festivals, and other events. When second homeowners are looking for weekend worship services, Atlantic City hosts a wide selection of churches, temples, and mosques. Second-home buyers that feel homogenized by other shore towns will love Atlantic City’s diversity.

Visionary conversation
During our visionary conversation, Reese went into detail about what he called “Chelsea Village,” which would thrive on creativity, brilliant architecture, and political will. It would be a neighborhood of elevated triplex structures, accommodating three families. The units would be no more than 1,200 square feet. After all, why would a summer home need more than that, he questioned. Memories of my four siblings, parents and grandparents sharing the small three-bedroom one-bath bottom floor of our duplex came to mind.

Reese went on to explain the development had to capture the proper “albedo,” the ratio of reflected light to a surface. That meant no asphalt streets or dark rooftops — rather, reflective titanium roofs. He had an appreciation for building materials; he wrote a book titled “Concrete: a Seven Thousand Year History.”

He talked a lot about the need for deep porches, which from my experience are the best real estate at the shore. At our house, the breezy front porch was the place for mom’s morning coffee, grandpop’s afternoon nap, and during a rain, us kids measuring up the flood levels in the street to decide if we should get out the rafts. As a planner, I wrote zoning codes that set a minimum depth of front porches because activating a porch with people provides a great quality of life and strengthens neighborhoods.

Strong neighborhoods with meaningful culture and history are one of many assets in Atlantic City that go unnoticed. Realistically, some are more ready than others to provide the safety expected by second homeowners. The most move-in-ready neighborhoods are Lower Chelsea and Chelsea, which border Ventnor. They have grand historic homes, large lot sizes, and perfectly wide (and free) beaches. Bungalow Park also offers a quiet and safe area, and is graced with three bay-front basins, offering great deals for those who prefer the boating life.

The beach blocks of the Southeast Inlet can be considered a blank canvas for new development, but the vacant land left by decades of demolition and failed urban renewal policies create both an opportunity and an uneasy feeling. This will change quickly, as a new seawall and boardwalk will connect this area to Ventnor, Margate, and Longport by the end of the year, bringing bicyclist, joggers, and investors. Activist and writer Jane Jacobs recognized in the 1960s that these “eyes and ears on the street” are what makes a city feel safe and function properly.

Undoubtedly, the Southeast Inlet is the area most expected to provide a high return on investment. It is home to the historic Absecon Lighthouse and is also the popular fishing and surfing spot in town. It is the likely the most affordable beach front property along the East Coast at $25 per square foot. A single-family, two-story fixer-upper with a driveway and garage half a block from beach and inlet recently sold for $58,000.

Other neighborhoods worth exploring for their affordable waterfront properties and deep-water access for boating are Chelsea Heights and Venice Park.

After my meeting with Reese, he continued to email me about his model triplex idea. “Sorry to keep bugging you, but I don’t have much time,” the 93-year-old would state in his emails. I had sent him some city-owned surplus lots for his consideration. Reese continued that correspondence until his passing.

Now is the time to encourage second-home ownership. The shore real estate market is strong and Atlantic City has seen significant new infrastructure projects and private development such as the Stockton University campus and South Jersey Gas headquarters in the Chelsea neighborhood.

As planning director for Atlantic City from 2014 to 2017, I heard a lot of ideas to revive Atlantic City, but Reese’s pitch of second-home ownership leverages the most significant and desirable and enduring asset of the City — its beach. His emails were filled with inspiring statements like “let’s go” and “I’m thinking too small” and “never say no” and “we can make this work!” The sense of urgency that Reese expressed is a model for the city’s decisionmakers at all levels of government, as well as the business community and residents. This initiative will generate positive economic impacts for businesses, increase the ratable base without the need for year-round services, and enhance the quality of life for families through second-home ownership.

Elizabeth Terenik, PP, AICP, is the business administrator of Middle Township, Cape May County.

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